In sauvignon blanc’s ancestral home of France, it comes in many styles. Light, flinty, with high acid or rich with tropical fruit, oak and blended with semillon. Here in the Napa Valley sauvignon blanc has gone through a sort of renaissance in styles. Naturally being a warmer climate than Bordeaux our wines have always been more fruit forward and richer than those of France. But now we are seeing an astounding array of styles that push the boundary of what we thought Napa sauvignon blanc should be.
The Napa Valley was almost given a “house style” of sauvignon blanc with the popularity of Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc in 1968. This style was to mimic white Bordeauxs and age the wines in French oak but took the namesake of the popular Pouilly-Fume from the Loire valley. This style has lasted through the years and was initially used to not only add richness to the wine but to help mask some of the more unfriendly characteristics.
Sauvignon blanc is one of the two parent grapes of cabernet sauvignon (along with cabernet franc). This family of grapes has a unique makeup including a compound called pyrazines. Pyrazines are not a fault of the wine but an intrinsic part of the grapes and the finished wine. When the berries are underripe, pyrazines will show extreme green notes of bell pepper, jalapeno, young grass and even ammonia. But as the berries ripen so do the pyrazines and they show more mature notes of tropical fruit, grapefruit and lemongrass. Neither style is made incorrectly but made to show the climate of where they were grown and the style the winemaker is trying to convey.
During the May 4 St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners tasting panel, we learned that some styles of sauvignon blanc in the valley hold true to the concept set by Robert Mondavi but also as winemakers and wineries gain experience of their vineyards, learn new techniques and even start selecting different clones they are creating beautiful styles that are truly all their own. When asked about this evolution in styles Honig’s Kristin Belair said, “I don’t think trying to have a Napa Valley style is necessarily something we want … I think the Mondavi model is based on how we used to grow sauvignon blanc, big vines, heavily shaded, because of the way we grew them and the popularity of chardonnay, they made the wine to cover the pyrazines with oak.”
We definitely saw some beautiful fresh styles with bright fruit to richer wines with oak used as an integrated part of the wine, not the dominating factor. With 28 wines tasted through four flights, many winemakers as well were surprised with the diversity. Chris Phelps of Ad Vivum said, “There is a wide range of pH ... Most are in balance, there are the ones that are clean and are sauvignon blanc in character, while some have muscat or other characteristics, even viognier. So I think it’s a sensitive varietal for blending.”
The fun really began as winemakers started talking about the characteristics of these wines and what they appreciated. Karen Cakebread said, “I love sauvignon blanc … I like a little bit of barrel on it to round out that natural acidity. To take the edge of these, to find that balance and sauvignon blanc should taste like sauvignon blanc … It should be fresh, for me it’s sassy, it goes with a lot of food, year round.”
Laura Erickson of Schermeister Cellars added, “Less ripe wines show themselves more through the acid structure than the aromatic structure. There are a lot of very beautiful, riper wines showing coconut, stone fruit and ripe lemon.”
The top scoring wines of the day follow, but if there is anything we have learned it is that Napa is making amazing sauvignon blancs in a style for everyone.
Top wines of their flights:
V. Sattui Winery Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($35)
This wine is pale straw in color with a bouquet of hyacinths, apple blossoms, ripe lemon and hints of oak with cinnamon and nutmeg. Underripe pineapple and kaffir lime leaf appear on the palate with a fuller body style.
Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($18)
An almost platinum hue, this nose starts with key lime pie, white flowers and ripe citrus. On the palate a touch of kumquat and grapefruit take the stage in this clean, pure version of sauvignon blanc.
Girard Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($18)
Very light touch of pale straw to the color, the nose is more vibrant with tarragon, green apple, lime pith and spicy green pepper notes. On the palate the wine is still spicy with good acid and more citrus notes and a lingering finish.
Herb Lamb Vineyards, Two Old Dogs Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($30)
This wine leaps from the glass with grapefruit flowers, jasmine, green pepper and rhubarb. Richer on the palate, this wine give the impression of integrated oak and hints of grapefruit and lime leaf.
Whitehall Lane Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($22)
Another pale straw wine but with intense aromatics of grapefruit zest, apple skin and verbena. The palate shows small hints of oak and more fruit ripeness with orange marmalade, lemongrass, and citrus blossoms.
The panelists also selected these wines:
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, AVETA Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($26)
Varozza Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($25)
Honig Vineyards and Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($18)
Editor’s Note: This month, Ashley Broshious is pitch hitting for Catherine Bugue as writer of the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners tasting panel. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. 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.