Slicing and Dicing Sauvignon Blanc Wines

Lake County, Calif., hosts an information-rich symposium on a hot-selling varietal

by Jim  Gordon

Panel of speakers at Sauvignon Blanc Experience.  Photo by Jim GordonPanelists in a viticulture session were, from left, Daniel Bosch of Constellation Brands, Phil Freese of WineGrow and David Weiss of Bella Vista Farming.

Kelseyville, Calif.—Sauvignon Blanc rates high on the list of high-maintenance grape varieties. In the vineyard it’s very vigorous, very susceptible to bunch rot and powdery mildew. In the winery it splits into multiple personalities with aromas as startling as cat-pee and struck flint — not necessarily comfortable associations for the average consumer.

But Sauvignon Blanc does have its advantages. It can grow nicely in heavy, deep, clay soils and tolerate high magnesium levels in the soil like few other popular varieties. Growers in California and New Zealand can hang 8 tons or even 10 per acre and not get complaints from winemakers. Regarding the wine styles, it turns out there are consumer bases for each of its multiple personalities.

Those are a few of the take-aways from an intense one-day, internationally accented symposium May 4 and a vineyard tour and public tasting on May 5 in Kelseyville, Lake County, Calif., where Sauvignon Blanc is a major force in the wine economy. Fourteen percent of all California Sauvignon Blanc grows here. The Sauvignon Blanc Experience was the third such major event in 16 years in Lake County.

About 120 winemakers, grape growers and trade members in the symposium audience took home numerous insights from a series of five presentations accompanied by tastings that sliced and diced the variety and varietal’s diversity by clone, crop load, AVA, yeast and Brix levels. Grapes for the trial wines were grown largely in Mendocino and Lake counties and were vinified at the University of California, Davis.

Fast-growing varietal

Traditionally grown in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux regions of France, Sauvignon is now a fast-growing varietal category in the U.S. market, spurred by the popularity of New Zealand versions. Off-premise sales tallied by market research firm IRI show Sauvignon Blanc as the third most popular white wine with sales approaching $600 million annually in major food, liquor and convenience stores.

Speaker John Buechsenstein is a veteran winemaker, an extension lecturer for the University of California and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America. “We had to make Sauvignon Blanc taste like Chardonnay in the 1980s,” due to consumer tastes and the popularity of the moniker Fumé Blanc that Robert Mondavi coined for oak-aged, buttery, full-bodied Sauvignon Blanc. “It was a real mongrel: Loire in the title and Graves in the bottle.

“We have to thank the New Zealand producers for showing the world that Sauvignon Blanc has character —that it is a character in fact,” Buechsenstein said. He co-authored the recent book, Wine and Place, A Terroir Reader, with the late Tim Patterson, who also was a columnist for Wines & Vines. “Each Sauvignon Blanc should express its terroir,” he said. “Not too much trouble with that. It asserts itself and makes unique terroir-driven wines everywhere.”

Almost everywhere, according to Gregory Jones, director of wine education at Oregon’s Linfield College and a widely quoted authority on climate and wine. He said Sauvignon Blanc succeeds in a wide range of climates in Europe, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere. He calculated the average growing season temperatures vary from 58°F to 66°F, and growing degree days vary from 1,811 to 3,390, or from a Region 1 to a Region 4 designation on the Winkler scale and with an average of 2,640 degree days.

Jones said the differences in Sauvignon Blanc internationally are driven largely by diurnal temperature swings, which can vary from 18°F to 43°F between Europe and New Zealand on the low end and coastal and high-elevation areas of California on the high end.

From obsidian to clay

Jean-Jacques Lambert, a soil science specialist at UC Davis, described the widely varying soil types of Lake County, from the obsidian-laced, volcanic terrain of the Red Hills AVA to the loams, sticky clays and gravel of the Big Valley, the flat plain next to Clear Lake on its southeastern shore. He said vineyards in some parts of the county have serpentine in the soil, which is high in magnesium, manganese and nickel, requiring additions of gypsum, calcium and potassium to improve the soil chemistry for grapevines.

Lambert cited a study in Bordeaux in 2005 that concluded that deeper soils are best for Sauvignon Blanc while red varieties performed better in shallow and gravelly soils.

Appropriate viticulture practices for Sauvignon Blanc were discussed by panel of viticulture professionals. David Weiss, the owner of Bella Vista Farming in Lake County, said local vineyards yielded 11,000 tons of Sauvignon blanc in 2017, constituting 34% of all varieties by tonnage and 84% of the white varieties. Chardonnay is relatively scarce in Lake County.

Yields and quality

Addressing the high yields of Sauvignon Blanc, Weiss said, “I don’t remember when a winemaker came into one of our vineyards and asked us to drop fruit.”

Daniel Bosch, a viticulturist for Constellation Brands, added, “It’s not just about the tonnage, but what the consumer wants and the price point. It depends on what the grapes are competing with,” he said, explaining that quality means different things to different people.

Panelist Phil Freese, a veteran California viticulturist, grows Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa, and spoke about the downside of forcing low yields on vines through practices like cluster thinning. “When the winemaker wants to drive the tonnage down to some goal that’s below the vine’s capacity, then after a few years the vines suffer," he said. "It’s important to get the vineyard in tune with what the capacity is. To me, yield is managing all those other components and not just the yield itself.”

The symposium and tasting that followed at Chacewater Winery and Olive Mill were rich in information. The host organization, the Lake County Winegrape Commission, plans to share at least some of the speaker presentations via the event website, Wines & Vines plans to report later on more of the research cited and tastings presented.

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