Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Sauvignon Blanc Styles: New World

NOTE: For some reason, Blogger.com did not send the Nov 6 blog, "New World Sauvignon Blanc" to all subscribers. If you are one of those folks, here is the blog. If not, please disregard.

For years, the wine community has been preoccupied with Chardonnay, almost to the point that little was written about any other white wine, including Sauvignon Blanc. A report that I read not long ago talked about market performance of Chardonnay and a little about Riesling, but never mentioned Sauvignon Blanc. So I thought "Gerald D Boyd On Wine" would alter that algorithm with a two-part series.

In the first part of "Sauvignon Styles," posted October 27, we examined Old World sauvignon, mainly in the French style of Bordeaux blanc and the twin Loire sauvignons, Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. 

This second part takes a closer look at the phenomenon of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and how it changed the wine drinking public's perception of what Sauvignon Blanc should smell and taste like. And, we'll review California Sauvignon Blanc and the smaller but noteworthy sauvignons from Washington state.

A lot has been written and discussed about Sauvignon Blanc, but the most unexpected thing about the grape is that it is a parent, along with Cabernet Franc, of Cabernet Sauvignon. Good old DNA profiling brought that fact home to wine drinkers in 1997. So maybe "unexpected" is pushing it a little, since it has been 22 years since the announcement. 

There is a saying among growers that bears repeating: "The quality of any wine begins in the vineyard." Sauvignon Blanc grows best when planted in light soils. If vine production is not closely controlled, the wine will have a certain aggressive herbaceous aroma and flavor that some have described as "cat pee," or to put it in the more charming French idiom, pipi du chat.

Over the years, the treatment of Sauvignon Blanc in the winery has changed. Although traditional fermentation methods in stainless steel tanks and oak barrels are still favored by many winemakers, the more modern approach involves a range of techniques, including the use of cement eggs and even a retro move to bring back lined concrete tanks.

New World Sauvignon Blanc

Just what is the New Zealand (or New World) style? The French model was known for a minerality with a citrus back note and occasionally a touch of oak. The terroir in New Zealand's Marlborough region redefined that, with a striking green fruit (read gooseberry) aroma, tropical notes, brisk acidity and no oak. 
aerial photography of Seattle skyline
Seattle and Mt. Rainer

(American wine drinkers introduction to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. At the third biannual in 1993, Seattle hosted the World Vinifera Conference, an ambitious program designed to examine and celebrate one specific variety. Sauvignon Blanc was the focus in '93, covering the variety from the vineyard to the winery to the marketplace. At the time little was known in this country about the wines of Marlborough, a scenic region spread across the top of New Zealand's south island.
Things moved along in the usual sequence with panels and speakers on growing Sauvignon Blanc, making Sauvignon Blanc and enjoying Sauvignon Blanc. Cloudy Bay had sent a quiet spokesman named Kevin Judd who, as it turns out, knew as much about photography as he did about making wine in New Zealand. 

Judd was on a panel with winemakers from other regions and in his quiet laid back manner, he let the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc speak for itself. And it was an eye-opener. Few of the attendees had tasted New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc before. That first sniff of the wine revealed a pungent aroma of tropical passion fruit and lime juice that nearly jumped out of the glass.  

The green fruit descriptor soon became associated with gooseberry, a small sour berry used in making preserves and pies, known more east of the Mississippi than elsewhere in the United States. Curiously, I asked a few winemakers about gooseberry on a later trip to New Zealand and was told that Kiwis do not use that descriptor with Sauvignon Blanc and they thought the term came from an English wine writer.)

Select Producers. It wasn't long before a rush of other New Zealand wineries flooded the U.S. market with Sauvignon Blanc, most notably Kim Crawford, but also Villa Maria, Greywacke, Craggy Range, Astrolabe and Dog Point, to name just a few. The word spread, folks discovered Kiwi "sauvy," and it soon become their go-to white wine. 

California Sauvignon Blanc 

Meanwhile, the California approach to making Sauvignon Blanc was two prong: those labeled Sauvignon Blanc were oak free, while those labeled Fume Blanc might have been aged in oak barrels. In time the distinctions became blurred so that the consumer had no idea which was which.

In the early 1960s, Robert Mondavi and his younger brother Peter disagreed about the future of the family-owned Charles Krug Winery. Robert left in 1966 and opened the Robert Mondavi Winery. Although the move was successful, Mondavi was not happy with slow sales of his Sauvignon Blanc, so in one of the best examples of creative marketing in California wine, he changed the name of the wine to Fume Blanc, a variation on the French Pouilly-Fume. 

Mondavi also added oak aging and finished the wine in a dark green bottle, both moves that bore no relationship to the Loire wine called Pouilly-Fume. The "new" reconfigured sauvignon was a resounding success.

Later, however, those California winemakers who had been making varietal Sauvignon Blanc began to notice the market moving in the direction of New Zealand. Today, many California Sauvignon Blancs, while not as aggressive as some Kiwi sauvignons, have shifted toward a clean, fresh varietal with subtle passion fruit and citrus notes. 

Sauvignon Blanc soon began to mount a challenge to the dominance of Chardonnay in California. Noteworthy sauvignons, mostly tank fermented but some with oak, entered the market from Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley, Napa Valley and Livermore Valley.  Select California Sauvignon Blanc Producers: Honig, Quivira, Dry Creek Vineyard, Kunde, Kenwood, Joel Gott, Peter Michael, Ferrari-Carno and Matanzas Creek.


The eastern Columbia Valley in Washington state is known mainly for red wines, although Chardonnay and Riesling also have a history there. On the other hand, Sauvignon Blanc represents more limited plantings, with vineyards in a broad area from Yakima to Benton City, the Horse Heaven Hills and an area between Othello and the Tri-Cities.

Washington Sauvignon Blanc is straightforward varietal, mainly tank fermented, although some wineries employ the use of barrel fermentation and cement eggs. Sensory characteristics include citrus, dried herbs and zesty acidity.

Select Washington Sauvignon Blanc Producers: Barnard Griffin, DeLille, Sightglass Cellars, Woodward Canyon, JM Cellars. 

There is no denying that Sauvignon Blanc is a popular wine. But the question often asked is if Sauvignon Blanc is a great wine? For as long as I can remember, there has been a disagreement about the "best" white wine grape: Chardonnay or Riesling. Attributes can be stacked up under each variety, but the fact remains that no single grape can make the claim to be the best. 

So where does that leave Sauvignon Blanc? Does it share status with the other two and is Sauvignon Blanc a great wine? Those who say no claim that what's keeping Sauvignon Blanc from greatness is that after one glass, the in-your-face aromatics and flavors begin to wear on you. This is especially true, the critics hold, for New World sauvignons made in the New Zealand style. The ultimate judge, of course, is you the consumer.


Next Blog: Nouveau Beaujolais & Carbonic Maceration

Comments? Suggestions?  Write me at boydvino707@gmail.com

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