By Chris Sawyer
When the annual International Sauvignon Blanc Day (aka #sauvblancday via social media) takes place on Friday, May 3, there so many so many things to celebrate.
In French, sauvignon means ‘wild.’ As one of the noble white varieties, Sauvignon Blanc has the rare ability to produce grape clusters that are naturally aromatic and filled with ripe fruity flavors, minerality, and high acidity. These distinctions help create a wide selection of wines that range from aromatic, fruity and acid-driven; to deep, rich and complex; all the way to world-class dessert wines that are sweet, tangy and age-worthy.
With genetic links to Chenin Blanc, the heritage of this magnificent grape can be traced to the Loire Valley in France. While becoming the prized grape variety grown in the enchanting appellations of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Touraine in the eastern segment of the valley, Sauvignon Blanc was also bred with Cabernet Franc to create the super grape we now lovingly call Cabernet Sauvignon.
Therefore, when Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc became a preeminent red grapes to plant in the emerging Bordeaux region in the south of France in the 1800s, Sauvignon Blanc became the decisive white counterpart in that region as well. And today Semillon and sometimes Muscadelle are blended with this noble grape to make the classic Bordeaux Blanc wines in the Graves region, as well as the prized sweet wines from the famed Sauternes appellation.
After moving to California in the 1870s, French winemaker Louis Mel propagated Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon vines in Livermore Valley with plant material he sourced from Marquis de Lur-Saluces, the proprietor of Chateau Y’quem. The property was purchased by the Wente family in the 1930s, and it was in 1934 when brothers Ernest and Herman Wente introduced Sauvignon Blanc as the first grape varietal to ever appear on a California label.
As the years passed, the interest in the grape spread to Napa Valley with the development of the historic blocks at the To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville and the stylish botrytized sweet wines that Myron Nightengale began making at Beringer Winery in the late 1970s after he perfected these skills at Cresta Blanca Winery in Livermore Valley twenty years earlier.
Similar things were happening in other parts of California, including the first ever bottlings of ‘Fume Blanc’ as an innovative New World offering modeled after the drier, barrel-aged style made in the Pouilly-Fumé region that were launched in the 1980s by David Stare at Dry Creek Vineyard and a new grouping of innovative styles of SB designed for pairing with fine cuisine that were crafted by Fred Brander of Brander Winery in Santa Barbara County in the 1990s.
However, the big push in the marketplace did not happen until the late-1990s when momentum shifted to New Zealand. In particularly, the Marlborough region on the southern end of the north island, where innovative viticulturalists and winemakers set a new precedent by creating wines packed with ripe fruity flavors, grassy and herbal aromas, and razor-sharp acidity that have become the hallmark attributes of many of the Sauvignon Blancs made in this small country.
Since then, the popularity of the grape has expanded around the globe from California, Southern Oregon, Chile, Uruguay, Australia and South Africa in the New World, as well as the Old World regions of Friuli and Alto Adige regions in Northern Italy to the southern reaches of Germany and Austria, the center of Spain, and a multitude of special areas in Eastern block countries.
Aside from being extremely aromatic and tasty on their own, the best Sauvignon Blancs are fantastic to pair with a cornucopia of culinary delights, including goat cheese, fresh salads, soups, grilled veggies, shellfish, and a multitude of dishes made with fresh fish, pork, poultry and others that that are more focused on Japanese, Vietnamese, Asian or Indian flair.
In April, to prepare for Sauv Blanc Day and all the great opportunities to share wines made with this magnificent grape variety, I gathered together an amazing group of wine pros for a rare blind tasting of nine of the best high-end selections of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, California and the Loire Valley.
