Saturday, October 26, 2019

Sauvignon Styles

What's happening lately with Sauvignon Blanc?  For years, wine press activity has been more about Sauvignon Blanc the wine than Sauvignon Blanc the grape. But that only seems natural, because we wine writers tend to focus more on the liquid that ends up in the consumer's glass. 

Over the next two postings, we'll cover the stylistic versatility of Sauvignon Blanc. In broad general terms, those styles can be divided into Old World (mainly France and Italy)  and New World (primarily New Zealand and the U.S. West Coast). Old World styles are addressed here and New World styles will be covered November 6, 2019.

To help set the stage for the wine styles, here are a few words on the nature and growth character of Sauvignon Blanc the grape and how the grape is handled in the winery. 

Image result for free sauvignon blanc grape photos
Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc in the vineyard can be a challenge. Planting in light soils is preferred, as is keeping the vine's production under control. Vegetation growth can be vigorous and needs to be controlled, or the grapes become aggressively herbaceous, even with a strong smell sometimes referred to as "cat box." Key is to achieve sauvignon's distinctive grassy aroma, coupled with a light herbaceousness and piercing acidity.

In the winery, Sauvignon Blanc can either be fermented in stainless steel, then straight to bottle, with no oak. Or, after the tank fermentation, the wine is racked in to oak barrels  for a short period. There is some barrel fermentation of Sauvignon Blanc, mostly in Bordeaux and the odd Pouilly Fume. After introducing the world to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Cloudy Bay waited a few years and then added Te Koko, a barrel fermented and French oak aged Sauvignon Blanc. 

Advocates of oak-aging Sauvignon Blanc, like the added texture and body-feel and don't mind losing some of grape's fresh, fruity character. Oak aging Sauvignon Blanc moves the style closer to that of Chardonnay and further away from traditionally unoaked white wines like Riesling and Chenin Blanc. It's a personal preference. 

Old World Sauvignon Blanc

The origin of Sauvignon Blanc is undoubtedly France, but where: Bordeaux, Loire, Languedoc-Roussillon in the southwest? There is no agreement, although the favorite choice swings slightly toward Bordeaux. Wherever, Sauvignon Blanc is a valued grape in the Graves area of Bordeaux and in Sauternes and Barsac. And the grape has made a name for itself in the upper Loire River valley regions of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire. 

Sauvignon Blanc Harvest in the Graves

The Graves district lies immediately south of the city of Bordeaux. Until 1987, dry white wines, made primarily from Sauvignon Blanc, were known variously as Graves, Graves Blanc and Bordeaux Blanc.

In 1987, an appellation with the unwieldy name of Pessac-Leognan, was carved out of the Graves, retaining all of the best chateaux. P-L wines are mainly red, based on Cabernet Sauvignon, with a small percentage of the acreage devoted to white varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle. The last two grapes are legally permitted but not widely used.

The most available (and most expensive) examples of Pessac-Leognon white wines include Chx. Haut-Brion Blanc and La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc, plus Chx. Haut-Lafitte and Ch. Pape-Clement. Better value examples include Chx. Couhins and La Louviere. There is a wide range of prices for Pessac-Leognon, $25 to approximately $160.

Graves Blanc wines have a distinct earthiness with citrus notes and mouth-watering acidity. All of this is tempered with the softness of Semillon and hints of French oak. 

Sweet Bordeaux
Further southeast of Bordeaux city, but still in the Graves district, are Sauternes and Barsac, where Sauvignon Blanc takes on a different guise. Semillon is the leading grape, backed up by Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris. Here, as in Pessac-Leognon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris are not widely used. 

What sets Sauvignon Blanc apart in Sauternes from its place in Pessac-Leognon is botrytis. Grandly known as the "Noble Rot," botrytis is a beneficial mold that attacks the berries, reducing the water and concentrating the sugars. Botrytis is one of the odd natural occurrences in grape growing; it looks gross but what it does to the wine is delicious. 

The cool Ciron river flows between Sauternes and Barsac into the warmer Garonne, forming evening mists that linger through the next morning, when they are burnt off by the warming sun. The humid conditions, when they occur, form the botrytis and  the character of Sauternes. 

