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11 brilliant barrel-influenced Sauvignon Blancs

Patrick Schmitt MW rounds up a selection of the best examples of barrel-influenced Sauvignon Blancs that he has tasted over the past 12 months.

There’s a misconception among some Sauvignon Blanc drinkers that the grape only produces crisp, light, and slightly green-tasting whites, a style of wine that may be ideal for quenching your palate, but less suitable for enjoying during the course of a meal.

However, the world’s greatest Sauvignon Blancs can be quite rich and weighty, with tropical fruit flavours, and a creamy character from fermentation and / or ageing in barriques.

And it is this style of Sauvignon Blanc that is suitable for drinking with richer styles of cuisine, particularly dishes that are more difficult to pair with wines, such as those containing goat’s cheese, pungent herbs, or earthy and powerfully-flavoured vegetables such as artichoke or beetroot.

It is also this style of Sauvignon Blanc that should convince the sceptic that the grape can be used to create fine wines on a par with great whites from Chardonnay, mostly notably white Burgundy.

And what’s appealing about riper and richer styles of Sauvignon Blanc is that they may taste of exotic fruit, but there’s invariably a lovely balancing freshness, because the grape has a naturally high acidity.

Nevertheless, there is great variation among the finer and bigger styles of Sauvignon Blanc on the market today. Some of this diversity stems from site specifics and viticultural techniques, particularly the reduction of yields to enhance flavour concentration, as well as the decision to increase exposure and delay harvesting dates for riper notes. Otherwise, variation hails from cellar techniques, where extended lees contact in oak barrels will add texture, as well as creamy, vanilla characters to the wine. How much, however, depends on the size of the oak container, the length of time the wine spends in the barrel, how much of the wood is new, and how regularly the wine’s lees are stirred.

Importantly, marrying the creamier notes from barriques to Sauvignon is not easy, and requires high-quality, ripe grapes for the oak characters to complement the fruit flavours – any herbaceous elements in the grape will clash with the wood-sourced sweetness.

Finally, it should be noted that some of the best Sauvignon Blancs are blends. The grape can partner a few varieties successfully, but particularly Semillon, the traditional accompaniment to Sauvignon in Bordeaux, where it’s used to add more oily fatness to Sauvignon’s inherently tauter nature.

Over the following pages are some of the best examples I tasted from 2017’s Sauvignon Blanc Masters from the drinks business, as well as a few extra examples that didn’t feature in the latest competition, but are worthy of a mention.

Domaine du Grand Mayne Réserve Sauvignon Sémillon

Region: South West France
Vintage: 2015
Winery owners: Andrew Gordon, Martin Meinert, Philip Addis, Tim Henderson-Ross, Graham Hazell
Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon
Winemaking: 12 months in new oak barriques
Medal: Gold
Approximate retail price in UK: £15

This is certainly a Sauvignon Blanc that delivers a lot of character for the cash. Costing around £15, it is essentially a fine white Bordeaux that is designated as a wine from South West France because it falls just outside the former and more famous appellation.

And, like the top wines of Bordeaux, particularly the area of Graves, the Domaine du Grand Mayne Réserve is made using fully ripened Sauvignon, blended with Sémillon, and then fermented and aged in new French oak barriques. The resulting wine is quite full-bodied, with an appealing mix of lemon, lime and pineapple fruits, complemented by a touch of vanilla from the barrel-ageing. Layered, age-worthy, and textured, this is a fine white, but far-removed from your average delicate Sauvignon from further north in France, above all the Loire.

Château Brown Blanc

Region: Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, France
Vintage: 2016
Winery owner: Jean-Christophe Mau
Grapes: 65% Sauvignon Blanc, 35% Sémillon
Winemaking: Alcohol fermentation in French oak barrique (mix of new and used) and ageing for 8 months in barriques with battonage twice weekly.
Medal: Master
Approximate retail price in UK: £25

A perennial top performer in db’s Global Sauvignon Blanc Masters, in 2017 this Bordeaux blanc was crowned the ‘Master’ of its category – an award reserved for only the most outstanding examples in the competition. Exciting myself and the judges is the way this wine manages to successfully mix the more indulgent flavours of apricot, pineapple and vanilla custard with the tempering characters of lime zest and lemongrass that leave your mouth watering. Although there are finer and more celebrated barrel-aged Sauvignon blends from Bordeaux, few offer such quality for the price.

(Of course, if money is no object, then Haut-Brion and Pape-Clement Blanc are the ultimate richly-textured examples from Pessac, with Domaine de Chevalier Blanc providing a more nuanced but no less wonderful example, while Pavillon Blanc is the top Sauvignon Blanc of the Médoc).