This talented group of tasters from Northern California included winemakers, proprietors and growers Nick Goldschmidt (Goldschmidt Vineyards), Michael Scholz (St. Supery), Mark Lyon (Eco Terreno Wines), Vance Rose (Grieve Family Winery) and Lauren Benward Krause (Beltane Ranch); sommeliers and wine buyers Jamie Harding (Picco Restaurant), James Dick (Mustard’s Grill), Melissa Hotchkiss (SEA Thai Bistro), Eduardo Dingler, Consulting Sommelier / Wine Access.com, and Glenn Siegel, WineSpectrum.com; media and trade members Dan Berger (Vintage Experiences / Syndicated Writer); Erin Kirschenman (Wine Business Monthly), Kelly Mitchell (TheWineSiren.com) and David Strada (New Zealand Wine US / New Zealand Winegrower); Chef Lauren Kershner (Goodness Gracious Eats); and Don Sebastiani Sr, who generously hosted the newest installment of the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series at his home in Sonoma.
Here are the reviews and comments of the fabulous wines we tasted, as listed in the order of how the wines were positioned in the flight:
Nautilus 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand – $23 / Group score: 96 points
In Wine Grapes (2012), the book she co-authored with Dr. José Vouillamoz and Julia Harding, wine critic Jancis Robinson noted that of the 44,479 acres of Sauvignon Blanc planted in New Zealand in 2011, 38,796 of those acres are located in Marlborough. That’s means more than 85% of the vines are located in this special area that is influenced by warm days and cool maritime breezes in the late afternoon. And rest assured, the demand for the exports remains strong today.
As a general rule, most of the top Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand are made with that hands-off approach to winemaking. Meaning, that instead of aging the wines in new oak barrels, more of the emphasis is placed on the use of stainless-steel tanks and neutral oak in order to preserve the ripe flavors of the grapes from the vineyards to the bottle. As a great example of this more à la naturelle approach, David Strada of NZ Wine and I chose to taste the group on the 2018 release from the Nautilus Estate from Martinborough.
With a lovely light pale hue, the wine opens up with perfumed aromas of fresh jasmine, fresh citrus, cantaloupe, kiwi, boxwood and grassy notes lingering in the background. Young, bright and opulent on the palate, dazzling flavors of ripe guava, gooseberry, tart apple and fresh-squeezed kaffir lime are complemented with hints of bamboo shoots and celery salt leading to a lean and delicate finish.
Team Comments: To be frank, this was a wine with a lot to give. To me, it was a classic example of Sauvignon Blanc: grassy, fruity and an enthusiastic wine offers such complexity in every sip. Hotchkiss also loved the overall balance of the wine. “I was impressed by how restrained it was on palate for having such lively aromatics,” she said. While Mitchell described it as “an acid freak with freshness and finesse,” Dingler saw it as a great party starter. “I don’t know if I would age it as much a buy cases of this wine and drink it every day!” he quipped with a smile. In the end, an amazing wine—especially for the price!
Lail 2017 Blueprint Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley – $34 / Group score: 92 points
While it’s true that most premium Sauvignon Blancs on the West Coast are fermented in more neutral vessels, including stainless steel, older barrels and concrete eggs. There are also many higher-end styles that are modeled after the Bordeaux wines aged in newer French oak barrels to create wines that more complex and ageworthy. From Napa Valley, one of the labels known for this fusion of power and finesse is the Blueprint Sauvignon Blanc from Lail Vineyards.
Crafted by talented French winemaker Phillipe Melka with fruit from the Yountville and Coombsville appellations and aged in 43 percent new French oak. For this reason, the essence is oak is very noticeable in the first sniff. But after a few swirls, the fruit notes of white spring flowers and candied fruits are accentuated with ones of lemon peel, caramel, sandalwood and roasted hazelnuts. As the wine opens up in the glass, the pronounced flavors of mango, papaya, apricot and white peach custard are enhanced with notes of cinnamon, crushed rocks and lingering French oak on the finish. In contrast to being bright and light on its feet, the texture is rich and creamy yet weighty. Therefore, the wine was more focused on mouthfeel than flavor during its youth
Team Comments: Lyon thought it was very well made for an oak-style Sauvignon Blanc, while Berger thought it needed more acidity to support the rich texture. And while Rose liked the mid-palate, he agreed that it was more oak driven than all the other wines we tasted. Dick also thought it was hard to identify as an SB, but more as an expensive white wine was better to pair with heartier dishes like a rich bisque, poached lobster with butter or a fish-based pasta with fresh herbs and creamy white sauce.
