Illumination Sauvignon Blanc is Awesome

I sat down for breakfast with Augustin Fransisco Huneeus, proprietor of his family’s eponymous Huneeus Vineyards a while ago. He was an energetic fountain of early-morning conversation the likes for which I was mentally unprepared. If the name Huneeus isn’t familiar, I’d point you to the family’s historic organic and biodynamic estate in the Rutherford area of Napa Valley. From that property comes one of Napa’s highest-regarded wines: Quintessa. But I was equally curious about a grape that certainly doesn’t get a lot of due that shows up in a most unique bottling: Illumination Sauvignon Blanc.

So I had Huneeus send me a sample bottle.

Illumination Sauvignon Blanc / Photo by Emma K. Morris

Illumination Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($50)

Wow, this was a dang amazing bottle. Illumination was like no other Sauvignon Blanc I’ve had. Rich and golden, with the zestiness of the grape playing more of a supporting role than dominating like in an unoaked SB. This is probably the most serious Sauv Blanc I’ve had outside of Sancerre/the Loire and Bordeaux. If you like rich white wines and looking for something that would be ungodly good with lobster, this is your wine.

And that makes sense. Per Senior Marketing Manager Laura Gabriel, Illumination started in 2006 so the family would have a wine for seafood and to serve at winery receptions. (That’s as good of a reason I can think for making a wine.)

The wine is a blend of 40% Sauvignon Blanc Musque, 53% Sauvignon Blanc, and 7% Semillon. The juice also spends time split among a wide variety of pre-bottle homes. You got some French oak barrels (6% in new, 66% in neutral). Toss in some acacia barrels (5% new). How about some concrete egg fermenters (11%)? Finally, some crispy stainless steel barrels (12%).

Illumination’s grapes come from Napa and Sonoma. Estate fruit from cooler patches on the property is supplemented with Sauv Blanc further south in Napa as well as Bennett Valley in Sonoma. (The 2017 is almost split evenly between fruit from the two regions.)

There’s a tendency for people to look at red wine as the “special” wine. The one you gift. The one you consider splurging on. The Illumination Sauvignon Blanc is a wine that makes the case for white wines being worthy of all that. And for a white wine lover like me, I’d rather spend my $$$ on something unique. There’s very little new oak so it’s not powerfully oaky but the texture it provides is luscious. Yes, it would be amazing with rich seafood but it’s a wine that’s fantastic to drink and contemplate on its own.

Another thing I like about this wine is it helps redefine Sauvignon Blanc. It can be cheap and good, for sure. Can Sauv Blanc be great? A lot of people (including fancy wine folks/somms) would say, “Nah.” But Illumination is, well, illuminating.

Also Sauv Blanc is a grape I enjoy with oak because it tames its aggression. And when well-made, the grape still peeks through to say “Hey, what’s up?” in a most welcome way.

My only beef with this bottle is…the bottle. Very heavy glass. Not a fan.

Otherwise, this is one of the most memorable, original Sauvignon Blancs I’ve ever had.

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Drink More White Bordeaux (Please)

I gotta take my own dang advice. I’m complicit, too, in spacing on these killer wines. How long has it been since I had a back-to-back salvo of white Bordeaux? It’s tough enough to get anyone to drink red BDX let alone white. One of my all-time favorite wines happens to be a white BDX: Chateau Carbonnieux. It ages well, is rich, regal, and distinctive. I have fond memories of drinking it at Le Caviste in Seattle.

Pont de Pierre in the city of Bordeaux / Photo by David McKelvey via Flickr

So when I serendipitously acquired two samples, I thought it time to wave the flag for a very good wine indeed.

White Bordeaux is going to be pretty much a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. I love these blends. (They are also particularly good in Australia’s Margaret River, where the wines are calls “SBS” because Aussies love to abbreviate things.) Sauv Blanc is zesty laser, and Semillon provides a rich roundness.

What I like about both bottles I drank is they have a good chunk o’ Semillon. One spends time in oak. WHICH IS GOOD. So let’s get to it.