Botrytis transforms the pungent green fruit character of Sauvignon Blanc and figgy Semillon to a more complex ripe fig/honey and waxy taste. Top tier Sauternes to consider are Chx. d'Yquem, Suduiraut, La Tour Blanche and Rieussec. Chx. D'Arche, Filot and de Malle are good quality at a more affordable price. Barsac producers of note include Chx. Coutet, Climens and Nairac.

One odd example of the sometimes undecipherable French AOC rules is that all wines produced in Barsac may use either the Barsac or Sauternes appellation but not the reverse.  Most Barsac producers say that is a "no brainer." 

A Pair of Loire Sauvignons
About midway between Paris and the northern extreme of Bordeaux lies the Loire Valley, arguably one of the most picturesque spots in France, replete with intricately designed gardens, castles, vineyards and a wide range of still and sparkling wines.  

In the upper reaches of the Loire river are two of the best examples of French Sauvignon Blanc: Sancerre and Fume Blanc. In reality, there are two types of Sancerre; the older grassy style and the "newer" peachy, ripe melon style. This stylistic dichotomy also reflects the older and newer generations of winemakers.

Hilltop Village of Sancerre in the Upper Loire River Valley
The left-bank vineyards of Sancerre sit high above the river, where racy, pungent Sauvignon Blanc is blended with Semillon up to 80% and sometimes a little Muscadelle. Sauvignon Gris is also permitted. The green fruits flavors, with mineral and citrus backnotes, can become too herbaceous in cool years.

Across the river, Pouilly-Fume is said to reflect its rocky terrior, with a certain minerality often described as gun flint. As with Sancerre, the flinty traditions of past Pouilly-Fume  are moving toward the demand for more fruit-forward wines. Sauvignon Blanc is the sole grape and the wines can be perfumed, delicate, with a mineral/flinty back note.

The meaning of fume in the name has two versions. Fume is the French word for "smoke," thus the "smoky/flinty" character.  A slight variation holds that fume means the presence of morning mist (smoke) in the vineyards; same story, different version.

With some exceptions, like Didier Dageneau's eccentric wines, most modern Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume are difficult to tell one from the other by the casual wine drinker. So, if you like French Sauvignon Blanc (Bordeaux or Loire), sample a few different styles to find your favorite. Look for Lucien Crochet, Henri Bourgeois and Vincent Pinard.

In Italy, Sauvignon Blanc is found mainly in the northern districts of Alto Adige, Collio and Friuli. It is made as a varietal and also as part of a blend with various local varieties like Tocai and Vermentino. The style of Italian Sauvignon Blanc is unoaked with mildly herbal and citrus notes, with good acidity.


Next Blog: New World Sauvignon Blanc

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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Three Steps to Wine Tasting

Opinions are like noses, everyone has one. And when applied to wine and how to taste it, opinions are plentiful and different. Self-appointed wine experts will tell you that you are entitled to any opinion about a wine you like, so long as it’s theirs. Well, we'll have none of that here.

Then, some people say that all the talk about wine is pretentious and smacks of elitism. Maybe, but people are naturally curious and when they discover something that interests them, they want to learn all there is to know about it. It's like the difference between eating and dining; the former is an opportunity to fuel up while the latter opens up an appreciation for the food, how it was prepared and if the food becomes a natural companion to the wine.
To understand the symbiosis of how food and wine work together, you first need to know how to critically taste the wine. So, here are a few simple steps on tasting wine with the understanding that no two people taste wine the same; one person’s opinion of a wine is no more accurate or better than another person’s. The difference between a professional and an amateur wine taster is experience and knowledge.

Image result for free Burgundy wine photos

To keep it simple, then, divide this approach to wine tasting into three steps: Sight, Smell and Sip. Okay, we’ll add a fourth: Pleasure. Hopefully, pleasure is what we’re aiming for when tasting and drinking wine.  

One of the real pleasures of wine tasting (and drinking) is looking at the wine in a crystal wine glass.  Choose a clear stemmed glass with an 8-10 ounce bowl that tapers in at the top.  Why the taper in a minute.

Pale straw, golden yellow, light ruby, deep garnet, are all colors of white and red wines in various stages of development. The presence of oxidation, where too much air has gotten into the wine, turns these colors brown; think of a slice of apple left on a plate.  California chardonnay usually has a medium to deep golden color, while Cabernet Sauvignon shows deep ruby to opaque garnet. 