Aperture 2017 Sauvignon Blanc, Soil Specific Series, Sonoma County – $32 / Group Score: 95 points
Currently, there are over 2,500 acres of Sauvignon Blanc planted in Sonoma County. Among the big fans of the grape variety is gifted winemaker Jesse Katz, who modeled this limited release of the Aperture Sauvignon Blanc after the famous barrel-fermented Haut-Brion Blanc crafted in Bordeaux. The end result is a crisp wine with great depth of flavors and natural richness, while still remaining light on its feet.
On the nose, the lofty aromas of ripe tropical fruits and orchard fruits are interlaced with lively hints of fresh lime, spearmint, white pepper, bay laurel, mineral, wet stone, and roasted nuts. To energize the palate, the flavors expand with notes of crisp apple, gooseberry, grapefruit, quince, fresh sage, fava beans and spices. Long and round, the flavors are complimented with a rich texture and a nice burst of racy acidity that made the mineral notes shine instead of covering them up with oak.
Team Comments: This was “Light-weight, enjoyable and fresh,” said Hotchkiss. Kirschman agreed: “Food friendly and begging for oysters,” she wrote. For Mitchell, who liked it the best of the flight, it was about the “long seductive finish.” Goldschmidt picked it as his favorite wine as well. “I f*#kin’ love it,” he said, with a laugh. “This is so outside my box. I drink New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc nearly every day of my life and this is a departure from that style. Besides the layers of fruit, I also enjoy the slight nutty quality that makes me want to investigate this wine in more detail.”
Grieve Family Winery 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley – $45 / Group Score: 92 points
For a mystery wine with a Northern California twist, I threw in the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc from Grieve Family Winery. This joint venture between David and Kathleen Grieve and winemaker Vance Rose and his wife Kelly is made with organically grown grapes from a special vineyard located alongside the old Wells Fargo pass through Lovall Valley at the southern end of the Mayacamas Mountains, between Napa and Sonoma. In addition to the main portion of the usual Clone 1 of Sauvignon Blanc grown on the estate property, there are also smaller portions of the more aromatic Musque Clone grown on the northern portion of the vineyard as well. Once picked, Rose aged the different blocks in a unique mixture of new French oak, neutral oak and concrete eggs to create an endearing wine that represents a true sense of the site in the glass.
Ripe and lively, the wine opens up with lofty scents of ripe green melons, stone fruits, honeysuckle, roasted plantains, ginger, raw nutmeg and brilliant hints of flintiness and volcanic ash. On the palate, expressive notes of sweet melon, crisp apple, white peach, green figs and a hint of Bananas Foster are balanced with hints of citrus and fresh herbs lead to a long mouthwatering finish. Even more impressive was the way the flavors, acidity and the oak, fused together and the way the wine became even more radiant as it opened up.
Team Comments: During the discussion, Berger asked if this wine was based on the region, the winemaker, or does terroir dominate this vineyard. “The mystery about this wine is the fact that it is really delicious but you don’t know where it comes from,” he said. “I adore it, but I can’t figure out what it is.” In contrast, Dingler loved the stone fruit character of this wine, its stamina and texture, and how he felt it was “commanding and unapologetic.” For those reasons, it was his #1 pick. Overall, a great example of the affect the warm California sun can have on vines planted on a very special site.