A White Bordeaux Duo

Clos Floridene Graves 2013 ($30)

This is a blend of 56% Sauvignon Blanc, 43% Semillon, and 1% Muscadelle. See, this is why above I said white Bordeaux is “pretty much” a SBS blend because some clown would mention sometimes there’s Muscadelle, blah blah blah. Said individual would probably sport a corresponding profile pic: nose deep-crammed in wine glass, eyes closed in chaste, faux bro ecstasy.

Anyway…

With five years in the bottle the oak steps back into a chilled-out, Oscar-worthy supporting role. The color of the wine has golden-ized a bit. Info on the winery’s website opines it could last a decade or more and I agree. Also Graves is a region and a very good one for white (and red) BDX.

I have no problem with this wine being $30. Though why would I, when I got the darn bottle for free? My point is if I spend $30 on this at a wine shop, I would feel it was money well spent. Also, newer vintages are closer to $20 so I’d buy like a sixer or a case and drink one every six months/year to see how it develops. That’s how we have CRAZY FUN with wine! BUCKLE UP, PARTY PEOPLE!!!

Légende Bordeaux Blanc 2017 ($18)

Drink More White Bordeaux (Please)This white Bordeaux is quite distinguished, coming from the Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). 50% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Semillon, and (YES) 10% Sauvignon Gris comprise the wine’s makeup.

Confession: I actually thought this wine was oaked when I first tasted it. (Shows you what I know.) The Légende sent a butterscotch whiff wafting. Whoa. But after getting a touch of air, it chilled out into a lively, steely wine. Zest with a touch of plump. Racy freshness, especially in contrast to the more demure 2013.

If your only experience with Sauv Blanc is from New Zealand and you find it too over-the-top, a White Bordeaux like the Légende may change your mind about what the grape can do (for you). Especially when paired with Semillon.

Not sure it would develop like the Clos Floridene, nor is it supposed to be a wine like that, but I bet a year in the bottle would make this a champ.

But who cellars wine anymore? It’s a drink-now world. So don’t fret if you pick up a bottle THIS INSTANT.

This is actually a wine I would recommend decanting. Yes, a sub-$20 white wine. DO IT. You don’t need some fancy AF decanter that’s impossible to clean, either. A glass pitcher with do. If you don’t have a sufficient receptacle, open it like a half hour before you start drinking it.

It’s OK to treat an 18 dollar wine like royalty. Especially considering its pedigree.

_____

Both of these bottles would be very good cheese wines. Frankly, white wines are more versatile (aka BETTER) with cheese than reds. The Clos Floridene with more mature, richer and/or harder cheese. Freshy-fresh goat cheeses and softer ones would be in the Légende’s wheelhouse.

There’a also plenty of good white Bordeaux in the $10-15 range. (Praise!) They offer a lot of bang for the buck. So go forth and buy buy buy!

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New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Podcast

Hard to think of any grape that blew up in popularity like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Certainly, no white wine has had the kind of spectacular success and continued growth as NZ SB. But is it a little one-note, samey-same?

Image via Facebook/Clos Henri Vineyard

This is an issue I explore on the latest episode of the What We’re Tasting podcast. My guest is Christina Pickard, who reviews the wines of New Zealand for The Thuse. (She also covers Australia.) She is a very good egg and guest. I learned a lot. We also managed to talk about my mother mowing the lawn. Really.

A few quick words about the three wines we discuss:

  • Nautilus: textbook NZ SB from the Marlborough region
  • Clos Henri: Sancerre meets New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
  • Peregrine: Sauv Blanc where Pinot Noir is the star (Central Otago)

Here’s the episode:

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Randy Meyer of Geyser Peak Winery Talks Roses (Flowers)

Recently I was invited to taste through a lineup of Sauvignon Blanc from Geyser Peak Winery. Located in Healdsburg, California, I was at first intrigued because it seems, well, audacious for a place to make four (!) Sauvignon Blancs. It reminded me of Matanzas Creek, the only other Sonoma winery I could think of  also producing numerous Sauv Blancs from multiple sites. (If there are more, LMK.)

