Other white varietals may have stints of fame in Napa Valley, strutting their stuff on the stage for a few years, or having a small but dedicated group of devotees over a longer haul, but sauvignon blanc is Napa Valley’s white wine. While chardonnay is the most-planted, sauvignon blanc is everyone’s grape, the most-sold wine variety across the United States.
Sauvignon blanc is the second-most planted white in the Napa Valley, and no other white grape comes close. It can be found in numerous sub-appellations around the region, not pushed south or in the mountains where much of the chardonnay seems to be today.
It is also fitting that sauvignon blanc is a parent of our beloved cabernet sauvignon grape — just two vines, cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, passing in the night.
The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners tasting panel has been taking note of sauvignon blanc vintages over the past five years, and while the style had been evolving, away from over-oaked versions that seemed to want to be chardonnay, the winemaking style of the 2012 wines took a new turn that surprised panelists.
At the latest tasting at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, the group found a large number of pretty demure tasting wines. California’s generous ripe fruit flavors were noted in only a handful of the samples, and 2012 was a warm year.
Gone also to a large extent were oak flavors in the wines. Acidity, however, was alive and well. Renée Kuo from specialty retailer Soutirage in St. Helena noted that with numerous wines, she felt like she was sucking on a lemon and questioned whether many of the 2012 grapes were picked early.
The sauvignon blancs that stood out for panelists among the four flights of six wines of the tasting rose above the subtle flavors, offering richer fruit flavors or a touch of oak influence to round out the wines. Jeffrey Stambor, winemaker at BV Winery, picked his favorites of the vintage not by looking for a certain style, but by looking for diverse flavors in each glass.
Despite the subtlety of the vintage, Jeffrey and other panelists found a diversity of styles and discussed the major sauvignon blanc regions around the world, including France’s Bordeaux and Loire, and New Zealand’s popular pungent-grassy-ripe fruit style.
Focusing on New Zealand’s style, Kristin Belair, winemaker of the prominent sauvignon blanc producer Honig, added that you can take sauvignon blanc to a more New Zealand style in Napa Valley — and she looks for pyrazines, an aromatic compound that causes green grass flavor in that style — but said that to get sauvignon blanc right, you need to blend to get all different flavors.
Michael Scholz, winemaker at St. Supery, appreciates the New Zealand style, having grown up there, but he believes those wines cannot be duplicated here given our riper, warmer location. He noticed some pungency in a few of the wines, but he also tasted a number of richer wines, which he found interesting.
The standout wines of the 2012 sauvignon blancs ranged in style, from more fruit styles to more citrus zing, and were:
Duckhorn Vineyards 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($29). While the lemon citrus flavors are up front, the winery uses a small percentage of Semillon to add some richness to the palate, along with oak fermentation that also adds to the smooth feel on the palate. Fifteen percent of new oak is used, and that wine was aged on its lees. The final wine drinks fresh and crisp with any oak flavors just adding to the complexity of the wine, not overpowering it.
Round Pond Estate 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, Rutherford ($24). This is a sauvignon blanc one would expect from Napa Valley. Not only does it give homage to Napa’s sunshine with its pronounced aromas of ripe peach and kiwi along with tangerine citrus, but it is beautifully crafted with refreshing acidity. There were not many 2012 sauvignon blancs in the panel’s tasting as giving as this one. If you haven’t been to the winery lately, have a glass up on their rooftop lounge and enjoy Napa Valley views along with great wines. Visiting their website is also good fun. Check out their FEED section which has intriguing recipes like diver scallop ceviche and Thai sweet potato fries.
Charles Krug Peter Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc, St. Helena ($18). This historic winery seems to be getting its mojo back. The wines are garnering recognition, there are renovations taking place on the property, and the winery seems to come up in more industry conversations these days. This is all fitting for a winery of its stature. Krug is a very important part of our heritage in Napa Valley; everyone should visit the winery and soak in the story of its pioneering history. The panel chose this wine for its crisp sip of lemon and tangerine citrus, fresh-cut grass and herbal notes.
Black Stallion Winery 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($26). The winery’s location, once an equestrian center turning out well-bred horses, now has a reputation for turning out top wines. The indoor riding track has made way for wine production equipment, but visit the winery and you can see remnants of the original 36 horse stalls. The panel appreciated the winery’s sauvignon blanc, which has mouthwatering orange citrus, but also a captivating, undefined sweetness.
While these were the favorites of the panel, as Kristin Belair noted at the end of the tasting regarding the full lineup of wines, “Give me a hot, nice day, and give me any of these sauvignon blancs.”
(Catherine Seda Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, changed her last name recently, marrying her winemaking beau, but that has not changed her love for writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at her new email address: email@example.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Not all wines submitted are chosen to be tasted as often there are more wines submitted than tasted. The wines are chosen randomly. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/ programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.)