New Zealand


Central Otago Pinot Noir Vintage Tasting

Producers in Central Otago pulled older vintages of their Pinot noir as representatives of previous vintages going back to 2001. The tasting served as both an opportunity to discuss the peculiar conditions of each vintage and the history of the region’s winemaking. While the tasting did give insight into the aging potential of the region it also revealed how much winemaking styles have changed for the producers poured. There was clear difference from the older vintage wines to the more recent vintages we’d tasted in other part of the two days in Central Otago. There was only one wine from each year presented so the tasting experience was limited to a single wine set alongside the insights of the winemakers on how that year went. Even so, the discussion was very insightful and it was fascinating to taste through the wines. It provided an interesting introduction to the quite varied growing conditions year to year in Central Otago.

The Wines 

Quartz Reef 2001 Pinot noir

Opening with tertiary aromatics of oiled leather and hints of tobacco the Quartz Reef 2001 transforms on the palate to a youthful, still jaw-tightening Pinot bright with acidity. Even so the flavors are more of fruit leather with accents of oiled leather than fresh, though they have not fallen off the plateau of drinkability. That said, it seems best to drink this wine now if not two or three years ago. The quartz crunch sapidity native to the region shows through the length of this wine, while supple tannin is met by balancing acidity.

Mt Difficulty 2002 Pipe Clay Terrace Pinot noir

Snug, dense aromatics of cherry bark and cherry blossom are followed by a dense fruit-built palate spun through with spice and quartz mineral crunch. With air the flavors open into powdered baking spices of nutmeg, ginger and clove. The wine is lightly angular while still showing fine tannin balanced by acidity. Lightly tactile mouthfeel. Drink now.

Felton Road 2003 Block 3 Pinot noir

With aromatics of cherry and earth lifted by a fresh fir tree note the palate turns to dried red fruits – plum, cherry and raspberry – full with spice and a finish of herbs and leather. Tertiary flavors mix here with bright acidity and that Central Otago crunch that stimulates the palate carrying the wine into a long finish. The palate opens fresh then shifts to fruit leather on the midpalate and finishes with a spiced, herbal and leather close. Drink now or in the next couple years.

Amisfield 2006 Pinot noir

Spiced alpine berries move nose to palate and mix in the mouth with notes of fresh picked tobacco dressed on a structure of succulent, firm tannin with balancing acidity and a wash of sapidity. With a quick, clean finish the flavors close followed by a persistent feeling of palate stimulation. Energetic and stimulating.

Prophet’s Rock 2007 Pinot noir

Subdued aromatics lead to a compact and concentrated palate with mineral depth and length. With air the wine opens to a mix of dried red berries with dried blackberry and currant. A dense midpalate and compact presentation offer still fresh acidity and firm, ample while non-aggressive tannin.

Mount Edward 2008 Pinot noir

Spiced dried fruits on the nose reveal fresh acidity through the palate with flavors of dried fruits and fresh picked herbs all spiced and zesty. Again that mineral, quartz crunch palate stimulation shows here bringing an energetic element all the way through the finish where a lift of cedar and cherry powder suddenly appear. This wine gains freshness with air after opening with notes of fresh melon and spice appearing in the midpalate and nose.

Talking through the Vintages and the Region’s Wine History

from left: Paul Pujol, Rudi Bauer, Matt Dicey, Duncan Forsyth at Prophet’s Rock in Bendigo

Prophet’s Rock hosted our tasting and for the discussion Duncan Forsyth of Mount Edward, Rudi Bauer of Quartz Reef, Matt Dicey of Mt Difficulty and Paul Pujol of Prophet’s Rock were present. In discussing the vintage conditions through the wines, the quartet also discussed their understanding of the history of wine in Central Otago.

While the region’s first vines and first commercial release wine in 1987 came from the Gibbston subregion, it was vineyards being established in the Cromwell Basin that really established the future success of Central Otago. Reasonable yields were more easily achieved in Cromwell, allowing vintners a better shot at the economic viability necessary to chase true quality.

Gibbston sits in one of the most marginal sections of Central Otago with fruit from the vines in the subzone sometimes decimated before it can be brought in by cold, sometimes unable to get truly ripe. But, like any truly marginal growing region, the vintages it works produce some of the most exciting wines of Central Otago.

As the winemaker quartet described, wines coming out of Cromwell Basin for the first time helped show that Central Otago could make riper style wines in comparison to the austerity first shown from Gibbston. The revelation led to a planting boom in Central Otago and a shift in the epicenter of viticulture to the younger region. Cromwell Basin still holds the highest concentration of vineyards today.