Domaine Vacheron 2016 Les Romains, Sancerre – $47 / Group Score: 93 points
To explore the classic style of the Sancerre region of France’s Loire Valley, we tasted this charming, terroir-driven wine from Domaine Vacheron. Located on the eastern edge of the appellation and run by cousins Jean-Laurent and Jean-Dominique, this estate is farmed using biodynamic techniques, and the vines are planted on a unique combination of clay, chalk and silex (a rare combination of flint over clay over limestone)
Named after the early farming techniques passed down by the Romans to the inhabitants of Sancerre, the wine opens up with a lovely bouquet of white flowers, ripe melon, crisp cucumber, lemongrass, chamomile, orange blossom and roasted chestnuts. Light, bright and medium-bodied, the flavors of pink apple, cantaloupe, lemon, grapefruit, paraffin and fresh chervil are balanced with crisp acidity and a hint of sea salt leading to a long, dry finish. Overall, this was a complex wine with great texture. The kind of wine that makes you stop in your tracks and pay attention to details.
Team Comments: Using the flinty and chalky notes as clues, Lyon guessed this was a Sancerre style wine during the blind tasting. And while others were impressed with the expressive flavors and mouth watering effect on the palate, the short finish left a little to be desired. Therefore, we concluded it would be a good wine to serve with a dish like pan-seared scallops with fresh sage and brown butter.
Pegasus Bay 2016 70% Sauvignon / 30% Semillon, North Canterbury / Waipara Valley – $30-$34 / Group Score: 92 points
As an example of a more elite, thought-provoking style from New Zealand, we tasted the 2016 Pegasus Bay, which included 30% Semillon in the blend, made with pristine fruit from the North Canterbury and Waipara Valley. Although most of the Sauvignon Blanc was matured in stainless steel tanks, a small percentage was aged in oak barrel to create more texture and layers of flavors. Once the final blend was finished, the wine matured for an additional year before being released.
With a pale golden hue, the wine opens up with notes of exotic melon, green leafy vegetables, lemon peel, and hints of chicken stock, raw honey and musk. In the mouth, the fruit flavors of ripe melon, grapefruit, passionfruit and poached pear were balanced with notes of white asparagus, crisp green beans, fresh herbs and an intriguing dash of gritty country-style mustard on the finish and burst of racy acidity that lingers on the tip of the tongue.
Team Comments: This was by far the most controversial wine in the flight. Some loved it, while others thought the flavors were to bitter and overworked. For starters, the wine had the highest level of pyrazines of all the selections we tasted. For that reason, it reminded Lyon of the old popular styles of Sauvignon Blanc made in New Zealand and Monterey that had the green veggie character. Siegel felt the wine was a little disjointed. Whereas, Mitchell had a different spin, “I was just hoping the petrol would go away. That did not happen. For that reason, it was a little off-putting to me.” And Goldschmidt used the term “armpits.” We’ll leave it there.
In contrast, Schulz took a more positive angle: “Great expression, good fruit but a little dirty. But overall, I think it holds up well, especially by the way it matches the flinty and stony characteristics with great length, intensity and volume. For those reasons, I think it’s a pretty clever wine.”
Berger also gave it a high mark because of the vision of the winemaker. “Although I don’t know if I think this wine is the best on the table, I like it because of the creativity and the courage of the winemaker. If you buy that premise, then you buy the wine.” And Jamie liked the focus on terroir. “I really felt that the winery was more focused on capturing a true sense of place. For that reason, I felt they really got it in this wine.”
Francois Cotat 2017 Grande Cote, Chavignol, Sancerre – $52 / Group Score: 90 points
For a slightly different style from the Sancerre region, we tried this special wine crafted by Francois Cotat with fruit from the sub-zone of Chavignol. Unfortunately, one of our two bottles was slightly corked. So we made due with shorter pours for the 16 tasters.
In the glass, the wine opened up with playful notes of fresh spring flowers, ripe green fruits, ripe citrus, lemongrass, fresh agave, crystalized ginger, boxwood and graham cracker crust. The palate was medium to full-bodied with notes of crisp apple, fresh melon, tart stone fruits mixed, canned pineapple juice, nectarine, fennel and starfruit.