Today’s wines have a brilliant appearance with no haze or small suspended particles. Thanks to modern refrigeration, stabilization has eliminated tartrate crystals that stick to the bottoms of corks or collect at the bottom of a bottle of young white wine. In the past, the presence of tartrate crystals would freak out consumers who thought they were ground glass, so to allay this fear, winemakers called the crystals “wine diamonds.”

Beyond the clarity of a wine, the thing to look for is color correctness. White wines, of course, are not white, but various shades of yellow, from pale straw to deep golden. But as I mentioned earlier, a white wine with hints of browning should be suspect. Oxidation or browning in red wine is harder to see, so for a good look at the color of a red wine, hold the glass by the stem and carefully tilt it away from you while checking the edge of the wine as it moves up the interior surface of the glass. A thin line of nearly colorless wine should give way to light pink or red, then a deeper ruby or garnet color.

Checking color correctness is also a good way to assess the health of an aged red wine that may have been subject to some oxidation. After checking the color, in preparation for smelling the wine, swirl the wine gently holding the glass by the stem and scribe tight arcs in the air. It takes practice, so if you’re not comfortable with the free-form swirling technique, place the glass on a table top and swirl.

Image result for free Burgundy wine photosSmelling is the most important step of the three because by putting your nose in the glass and taking a good sniff, you can tell just about everything you need to know about the wine. A tapered glass helps concentrate the aromatics. While smelling is primary, tasting will confirm what you smell. Sounds a little wonky, but it’s true. An old bar trick required a blindfolded person to hold his or her nose, then sip a glass of Coca-Cola, a glass of Pepsi-Cola and a glass of 7-Up then identify which is which. Our mind gets confused when we can’t see or smell what we are tasting.

Winemakers and wine professionals use a special vocabulary to describe what they smell and taste in a wine. You can consult a glossary of wine terms in any number of wine books, but for the wine consumer what is important is to use personal terms that you understand, then store them in your wine memory for future use. Common scents such as honey, sweet spice and cedar are recognized by most people. But try not to use esoteric terms that are difficult to put in words. For example, banana and licorice are readily recognized by most people, but coming up with words to describe these foods is difficult if not impossible. Try it. Describe the smell and taste of a banana, without saying that it smells and tastes like a banana.

The sense of smell is powerful and long-lasting. A specific scent we experienced long ago may be stored in our memory only to be brought back with a bang years later when smelling the same scent again in a different setting. When I was a boy my mother used to cook using animal lard that has a distinctive smell almost unknown today. Years later, my wife and I were in Budapest and the moment we entered a restaurant for dinner, that evocative smell immediately took me back in time. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then it came to me that the kitchen was using lard. 

The stimulus of scent is a powerful tool in wine tasting. So, smell the wine, applying words to the smells, then store them in your wine memory. Which brings me to the remembrance of a unique win e experience a few years back...

It's not always what you think. Some wines can play tricks on you, especially when you're familiar with a particular style. On a trip to Australia some years back, I was tripped up by a Hunter Valley Semillon and an Australian wine legend who lured me into his trap.
The legend was Len Evans and the place was Rothbury Estate, then owned by Evans. After a tour of the winery, Evans led me on to the winery floor. I thought we were going to try a few tank samples, but instead he turned to me with a sly grin that said, without his saying, "I've got you now mate!"
On a table were four white wines, two a medium amber color and two just past medium amber. I immediately suspected oxidation...but I didn't want to get ahead of myself, and besides Evans was sitting there grinning, waiting for me to say something learned about the wines. 
Instead, I decided my best tactic was to smell the four wines first, then taste them. They all smelled like rip figs with an underlying scent of what I described as candle wax. To me, that could only mean one wine - Semillon. Still, I wasn't 100% sure. "Were they blended with a little Sauvignon Blanc, or were the wines all 100% Semillon," asked myself. 
I look at Evans but he hadn't changed his expression. 
Then, another possibility occurred to me. "What if they were oak-aged, because of the amber color and slight oxidation?" So, with nothing to lose but my pride as a wine taster, I gave my decision.

"They are all oak-aged Semillons."

A faint smugness crossed Evans' face as he said, "You're half right. The wines are all Semillons (he pronounced it Sem-a-lon), but they have never seen oak. It's the unique character of unoaked Hunter Valley Semillon to mature like an oak aged wine.")

It was a nice trick and one I discovered later that Len Evans was fond of springing on unsuspecting visitors. Len Evans passed away in 2006 and with him all wine lovers lost a unique wine educator.