Before 2002, winemakers in the larger region were used to finding austerity in their fruit and struggling to get extraction in the cellar or fruit weight from the vines. Then in 2002 the area was hit with a hot vintage, which on the young vines of the region led to exuberant fruit expression and a ripe, fruit forward, approachable vintage style. As the quartet explained, the 2002 vintage changed the perspective of Central Otago wines and brought more attention to the area at a time when people wanted big wines. At the same time, winemakers in the region were relatively young and excited for the possibility of such expressive fruit after expecting they would always struggle to go beyond austerity of expression. As the winemakers claim, in their youth, most of them happily went with the ripe fruit presence of the vintage and tended towards that style for a few years after as well. At the same time, as they explain, the success of the 2002 vintage also eventually created a new issue of having to show people that the region could do more than just deliver fruit forward wines.

The winemakers describe 2003 as a more even keel vintage in terms of weather, with steady temperatures, leading to more elegant wines.

Both the 2004 and 2005 vintages were cold, showing a return to the growing conditions more typical to those prior to 2002, and giving winemakers a revisit of what they were previously used to working with in terms of fruit expression.

In 2006, warmer conditions led to higher levels of extraction but on fruit that was also more structural. As a result, many people made bigger wines with more rusticity. As the winemakers explain, the combination also led to an interest in cleaner wines overall with a desire to find more finesse in the cellar.

By 2007, the region had been well enough established, and there were enough vineyards surpassing juvenile vines that winemakers began to find the familiarity with the region needed to begin shifting into personal expression of style. At the same time, 2007 was an almost devastating vintage. Paul Pujol, whose wine represented the year described it as the most traumatic vintage of his winemaking career. Snow fell every month of the growing season bringing cold temperatures especially through the early season. Even more, there was ample precipitation during flowering, leading to painfully low yields as well as serious concentration in the wines from the utterly small clusters and tiny berry size. Even so, many of the berries came in without seeds, making it possible to make ultra concentrated wines, not from extraction but from the innate fruit character, without overly assertive tannin.

The 2008 harvest was marked by rain creating huge berries and bunches with less overall concentration in the wines as a result.

The Winemaker Quartet: from left: Paul Pujol, Rudi Bauer, Matt Dicey, Duncan Forsyth

As the conversation continued, Jamie Goode pointed out that with the older vines present in the region today we have begun to see more definition and distinction from the vines, thereby also making the winemaker’s individual intent more apparent through the wines. Duncan Forsyth agrees, stating that he sees a wider fan of variation in styles from winemakers throughout the region. This is also the mark of a region that has begun to find its maturity. While young regions can often show great variation in quality, the exuberance of young vines tends to dictate style (allowing for site discrepancy of course). Central Otago, on the other hand, has an exciting base level of quality that allows for both the particularities of site and the winemaker’s stylistic interest to be more apparent in the wines overall.

Conversations with Central Otago winemakers over the two days we were there also revealed a base level of curiosity that is rather high for any region. There is a lot of experience working abroad showing from many of the winemakers as well as a clear interest in tasting global examples of wine and considering where the wines of their region stand alongside others of the world stage. This speaks well to the likely continued quality growth of the region. It is also admirable considering how geographically challenged Central Otago proves to be. In literal distance it is one of the most, if not the most, remote regions in the world from any other major region, facing, then, simple logistical and so also economic challenges in getting their wines distributed globally. The passion expressed by the Central Otago winemakers, and the persistence they show in such marginal growing conditions makes it well worth facing such difficulties to make sure the rest of us can get their wines in our glasses.

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Tasting through Central Otago

Central Otago master class on Pinot noir of the region, hosted by Lucy Lawrence of Aurum and Grant Taylor of Valli

Aurum winery hosted a Central Otago Pinot noir master class for us with panelists Lucy Lawrence of Aurum and Grant Taylor of Valli. In attendance too were winemakers from each of the other wineries represented. The class focused on structure in pinot noir with a look at climate variation between the subregions as well as vinification techniques in the cellar.

Soils within Central Otago are largely schist based, an unusual characteristic for any subregion in the world. Few are dominated by schist to the extent this area is. Within the schist soils there is still significant variation with some sites showcasing gravel while others feature such rock more pulverized into sand. In some areas(generally at lower elevations) clay has mixed with the two to bring a more robust, muscular quality alongside the intense sapidity of the schist soils. What I found common among the Pinot noirs we tasted was a persistent quartz crunch palate stimulation to the wines. In some it was so intense the palate was ignited by these enlivening sparks while others it felt like more of a light sprinkling pop-pop-pop through the wines. It’s a sort of stimulation I greatly enjoy and in the best wines it brought another level of depth and energy to their overall presentation.