After the tasting I happened to learn the new (as of March) winemaker at Geyser Peak Winery, Randy Meyer, had a passion outside of wine I thought was intriguing. He’s really into roses. And no, I’m not one of those people who spell rosé without the accent over the e. (Here’s a great rant about that from one of my favorite wine blogs, The Drunken Cyclist.) I’m talking roses as in flowers and that Poison song.

Anyway, I thought I would give Randy a call and we’d talk about roses and Sauvignon Blanc. Concerning the latter, we get into Geyser Peak Winery’s three bottlings sourced from Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, and Dry Creek Valley. (I should note Geyser Peak does have a rosé as in the wine.)

Here are some highlights from our conversation.

On developing a passion for roses:

My father, who is a retired pediatrician, always had roses and would propagate them. One of our all-time favorites is the Double Delight. It’s got red edges and a cream center….Insanely fragrant. My dad used to propagate them and give them away to friends. So I remember when I got my first house he gave me a couple five-gallon buckets of Double Delight roses. It all started from there really.

Double Delight rose photo via Wikimedia commons by Arashiyama.

The number of rose varieties in his garden:

That’s funny I was just counting recently. I think I have eighteen in my yard now.

Whether roses at the end of vineyard rows are an early warning system for grapevine problems:

It is true to a certain extent. With particular varieties, they [roses] can pick up powdery mildew or any sort of potential wet climate diseases before the grapevines pick them up.

In a way roses are very similar to grapevines. They produce something wonderful, they go dormant, they have diseases, yet they’re hardy.

Thoughts on gardening and winemaking:

When you’re out there gardening, there is this very slight artistic element to it. You take pride in raising that crop, whether it’s an amazing bouquet of all different kinds of roses or some amazing Sauvignon Blanc. The two do go very much hand-in-hand….There’s also attention to detail, a little bit of preventative methodology, that goes into both of them.

Randy Meyer of Geyser Peak Winery Talks Roses (Flowers)

Randy Meyer, winemaker at Geyser Peak Winery

Why Sauvignon Blanc is interesting to work with, particularly in multiple sites:

We’re very lucky to have these vineyard sources in the three different valleys. I must admit they all are different. Those differences can either be accelerated or brought together depending upon when they’re picked [the grapes] and how they’re farmed.

Alexander Valley’s the hottest. When we’re up there, we’re usually looking at making sure the grapes don’t get too ripe. One of my critical Sauvignon Blanc attentions to detail is maturity at harvest. It’s probably one of the pickiest grapes at harvest as far as nailing the maturity to the flavor profile. Alexander Valley being pretty warm, the acidity can drop pretty quickly. Those crisp flavors can drop out quickly, too.

When you move to Russian River, you’re dealing with high acidity. And often times a slightly higher brix [sugar content of grapes] level that may not be damaging to the flavors….I tend to like Sauvignon Blanc from Russian River a teeny bit riper.

In Dry Creek, you’re kind of splitting the middle. The particular vineyard around the winery, I’d almost borderline call it pungent. Really aromatic, big grapefruit, passion fruit.

With Sauvignon Blanc people used to use a bit of oak and the Fumé [Blanc style] was popular. Then New Zealand came on the scene….that whole trend took off. For the most part that grapefruit-y style, which is one of my favorites, seems to be what consumers are going after. And I’m more than happy to make it for a long time.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Wine Reviews: Galerie – Cabernet & Sauvignon Blanc from Napa & Sonoma

Laura Díaz Muñoz. Credit: Galerie Wines.

Through her solo project, Galerie Wines, Laura Díaz Muñoz offers up a series of varietal wines, two Sauvignon Blancs and two Cabernets, one apiece from Knights Valley and Napa Valley. The grapes are treated the same way, with the same amount of skin contact, same winemaking methods, same barrel regimen, which allows the wines to speak to their different origins. The Knights Valley wines come from Kellogg Vineyard, while the Napa Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet come from a variety of sites around Napa.