Nederburg ‘Young Airhawk’ Sauvignon Blanc

Region: Elim, Darling and Durbanville, Western Cape, South Africa
Vintage: 2016
Winery owner: Distell
Grapes: 100% Sauvignon Blanc
Winemaking: Fermentation in a combination of second- and third-fill 228 and 300 litre barrels. The wine is then aged on its lees for 10 months, with regular lees-stirring.
Medal: Gold
Approximate retail price in UK: £13

While it’s not too hard to find good barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc at a high price, unearthing something of real quality sub-£15 is tricky. And that’s because making a successful textured style of Sauvignon Blanc requires careful handling. For a start, fully ripe grapes are required – the greener style of Sauvignon jars with the creamy flavours from oak – but also because buying barrels and managing fermentations / maturation in them is an expensive exercise. So, discovering this example from South Africa, which retails for around £13, was a delight. Named after the son of a leading figure in the South African wine industry who died aged just 29 in a light aircraft accident, this wine marries grapes from South Africa’s best Sauvignon-growing regions, which are then fermented in barrels before the resulting wine is matured on its lees in oak for 10 months. While the wine isn’t tropical tasting like the great whites of Bordeaux, it has a pleasing combination of grapefruit and buttered toast, with a marmalade-like note on the finish. Intense, bright and layered, it’s a good-value example of this style of Sauvignon – and our cheapest wine in this list.

(If you want to try another but rather pricier South African barrel-fermented Sauvignon, then Vergelegen’s GVB White is a magnificent example, although it is a blend, and actually has more Semillon in it than Sauvignon).

Tempus Two Copper Sauvignon Blanc 

Region: Adelaide Hills
Vintage: 2017
Winery owner: Australian Vintage
Grapes: 100% Sauvignon Blanc
Winemaking: Fermented in 100% French oak barrels with regular lees-stirring stirring during fermentation.
Medal: Gold
Approximate retail price in UK: £16

Fermented entirely in French oak barriques, and using warmer vineyard sites in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills, this pure Sauvignon Blanc from Tempus Two marries relatively ripe fruit with some barrel-sourced flavours. Although Australia is far better known for its barrel-fermented Chardonnays, it is achieving excellent results applying its fine white winemaking know-how to Sauvignon Blanc, and this is a keenly-priced example of that trend.

The wine is relatively lean compared to Bordeaux or Californian Sauvignons produced in barriques, and unites some tangy citrus, elderflower and grapefruit characters with a peanut note from the oak. It is smooth and fresh, with some cinnamon aromas providing complexity.

Moving up the price spectrum, Australia produces a couple of further barrel-aged Sauvignons of note.

One of these is Terre à Terre Sauvignon Blanc, which uses grapes from Wrattonbully and 600 litre barrels to produce a smoky fresh style of white, and the other is The Lane Vineyard Gathering Sauvignon-Semillon blend from Adelaide Hills – a lovely, layered, refreshing Graves-like white.

Seven Hills Sauvignon Blanc

Region: Columbia Valley, Washington State, USA
Vintage: 2016
Winery owner: Seven Hills Winery
Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon
Winemaking: 20% is fermented in large capacity Seguin Moreau “Fraîcheur” barrels designed for white Bordeaux.
Medal: Gold
Approximate retail price in UK: £20

An interesting take on Sauvignon Blanc from the US, with just a touch of nuttiness due to barrel fermentation for a small proportion of this wine. Dominant flavours are grapefruit and passion fruit complemented by a slight creaminess. This is a more delicate and refreshing style of Sauvignon than one might expect to see from the US, but follows a tradition of oak-influenced Sauvignons from this nation, made famous by Robert Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc, which of course hailed from further south, in Napa, California.

Captûre Tradition Sauvignon Blanc

Region: Sonoma County, California, USA
Vintage: 2016
Winery owner: Jackson Family Wines
Grapes: 100% Sauvignon Blanc
Winemaking: Fermentation in stainless steel followed by ten months ageing on its lees in ‘neutral’ oak.
Medal: Gold
Approximate retail price in UK: £25

Captûre has been conceived to do just one thing, which is to employ the techniques of white Bordeaux winemaking to Sauvignon grown in Sonoma’s Mayacamas Mountains. And the result is certainly impressive, with delicate creamy oak married to delicious peach and pineapple fruit flavours. Ripe and refreshing, this is an opulent style of Sauvignon that persists and uplifts.

Also, if you are looking for something even richer and more tropical, and with a touch more creamy barrel influence, then try Stonestreet Alexander Mountain Estate Aurora Point Sauvignon Blanc. Also produced by Jackson Family Wines, this was a gold-medal winning example from last year’s Sauvignon Blanc Masters.

Greystone Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc

Region: Waipara Valley, New Zealand
Vintage: 2016
Winery owner: Greystone Wines
Grapes: 100% Sauvignon Blanc
Winemaking: Barrel-fermentation and ageing
Medal: Gold
Approximate retail price in UK: £20

This rather rich, honeyed style of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand sees creamy oak add weight to ripe fruit from North Canterbury – a result that would surprise the follower of this country’s more usual gooseberry-scented somewhat taut whites. The Greystone is a layered Sauvignon with plenty of personality, combining some brighter notes with more evolved slightly waxy, even cheesy flavours, that together make for an interesting and complex food-friendly wine.