Australian Semillon aside, let's get back to the three steps to wine tasting. 


After smelling a wine for that first indication of a wine’s health, age, quality and correctness, it’s time to taste. Holding the glass by the stem, swirl the wine again and take a good strong sniff, then a small sip. Roll the wine around in your mouth so that it comes in contact with all of your taste buds, especially the sides of the tongue where detection of acidity is most acute. The idea is to gauge the wine’s acidity, sweetness (if any) and level of tannin. On average, there are between 2,000 and 8,000 taste buds on the tongue. The once-popular “Tongue Map” held that sour or acid was detected on the sides of the tongue behind salt, with sweetness on the tip and bitter (tannin) at the far back of the tongue. The belief now is that we taste all components everywhere on the tongue.  

The ideal wine will present all of these components in perfect balance, with nothing sticking out. But the perfect wine is rare, so look for things that affect the wine's balance, like excessive drying, even bitter tannin, sharp acidity that overrides the fruit and too much sweetness for the wine type, such as can sometimes be found in Cabernet Sauvignon.

Finally, apply these few tips as a general guide, while keeping in mind that wine is meant to be enjoyed in a social setting and not over analyzed, especially at the dinner table. A technical tasting is not meant to impress friends and family, especially in a restaurant or other public place. 

Next Blog: Sauvignon Styles 

Comments?  Suggestions?  Contact me at

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Pinot Noir Two Ways

Fans of red wine generally express their favoritism for either Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.  Cab fans like its angular structure, herbal/berry flavors and firm tannins.  Lovers of Pinot Noir prefer the wine’s softer rounded structure, minted cherry flavors and smooth tannins.

Although there is a recognizable sameness in Pinot Noir, no matter where in the world the grape is grown and wine is made, most Pinot Noir drinkers agree that the benchmark for both the grape and the wine is Burgundy, a region in east central France.  The region's limestone soils and cooler climate favor Pinot Noir, while the maritime climate and rocky soils of Bordeaux bring out the best of Cabernet Sauvignon and its five companion grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. 

Writing about Pinot Noir makes me think about a remarkable tasting I participated in...

(A Tasting to Remember) -- I started my wine writing career in, of all places, Colorado.  At the time, there was only one winery in Colorado, Ivancie Cellars, owned by a wild Austrian orthodontist who had his grapes, including Pinot Noir, shipped from California, across two mountain ranges. I was writing a wine column then for the Rocky Mountain News. One day, I got a call from Jack Daniels, a local wine wholesaler (now of Napa’s Wilson-Daniels) inviting me to join a tasting group called “The Grape  Nuts.” 

Who could refuse with a name like that?

The idea was that each “grape nut” would sponsor a tasting, hopefully of older unusual or esoteric wines. The tasting that I still remember was red Burgundies from the collection of Doctor Barolet, an early 20th century physician in the Burgundy area, who made his own wine and, in his spare time, was a negociant (wine merchant and grape buyer) and avid wine collector.  Dr. Barolet had amassed a huge cache of wine, mostly Burgundy, and was known for adding brandy (likely Cognac) to his own wines, to keep them fresh and promote longevity.

For our tasting that evening, Daniels brought a small collection of Barolet Burgundies, many from the 1930s. The wines were all healthy and packed with the soft voluptuous fruit that makes Burgundy great. It was a revelation, especially for someone with a love of Burgundy and Pinot Noir. 

I have long-since lost my notes from that tasting, but the structure, depth and complexity of the wines we tasted then linger in my memory. They were rich without being plumy, complex and soft on the palate but supported by good acidity and firm tannins. Could it have been the added brandy? 

Most importantly, the wines invited not just another sip but a second glass. We couldn’t tell if Barolet had dosed any of the wines, but if he had, it was a decision that paid benefits long after the wines were bottled.

Barolet wines are still available through such on-line merchants as Wine Searcher.  But be prepared to pay $500 to $1,000 a bottle for a wine that is now at least 80 years old and remember the buying experience comes with a caveat emptor.)

This wander down memory lane is not meant to make the reader envious, but is offered as a plea to not drink your red wine (and some select whites) too young.  If you value the wine and have invested a lot of money, then allow the wine to age and show its true potential. 

Also, I use the tasting here to illustrate the character and pleasures of fine Pinot Noir, or at least the expression of Pinot Noir from Burgundy and California.  In Dr. Barolet’s days there was only Pinot Noir from Burgundy.   

