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Napa Sauvignon takes a new stylistic direction

As Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc evolves towards a more balanced and less overtly oaky style a tasting panel picks out the best examples from 2011.

The US is having a love affair with Pinot Grigio and Moscato, and these wines have each taken a turn at dethroning Sauvignon Blanc from its second, then third place ranking behind Chardonnay in volume sales of white wines.

Not so in Napa Valley, where Sauvignon Blanc remains the second most planted and popular white wine.

There were 6,972 acres of Chardonnay in 2011, followed by Sauvignon Blanc’s 2,632 acres. No other white grape comes anywhere close to these plantings.

As in other regions, Napa’s Sauvignon Blanc takes well to different soils and microclimates. Grown in warmer areas, there can be ripe tropical fruit flavours, and the wines show their citrus zing when grown in cooler spots like Carneros.

Either way, the wines have high aromatics, especially when compared to Chardonnay. In the cellar, there are numerous procedures which can influence the final style, and Sauvignon Blanc takes well to oak – whether barrel fermentation or maturation.

It wasn’t always so sunny for Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. As Sauvignon Blanc winemaker, Kristin Belair of Honig Vineyard, explains, “Up through the early 1980s, Sauvignon Blanc was typically grown on a ‘California sprawl’ trellising and the fruit was heavily shaded.

Continuing, she says, “Sauvignon Blanc that is heavily shaded produces wines that tend to be more on the vegetal (bell pepper, green bean, asparagus) side.”

That green-ness was considered undesirable and producers worked to rid their wines of it.

“Oak in Sauvignon Blanc”, Belair continued, “was once used to mask the herbal or veggie characters.”

With more advanced trellising systems, Napa Valley was led away from these flavours and more towards citrus and tropical fruit.

Today, oak is still used in a majority of Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs, yet it is used in a completely different way.

From 2008 through 2011, as each of these Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc vintages was released, the wines were reviewed by the St. Helena Star and Napa Vintner Tasting Panel, a group of industry winemakers and other wine professionals, who meet each month to taste the region’s wines.

The 2008 vintage, when it was tasted in 2009, sparked a debate – one of the few to get a bit heated – about whether or not Sauvignon Blanc should be oaked at all.

Many of the wines from this vintage showed heavier oak-influenced flavours and a good number of panelists argued that Sauvignon Blanc is best when it displays its fresh fruit character, without obvious oak.

Others enjoyed Sauvignon Blanc rounded out and spiced by oak fermentation or ageing.

The top 2008 wines of the tasting included oaked and un-oaked wines.

One-third of the Twomey Cellars Sauvignon Blanc was fermented in new oak barrels with the remainder in stainless steel.

A majority (two-thirds) of the Clos Pegase Mitsuko Vineyard was fermented in 130 gallon puncheons for barrel complexity, and the wine was aged for several months in French oak, a small portion of that new.

The Girard 2008, however, was all stainless steel.

In 2009, more of the wines shed the heavy oak flavours, but the general style of Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc looked to be in a state of flux. It was not clear which way producers were going to go.

The top wines of 2009 showed favor for a mix of oak and stainless steel Sauvignon Blancs, but heavier-oaked wines did not get top ratings.

The Clark Claudon was mostly stainless steel with under 10% fermented in barrels and only a tiny portion in new barrels; the 2009 Boeschen was a stainless steel driven wine; and the Jericho Canyon was produced in a combination of steel and oak and had lingering flavours of oak on the palate.

More balance came with the 2010 vintage, and it appeared, looking at the full line-up of Sauvignon Blancs from the vintage, that many winemakers producing oak-influenced Sauvignon Blancs were doing so in a much more even-handed manner.

There were many examples of wines with balanced oak flavors. Some of the favourite wines of this vintage were the Provenance – all but 10% fermented in stainless steel with the 10% in new oak; the Clif Lede – a combination of oak and neutral vessels but just 9% new oak influence; and The Grade Cellars’ Sea Fog where 10% of the wine is aged in old oak barrels.

These changes have now evolved into the very balanced 2011 vintage. Oak influenced Sauvignon Blanc is still the preference of winemakers, but the resulting oak flavours are in balance with the wines’ other elements in almost every wine tasted.

Most of the wineries used oak to round out or lightly spice the wines; gone were the heavy oak flavours sticking out in awkward angles.

It appears that Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc is finally coming into its own, with a defining style and graceful winemaking. Oak is used to enhance the wines, and not mask or take over other flavours.

Marbue Marke produces several styles of Sauvignon Blanc for three different producers – Marston Family, Faustini and Caldwell. “Barrel use”, he notes, “helps the mouth feel, but it lessens the brightness of fruit, so it’s a balance.”

Oak balance is what has especially come to Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs.

Here the drinks business takes a closer look at the top 2011 Sauvignon Blanc wines chosen by the Napa panel:

The Merryvale Juliana Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc

The Merryvale Juliana Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($26) is 100% barrel fermented, aged sur lie and stopped from malolactic fermentation. The wine is then aged for five months in French oak, 10% of that new.

The dominant flavours are ripe pear, melon, citrus and a bit of floral, with the oak influencing the mouth feel more than the flavour profile.

This is a nicely balanced and crafted wine.

Cade Estate Sauvignon Blanc

Cade Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($26) has increased the percentage of Sauvignon Blanc that is barrel fermented in 2011, and the wine deftly combines the fruit’s fresh citrus and ripe fruit flavours with a touch of spice.

Seventy-three percent was fermented in stainless steel tanks and drums; 5% in concrete eggs with the remaining 22% in French oak barrels.

Grade Cellars Sea Fog Sauvignon Blanc

Grade Cellars Sea Fog Sauvignon Blanc 2011 from Calistoga ($25) sees 100% of old oak barrels. All of the fruit for this Sauvignon Blanc comes from Calistoga and there is citrus, stone fruit flavors, ripe apple and spice flavours.

Tyler Florence Wines Sauvignon Blanc

Tyler Florence Wines Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($19.99) is made using a portion of stainless steel for fruit purity and barrel fermentation for a creamy palate.

You are left with lingering spice flavours from the oak but the panel found them in balance with the rest of the wine’s flavours.

Crosby Roamann Sauvignon Blanc

Crosby Roamann Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($32 ) is fermented in oak barrels, 20% of that new oak, and aged on its lees for eight months

The wine comes at you with lemon citrus, ripe apple and light oak-influenced flavours in a nicely balanced Sauvignon Blanc.

Blackbird Vineyards Ma(i)sonry Hudson Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc

Blackbird Vineyards Ma(i)sonry Hudson Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($38) is done in 100% stainless steel and has delicious ripe red apple fruit.

Round Pond Estate Sauvignon Blanc

Round Pond Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Rutherford ($24) lets the peach fruit and lemon, orange and lime citrus sing without additional flavours of oak.

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