Lawson’s Dry Hills Blind River Tekau Sauvignon Blanc

Region: Awatere Valley, Marlborough New Zealand
Vintage: 2016
Winery owner: Lawson’s Dry Hills
Grapes: 100% Sauvignon Blanc
Winemaking: ‘Wild ferment’ in French oak barriques
Medal: Master
Approximate retail price in UK: £22

Another barrel-fermented Sauvignon from New Zealand, but this time using fruit from Marlborough, in particular the prized Blind River area in the Awatere Valley. Picking up the ultimate accolade of Master in this year’s competition, the wine has delicious pear, lime and peach fruit flavours along with a touch of honey, hazelenut and clotted cream. It is an indulgent richly-textured but still bright white wine that could be enjoyed on its own, but also with a range of dishes. An exciting find that’s actually quite affordable.

Marisco Vineyards, Craft Series Pride and Glory Sauvignon Blanc

Region: Marlborough New Zealand
Vintage: 2016
Winery owner: Marisco Vineyards
Grapes: 100% Sauvignon Blanc
Winemaking: Fermentation in French oak barriques
Medal: Gold
Approximate retail price in UK: £22

I couldn’t help mentioning another barrel-fermented Sauvignon from New Zealand, and this one hails from the cellars of talented winemaker Brent Marris. More smoky and toasty than honeyed and creamy, this Sauvignon is tighter and fresher than the Kiwi examples above, but combines some lovely marshmallow oak sweetness with bright citrus fruit.

Before leaving the subject of barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, it is necessary to mention a few other great examples. One of these shone in last year’s Sauvignon Masters, and that was The Fuder from Giesen, a brilliant and surprisingly full-bodied white that takes its name from German Fuder barrels. Another is a Foxes Island Lapine Sauvignon Blanc, which also uses barrel-ageing to produce a wonderful textural white. Finally, no mention of oak, Sauvignon and New Zealand would be complete without mentioning Cloudy Bay, whose Te Koko has for some time been the benchmark barrel-fermented Kiwi Sauvignon.

Colterenzio La Foa Sauvignon Blanc

Region: Alto Adige, Italy
Vintage: 2015
Winery owner: Colterenzio
Grapes: 100% Sauvignon Blanc
Winemaking: Fermentation in French oak barriques
Medal: Gold
Approximate retail price in UK: £30

Using grapes from its estate called La Foa, this Sauvignon drinks like a fine, slightly fresher Bordeaux blanc, with lemon and lime fruit overlain with a gently nutty and honeyed character. Bright and seemingly youthful, but also layered, this is an exciting find among the world of more food-friendly Sauvignons.

Château de Tracy, Haute Densité

Region: Pouilly-Fumé, Loire, France
Vintage: 2014
Winery owner: Château de Tracy
Grapes: 100% Sauvignon Blanc
Winemaking: Fermentation in French oak barriques
Medal: Gold
Approximate retail price in UK: £60

This Sauvignon from Château de Tracy’s Haute Densité vineyard takes its name from the very high density planting, with as many as 17,000 vines per hectare, almost three times the average. As a result, each vine produces small concentrated berries, giving a wine rich in elderflower and grapefruit flavours. And, with 15% of the juice fermented and then aged in oak barrels on its lees, there’s a touch of crusty bread and nuts too. Fresh, tight, but also slightly honeyed from its two extra years spent ageing in bottle, this is a remarkable wine with complexity, depth, but the brightness one would expect from Pouilly-Fumé. Possibly a slight outlier is this line-up due to its more linear style, but, because it’s so complex, it has to be listed.

And finally…

While the examples above hail from blind tastings conducted by the drinks business within the past 12 months, I do feel that it’s important to mention a couple of further barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blancs before closing this list. That’s partly because they are both first-rate examples, but also because they represent two countries not yet featured.

The first of these is boutique Chilean producer Calyptra, which produces a magnificent Graves-like Sauvignon called ‘Grand Reserve’. Using Sauvignon grapes grown at 1000m altitude in the high Cachapoal, the wine is fermented in 600-litre French oak barrels as well as aged for 18 months in a mix of new and used oak casks. I first sampled it in a blind tasting of barrel-matured Sauvignons organised by Richard Bampfield MW in London in 2014, and rated it joint first place with Château Talbot’s Caillou Blanc.

The second additional mention goes to Spain. And from here I want to highlight a wine that has performed brilliantly in past Global Masters Sauvignon tastings, but sadly didn’t feature in the 2017 competition. Hailing from the Torres family, it’s called Fransola, and comprises Sauvignon and a splash of native grape Parellada, both of which come from Torres vineyards in Penedès. Aged in part-new American oak, it has a lovely layer of vanilla that pairs beautifully with the passion fruit and fig flavours from the Sauvignon.

However, if you want to try something that tastes like white Bordeaux but with a more native Spanish touch, then I have always loved the ‘Blanco’ from Belondrade y Lurton, which see barrel-fermentation and ageing for the Verdejo grape grown in Rueda – a variety that walks and talks very much like a Sauvignon Blanc, but isn’t.

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