Both Sauvignon Blancs were handled the same way in the cellar. Half of the grapes were whole-cluster pressed, and the juice was then racked into a mix of concrete eggs, stainless steel, new and used French oak. The wine was aged on the lees for six months, with stirring done twice a week. Both Cabernets are 100% Cab are aged 19 months in 55% new French oak.

Laura is no newb to these grape varieties. After studying food science as an undergraduate and receiving a graduate degree in oenology from Polytechnic University in Madrid, she worked in Sauvignon Blanc hotbeds of New Zealand and Chile. Laura then joined up with Chris Carpenter, (who produces some incredible Napa Cabernets under the Cardinale, La Jota and Mt. Brave labels) and became the assistant winemaker.

At a dinner with Laura last year, she told me she’d never been to California before accepting the gig with Chris. But she fell in love with Napa, and stuck around, though she travels back to Spain frequently to visit her family.

After working with Chris, Laura said she wanted a project that was fully her own, a wine label that would bare her unique signature. Laura says she and Chris share a similar winemaking philosophy. They both use wild fermentation and Galerie uses the same coopers as Chris, but Laura says she prefers a bit less oak and brighter red fruits in her wines (a preference that rings true in her Cabernets).

While Galerie’s focus is on Cab Sauv and Sauv Blanc, in 2014 Laura crafted one heck of a Riesling. The Spring Mountain Riesling was the first time she’s worked with this grape, but said she was thrilled about the prospect. Spring Mountain seems to produce some really high quality Riesling, and this one stunned me. (Smith-Madrone comes to mind as another example). The fruit comes from a very small plot (less than two acres), so there’s not much to go around. The wine is slightly off-dry, but the intense acid needs a slight bit of sweetness to tame it (and Laura maintains it helps lift the aromatics as well).

Taken together, these five wines comprise quite an impressive portfolio. Major league quality, but AA league prices.  These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

Review: 2014 Galerie Sauvignon Blanc EquitemCalifornia, Sonoma County, Knights Valley
SRP: $30
A bright, crisp appeal on the nose, with complex floral perfume and white pepper on top of sliced green apples and tangerines. Crisp and crunchy palate but some creaminess adds texture and depth to the wine. Orange peel, green apples, green pears, the fruit is crisp but ripe, and matched with hints of chalk, crushed rocks, sea spray, raw almond and a hint of white pepper. Long, lingering finish with a sense of pure minerality, this is a vibrant and exciting Sauvignon Blanc.

Review: 2014 Galerie Sauvignon Blanc NaissanceCalifornia, Napa Valley
SRP: $30
Lovely floral, green apple, lime and sea salt notes on the nose. On the palate, this has a creamy presence but precision comes from pure, clean acidity. Fresh green apples and limes mix with papaya, and the fruit is laced with notes of sea salt, river rocks, minerals, dried white flowers. Hints of waxy, honeyed notes, but this is a bright and refreshing wine with a lot of complexity. Lots of seemingly contradictory elements to ponder, but the whole is so balanced and integrated.

Review: 2014 Galerie Riesling TerraceaCalifornia, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
SRP: $30
Aromatically firing, this is bold but elegant with bright honeysuckle, lilies, salty air and cucumber water on top of sliced limes and nectarines. Crisp and edgy on the palate but some very moderate sweetness to balance out the bright acid. This is a precise but exuberant Riesling with complex flavors of crunchy green apples, nectarine, pears and peaches. I also get crusty sea salt, honeysuckle, sliced cucumber and minerals, there is a whole lot going on with this Riesling. I’m very interested to see how this wine will age, but this is beautiful right out of the bottle.

Review: 2012 Galerie Cabernet Sauvignon Latro - California, Sonoma County, Knights Valley
SRP: $50
Deep purple color. Nose of tart blueberries and rich currants, the fruit is smooth and ripe but bright at the same time, and laced with sweet spice, pepper, loamy soil, coffee and cola. This is a young, bold wine with sturdy but velvety tannins, some moderate acid keeps if refreshing, though. Blackberries, blueberries, black currants, a rich wine but it maintains a slice of tartness. Mixed in with complex elements of graphite, mocha, loam, roasted chestnut, black licorice and charcoal. Complex, young, needs time but this is gorgeous even at this young age. All Cabernet, aged 19 months in 55% new French oak. Great stuff. One of the best Cali Cabs I can remember in this price range.