Team Comments: While there was plenty to like about the intriguing aromas and flavors this wine had to offer, there were differing opinions about the winemaking style. Some thought the palate was a little flabby and closed. Others thought it didn’t have enough acidity. And Rose was not a fan of the wine overall. “To me it had that lemon characteristic that reminded me of a wanna-be Chardonnay,” he said. “When you add in that sharp spice character, it didn’t seem very much like a Sauvignon Blanc to me.” Some also felt (myself included) the wine was rather austere and the finish was a little too hollow. As a result, we thought it would be a much better served with Asian cuisine that can work with its strengths.
Giesen 2014 “The Fuder” Sauvignon Blanc, Single Vineyard Selection: Matthews Lane, Marlborough – $58 / Group Score: 94 points
Climbing up the ladder to the more sophisticated offerings from New Zealand, we sampled the Geisen 2014 “The Fuder.” Made exclusively with fruit from the Matthews Lane Vineyard in Marlborough, this wine was aged for an extended amount of time in 1,000-liter Germany Oak Fuder Barrels.
As a result, the bouquet on this wine really shined with distinctive notes of fresh peach, passionfruit, green papaya, roasted green peppers, and even a hint of Asian Szechuan Peppercorn sauce that was duly noted by Dingler. These flavors are further enhanced with a rich, creamy texture and a generous touch of flint and mineral leading to a lengthy finish.
Team Comments: Elegant, complex and enjoyable, this is a mature wine that really has a lot to offer. On top of that, the wine was deceptively balanced. Meaning that while the acid didn’t show on the first sip, it started to blossom and becomes a major force as the wine opened up.
While I called it the spice-me-up 7-Up equivalent for rockstars, Siegel compared it to the signature riffs laid down American rock guitar legend Duane Allman: “Stylish, elegant with distinctive flavors melded together with round texture and vibrant acidity.”
Schulz liked the way the wine held its own with a little bit of bottle age. “It’s a wine with plenty of opulent aromatic lift and a lively expression of fruit and quality. It’s also got pyrazines, which I’m not usually a fan of. But in this case, those nuances and the bottle age make this wine more interesting.”
Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau 2015 Silex, Pouilly-Fuisse – $103 / Group Score: 93 points
To top off the blind tasting, I included one of the world’s most respected brands that is collected by high-end consumers and oenophiles: the 2015 Silex by Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau. Following the footsteps of his father Didier, who tragically died in 2008, Dagueneau is one of the young winemaking stars of France. And there is no doubt that this wine is about a winemaking style and capturing a sense of place inside the bottle.
Although this wine is complex, intensive and intriguing, the nose was rather shy and delicate with subtle notes of pear, melon, honeysuckle, lemongrass, chamomile, wet stones, buttery pie crust and roasted cashews. The flavors are ripe and punchy with concentrated notes of apple, pear, peach, quince, baked bread and a dry, flinty finish.
At this stage in its life, the wine is still immature but there are signs of great promise ahead. As Berger put it, “Three minutes with a wine usually tells you something. But ten minutes with this glass really nothing.” Dingler agreed: “At first it was like a bowl of skittles that represented all the colors of the rainbow, along with chamomile and mineral. Right now, it’s just okay.” For these reasons, the group concluded that it would be best to decant this wine and let it sit for 12 hours.
In the end, all the high-end offerings of Sauvignon Blanc we tasted were super in their own unique ways. So it’s hard to choose because these wines all offer something completely different. As Berger put it, “If I had to rank these wines from #1 to #9, I’d rank them all as #1.” And Rose agreed: “Rarely do you attend a tasting where subjective opinion is more relevant than this one!”
From a sommelier’s perspective, I also loved the ways each wine really opens up its arms to different pairings. For these reasons, the group concluded it was really amazing to taste this many bottles of Sauvignon Blanc together. Hope all my great readers have a fun time doing this on International Sauvignon Blanc Day and throughout the year!