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Monday Manifestos
Waiting for Sauvignon Blanc

By Stephen Eliot

Sauvignon Blanc, I think, gets nowhere near the respect that it should. It almost never knocks down big scores in the wine press and is too often dismissed condescendingly as a wine of inherently limited reach. It has received its fair share of derisive critical snorts, and it has been largely ignored lately as one after another writer seeks to claim a few minutes of fame for the discovery of the next new “great” white varietal be it Grillo, Ribolla Gialla, Verdelho, Grenache Blanc, et al.

Well, I may be out of step with fashion, but I happen to like Sauvignon Blanc. Good Sauvignon Blanc, of course, and I would not argue with those who would remind that there is lots of lesser stuff to be had. Well-made Sauvignon Blanc is a versatile, food-friendly wine that is a staple for us. Its step is lighter and its gait livelier than that of Chardonnay, and it is an eminently versatile, food-friendly wine. The best examples, however, be they top-flight Sancerres and Pouilly Fumes, the brilliant bottlings of the Graves or local versions from the likes of Robert Mondavi, Grgich Hills or Merry Edwards can offer much more.

There is another aspect to fine Sauvignon that rarely gets mentioned, and that is its ability to age. On more than one occasion, we have been pleasantly surprised at not only by the remarkable staying power of well-cellared Sauvignon Blanc, but by the complexity and depth of character that it can reveal with time. Just last night, we opened a bottle of the 2006 Chalk Hill Winery as a foil to a quickly sautéed Sockeye Salmon fillet, and found ourselves exchanging sudden glances of surprise and delight at just how good the wine had become. Now, six years may not seem all that old, but when Sauvignon Blanc is discussed, it is almost never talked about as having more than a couple of years of potential, and, in the case, the wine was layered, vibrant and vital and was nowhere near to reaching the end of its life.

We have routinely found that examples from the afore-mentioned Grgich Hills can develop famously for a decade or more, and, in fact, some such as the winery’s latest Essence are wines that simply demand age. We still recall that when, as a bit of a lark, we pulled the cork on the 1976 Joseph Phelps at our millennial New Year’s dinner, it proved at 24-years-old to be the wholly unexpected star of the evening’s appropriately prestigious line-up of white wines.

Because of tasting thousands of new-release wines annually, I confess to having developed a fondness for young and gregariously fruity wines, but every so often, when opportunity admits, it is nice to be reminded of the virtues that only patient aging can bring to very good wine. In yesterday’s post, we led with the observation that “there is a reason why people should cellar ageworthy wines, and it’s so simple. They get better with time in the bottle.” Anyone who has enjoyed a fine older wine knows that to be true, and I would remind that it is not only the sturdy reds such as Cabernet and Syrah that have the potential to grow.

I would not make the claim that the majority of the world’s Sauvignon Blancs are worthy candidates for the cellar, quite the contrary, but experience teaches that the structured and serious ones are. Sometimes real pleasure awaits in the most unlikely places.

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I Have But One Word
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:2/17/2012 8:24:28 PM


That is all.

Phelps Sauvignon Blanc
by Axel Schug
Posted on:3/1/2012 4:54:10 PM

Stephen, read your comment on the 76 Phelps SB, which my father Walter Schug made as their winemaster from 1973-1983.  We still have a cellar full of those older vintages, and even at 35 years they still drink!  Acidity certainly helps the process. We'll send in our '11 effort soon for you to try, made in the same style as those early bottlings (partial sur-lie in neutral oak ovals).

Phelps Sauvignon Blanc
by Stephen M Eliot
Posted on:3/2/2012 1:05:13 AM

Axel, Charlie and I still talk about the marvelous 1976, and it changed the way in which we think about the aging potential for good California Sauvigon Blanc. Walter's early Sauvignons are indeed remarkable wines...and you still have a cellar full??? Well, I think you have a genuine prize! Thank you for checking in.

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