Since those days, the lure of Pinot Noir has grown in other parts of the world and I would like to think that the good doctor would have enjoyed them as well. 

While the Pinot Noir grape has gone worldwide,  the styles and character of the wines are different. Pinot Noir is grown in nearly every wine region in Europe, as well as such far flung places as New Zealand, Australia, South America, South Africa, Mexico, Canada and United States. 

The history of Pinot Noir in California is a relatively short one. Agoston Harazthy, a California wine pioneer, reportedly carried Pinot Noir vine cuttings back with him from one of his visits to his ancestral home in Hungary.  It was the end of the 19th century and Harazthy’s effort was a one-off with Pinot Noir languishing in California in favor of Zinfandel and Alicante Bouschet, as well as a little Gamay. 

By the mid-20th century, California Pinot Noir had made a mini-comeback, thanks to Villa Mt. Eden, Hanzell and Beauleu Vineyard.  Andre Tchelistcheff, then BV’s noted winemaker, was supposed to have said that Pinot Noir was his favorite red wine, even though he became known for BV cabernets.  

Clusters of Ripe Pinot Noir
In the vineyard, Pinot Noir is fussy about climate and soils, a difficulty that is often carried over to the wine making.  Nevertheless, Pinot Noir can be found throughout the Golden State, in the relatively warm areas of Napa and Sonoma counties, to the cooler regions of Mendocino County in the North, southern Monterey County in the central area and the cooler parts of Santa Barbara County in the south.

If you noticed that “cool” is the operative word for growing juicy Pinot Noir with lots of varietal character, then you are on the right track.  However, even those warmer growing regions have cooler spots, like the Russian River Valley and the Carneros Region that stretches across the southern edges of Napa and Sonoma counties. 

A whole separate column is necessary to tell of the successes of Oregon Pinot Noir, from the famous Willamette Valley. Suffice to say that while California was discovering that Pinot Noir should rightfully share the world stage with Cabernet Sauvignon, Oregon had already taken the stage.

A vineyard's proximity to water is another key factor in nurturing Pinot Noir. The cool moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean is important to growing Pinot Noir in Carneros (by way of San Pablo Bay), as well as Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, the Sonoma Coast of Sonoma County, Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey and Santa Barbara County.

The tempering influence of water on wine grape growing is not limited to the Pacific Ocean.  Consider the Rhone and Garonne rivers in France, Rhine and Mosel rivers in Germany, the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in South Africa and the Finger Lakes in New York State, to name just a few places.

Even in Burgundy, the character of Pinot Noir varies from the northern end of the region to the south.  In the north, south of the city of Dijon are the sturdy and fragrant pinots of Marsannay and Fixin. Little more than 80 miles to the south are the earthy pinots of Santenay.  Between those two are such noted red Burgundies as Vosne-Romanee, Gevrey-Chambertain, Pommard and Volnay. Those are but a few of the Burgundies that are distinguished one from the other by terroir and, of course, price.

Pinotphiles, especially those with an affection for California wines, will argue about where in the Golden State the best Pinot Noir is made. At the top of the list for some are the cool climate pinots from the Russian River Valley, with their concentrated plumy flavors. Others suggest you try pinots from cool niche spots such as Carneros and Mendocino's Anderson Valley and the Sonoma Coast. Still other pinot devotees prefer Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County and Santa Barbara County. 

I could go on and on about the pleasures of Pinot Noir, no matter where it is from in the world, but rather than reading about the many styles of pinot, taste for yourself. Start small. Buy a few pinots from different areas, invite in a few friends and have a comparative tasting.  Expect to pay $30 to $1,000 for Burgundy, with many at $50 or less. California Pinot Noir prices run the gamut, from $20 to $470 for the coveted Peter Michael Clos du Ciel; popular California pinots include Gary Farrel and Kosta Browne, both $90; Flowers, Calera and Lynmar Estate, $50.  Oregon Pinot Noir is mostly priced between $25 and $60.

There are so many good to great Pinot Noirs from France, California, Oregon and New Zealand, that a list of recommended producers would be long and incomplete.  Instead, I suggest a visit to your local wine seller.  Check the shelves and talk to the merchant, then start tasting.   It's the best way to learn what you like.

Next Blog: A Simple Guide to Tasting Wine

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