In addition to learning about the World of Wine during class in the Intensive Sommelier Training (Monday through Wednesday, 6 to 10 PM), students are encouraged to find additional ways of studying during the rest of the week. One of the best ways is to do tasting at local wine bars or form study groups with fellow students. It can be a bit of a challenge to form a group because students live in different cities around the Bay Area and have different work and family-life schedules. But, in the first week of class I was fortunate to find a fellow student who lives in the East Bay within reasonable driving distance from my house who has the time to get together to do tastings. Currently it is only the two of us, but the Study Group may grow as the weeks go along.
One of my fellow future-Sommeliers, Chris, and I got together last week. I suggested for our first Study Group meeting that we do a line-up of Old and New World Sauvignon Blanc and focus on California, New Zealand and France. These are probably the top 3 regions for this grape and their terroir have the most distinctive traits that are fairly easy to recognize.
Tasting Via Positiva and Via Negativa
There are two ways of going about examining a wine and determining what it is and where it was produced. First, figure out what aromas/flavors let you know what grape(s) are in the wine. In other words, figure out what it IS (Latin: Via Positiva). Second, then once you have a general idea of what grape(s) are in the wine, figure out what it IS NOT. In philosophy and theology we call this the Via Negativa or Via Negationis (Latin: ‘way of negation’).
In this case, once we have determined what trait(s) tells us that the grape is Sauvignon Blanc then we have to figure out what characteristics of the wine tell us that this is from California and not from New Zealand or France or why it is from Sancerre in France and not California or New Zealand.
Accurate and Comparable Wine Representations
In order to learn the distinctives of a particular grape or a blend of grapes (such as Bordeaux blend, a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre blend) you must begin with quality representatives of the wines that are comparably priced. If your impression of Cabernet Sauvignon is based on 2 Buck Chuck then you will have the wrong idea of the greatness of that grape. You also need to choose wines that are within the same price range +/- $5. It isn’t accurate to compare a $100 Cabernet from one country with a $10 Cabernet from another. Of course we can’t all afford to drink ultra-premium ($100+) wines all the time. So, we need find a wines that are reasonability priced and yet still accurately reflect the grape and the region that the wine comes from. I think fair representatives of most wine varietals and styles can be bought for around $20.
For our study of Sauvignon Blanc we chose the following from California, New Zealand and Sancerre. All three wines are of the same vintage and are made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc. We both sniffed, sipped and spat them independently and then compared notes.
(1) 2012 Sequoia Grove Sauvignon Blanc - Napa Valley, California ($22)
This wine is clear straw yellow with medium viscosity. On the nose I picked up aromas of fresh grapefruit, jalapeno, bell pepper, grass, under ripe peach, lime, apricots, subtle aromas of white flowers and wet stones. On the palate it is dry with medium to medium+ acidity, medium+ alcohol, medium bodied and has a medium length finish.
(2) 2012 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc – Marlborough, New Zealand ($19)
This wine is clear straw yellow with medium viscosity. On the nose it has intense aromas of grapefruit, very sharp aromas of freshly cut grass, asparagus, bell pepper, gooseberries, and just a small hint of cat pee. On the palate it is dry with crisp medium+ acidity, it is medium bodied with medium alcohol and a medium+ length finish.
(3) 2012 Paul et Jean-Marc Pastou Sancerre La Côte de Sury Vieilles Vignes ($18)
This wine is clear straw yellow with medium viscosity. This wine displays low intensity aromas of pink grapefruit, granny smith apples, white flowers, green tea and subtle notes of chalk which first seemed like salt. On the palate it is dry with medium+ acidity, medium alcohol and body and a medium+ length finish.
What the Wines Have in Common
If you compare the above notes you will find that all three wines have aromas of grapefruit, two of the have some form of green vegetation (jalapeno, grass, bell pepper), they are all dry and medium bodied with fairly high acidity. These are the basic hallmarks of Sauvignon Blanc.
The Wine’s Distinctive Qualities that Indicate Their Origin and Style
While all three wines have aromas and flavors of grapefruit the California has also stone fruits (apricots, peaches) which is an indicator that it came from a warm climate. This is a hallmark of California which is generally warmer than New Zealand and Sancerre. But, France can have warmer vintages that make them seem more like California so you cannot make your judgment on that factor alone. The intensity and razor sharp edge of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc is typical of New Zealand and it really sets itself apart as easily distinguishable from California and France. But, I have had some Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand that had more restraint. So, while I could still recognize them as coming from New Zealand they weren’t as obvious as the Kim Crawford. The most distinguishable note in the Sancerre is the chalky mineral factor. It isn’t as obvious as that found in Chablis and I have found the same trait in some Sauvignon Blancs from Lake County, California. But, without the stone fruit notes Sancere is easier to distinguish from California and New Zealand. Some California Sauvignon Blancs coming from warmer regions may have more tropical notes such as kiwi or mango. In fact, in addition to the wines described above, we tasted a 2011 Salvestrin Sauvignon Blanc from St. Helena in the Napa Valley and it was more tropical and had more stone fruit notes. California Sauvignon Blancs may also be slightly higher in alcohol and consequently have more weight.
Another important factor in identifying Sauvignon Blancs is recognizing the style in which they were made, particularly in the use of oak barrels. If the wine is very crisp and sharp it was probably fermented and aged in stainless steel and did not go through a secondary malolactic fermentation. But, if it has softer edges it may have spent some time in neutral oak which won’t impart any oak flavors but the slight oxidization of the wine through the breathing of the barrel softens the mouth feel. It is not very common, but some Californian Sauvignon Blancs may even go through malolactic fermentation and be aged in oak that isn’t completely neutral which gives the wine more of a Chardonnay-like feel. The only place I have experienced a Sauvignon Blanc made in this style was at a winery in Livermore California.
The final major contributing factor in identifying a Sauvignon Blanc is whether or not it has been blended. Most of them are 100% Sauvignon Blanc but it is common to also add a small amount of Sémillon (common in Western Australia) or Sauvignon Gris which rounds out the edges of the wine without diminishing the acidity. Chimney Rock Winery’s Elevage Blanc is a great example of this style.
Based on previous experience and this study group, this is my simplified formula for identifying the three most common Sauvignon Blancs:
Grapefruit + stone fruit and/or tropical fruit = California
Grapefruit + grass/vegetative + chalk = Sancerre
Intense Grapefruit + intense razor sharp grass/vegetative notes = New Zealand
While these wines may have many other aromas and distinctives, I find that these are the key factors which enable me to identify the origin of the Sauvignon Blancs when tasting blind.