Review: 2012 Galerie Cabernet Sauvignon Pleinair - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $50
Rich purple color. Dark and saucy on the nose, the blackberry and currant fruit is rich but suave, and I get complex elements of violets, sarsaparilla, birch bark and rocky soil. A whole lot to unwrap on the nose. Bold presence on the palate but also quite silky; the tannins are smooth and fine and the medium acid keeps it all moving forward. Fresh currant, black cherry and plum skin mixes with violets, loamy soil, fallen leaves, eucalyptus, cedar, hints of peppery spice. A lot going on here, but the wine stays open and inviting in spite of its richness and youthful complexity. I’d love to lay this down for five to eight years, but it’s a beauty.

Macari Vineyards 2014 “Life Force” Sauvignon Blanc

(Photo via northforker.com) You can see a story I’ve written about Macari Vineyards’ use of concrete egg-shaped fermentation vessels later this month in the winter Long Island Wine Press — but in the meantime, I can tell you about a wine made using one of the two eggs found in the cellar right behind the tasting room bar: Macari Vineyards 2014 “Lifeforce” Sauvignon Blanc ($27). Of what is planted today, sauvignon blanc is clearly the white wine grape most important to Long Island’s future as a wine region. There’s more chardonnay in the ground, but more doesn’t mean better. Sauvignon blanc take well to our…

Pellegrini Vineyards 2014 Sauvignon Blanc

Pellegrini Vineyards 2014 Sauvignon Blanc ($25), one of Zander Hargrave’s first releases as winemaker at Pellegrini Vineyards — a job he took over just before the 2014 harvest — offer a bit of Long Island wine’s past, its present and it’s future. The Hargrave name goes back as far as Long Island wine history can go. Zander’s parents, Louisa and Alex Hargrave, founded Hargrave Vineyard, Long Island’s first commercial winery, in 1973, and Zander’s uncle, Charlie Hargrave, has been a vineyard manager on the North Fork for more than a decade. In 2011 Zander was hired as assistant winemaker at the now-closed…

Bouquet 2014 Sauvignon Blanc

Long Island sauvignon blanc has arrived and is just starting to get the attention outside of the region that it deserves. Quality is high nearly across the board while bright, steel-fermented versions will always rule the category, blending, skin contact, time in barrels of various ages add some diversity as well. But, it’s gotten hard to find good Long Island sauvignon blanc for less than $22. Bouquet 2014 Sauvignon Blanc ($18) is a rare find in that regard. The lightly saline nose is driven by lemon and grapefruit aromas and a subtle green melon note. Though a bit austere and light-bodied, the palate…

Raphael 2014 “First Label” Sauvignon Blanc

Since his arrival on Long Island in 2007, Anthony Nappa — who serves as winemaker for Raphael as well as his own label after working for Shinn Estate Vineyards for four years — has shown a deft hand with North Fork sauvignon blanc. Perhaps Nappa’s time spent studying winemaking in New Zealand helped a little. Regardless, he makes some of my favorite local sauvignon, more or less regardless of who he’s making it for or where the fruit comes from. Sometimes they are crispy and lighter-styled. Other times they are concentrated and textural. Raphael 2014 “First Label” Sauvignon Blanc ($28) continues that tradition and…

Leonard Oakes Estate Winery 2013 Reserve Series Sauvignon Blanc

Lightly saline on the nose, with notes of lemony citrus, fresh-cut hay and grapefruit, Leonard Oakes Estate Winery 2013 Reserve Series Sauvignon Blanc ($17) is a snappy, refreshing sauvignon. The palate lacks a bit of concentration, but is bright, citrusy and mouthwatering — with a savory minerality that peeks through on a medium-long finish. Producer: Leonard Oakes Estate Winery AVA: New York State ABV: 12.5% Price: $17 (sample) (3 out of 5, Very good/Recommended)