Central Otago proves to be a complex region defined by a central curving valley that follows a series of mountain lakes carved on either side by mountain ranges. So while the center of the region runs north-south along the line of lakes, the area continues over the mountains east-west as well. The variation, then, of climate subtleties between the subregions is significant even if subtle. What ties them all together is the overall marginal nature of the climate and the mountains of schist. Snow fall can be seen in the region’s mountains throughout summer and we even witnessed it accumulating in a snow storm at higher elevations, rain at lower during our two days there. As a result the diurnal shift has a healthy impact on the vines though day time temperatures remain moderate.

The master class was delineated by paired wines discussed side by side to offer greater insight into the climactic conditions of their subregions, as well as considerations of winery technique. All wines selected were from the 2013 vintage.

Flight 1

Both wines were aged in around 1/3 new oak, and fermented on about 30% whole cluster.

Quartz Reef 2013 Bendigo Single Vineyard Pinot noir Bendigo

With bright fruit friendly aromatics and an underlying savory note on the nose, the Quartz Reef moves through the palate with red fruits and a savory crunch. There is a massive push of sapidity here intensified by angular tannin and balancing acidity.

Valli 2013 Gibbston Vineyard Pinot noir Gibbston

While the Valli opens with earthier, spiced and more savory aromatics it flips on the palate to spiced red fruits in a deeper register than seen on the Quartz Reef, still carrying a focus first on acidity and then finer tannin.

The Quartz Reef had the acidity to balance its tannin but the tannin clearly won in the combination and came in a bit angular and tactile, though not aggressively so. It turns out Bendigo tends to bring more tannin to its wines as the area receives very little rainfall, so in its desert climate clusters tend towards thicker skins and smaller clusters. Gibbston, on the other hand, has a cooler climate and seems to be the edgiest subregion with the lowest overall yields of Central Otago. Wines from Gibbston tend to wash the mouth with acidity while the tannin slips in easily beneath.

As the winemakers present described, Gibbston tends towards more floral spice and apparent acidity while Bendigo offers more cherry fruit and can tend towards greater ripeness and higher potential alcohol in comparison.

Flight 2

Felton Road 2013 Block 3 Bannockburn

The vines here are 97% own rooted, planted in 1992. All biodynamic and organic since 2002.

Savory, dark red fruit aromatics come in a bit muted on the palate initially then become more cherry fruited with air. There is a vibrant sapidity throughout with a compact range of flavors highlighting dark herbs and spice character and loads of palate stimulation. Floral notes lift through the back of the palate as the wine opens with air. Finer tannin here with balancing acidity.

Maude 2013 Mt Maude Vineyard Wanaka

Vines here were planted in 1994.

With midtone cherry blossom on both the nose and palate the Maude Pinot offers a bit lighter, more feminine expression with plenty of palate stimulation and just a bit of angular tension through the finish. Small pixelated flavors carry through persistent acidity and tannin both.

The older vines of Central Otago have shifted the overall expression of the wines. As the vines have settled in with age the wines have also become less fruit centered and deeper toned. Central Otago’s initial reputation in Pinot rested in powerful, fruit forward wines with plenty of midpalate. Those wines originate primarily with the verve of a younger region. Winemakers over the couple days we were present described their own exuberance as well as the ripening power of younger vines as being behind that style. Such wines can still be found through Central Otago but as the region has gained maturity the styles have fanned into a greater range of expression. At the same time older vines that handle climactic variation through vintages have given winemakers an easier time for making lighter bodied wines.

As Blair Walter of Felton Road explained, older vines get more stable both in harvest size and also in their ability to self-regulate through weather changes. Young vines on the other hand tend to race to ripening, with sugars often outpacing the chemistry of the rest of the wine. In many cases, to better balance the tannin and acidities of the younger vines winemakers need to let the fruit hang longer, thus creating wines with comparatively higher alcohols. As vines age they also tend to offer a more harmonious relationship between flavor and structure, alcohol and finesse.

The oldest vines in Central Otago are around 25 years of age. The first commercial release from the region was in 1987. Since the earliest vineyards were planted many have gone through replants thanks to frost or freeze but also from the process of dialing in best varieties for the area.

As described by the winemakers at the tasting, Bannockburn as a subregion tends towards simple fruits in young vines but develops more depth of flavor and earthiness with age. Bannockburn also has the highest vineyard concentration currently of the subregions of Central Otago. Wanaka has a long, dry growing season. It is cooler than many of the other subregions and receives more rain as well thanks to the nearby Lake Wanaka, but vineyards closer to the lake also benefit from its moderating influence avoiding genuine frost concerns.

Flight 3

Domaine Thomson 2013 Surveyor Thomson Lowburn

Showing a bigger aromatic footprint than the previous wines and a rounder palate presence as well. The Domaine Thomson carries notes of dark red fruit lightly spiced throughout with a more open, wider reaching weave and a bit less concentration than the previous wines.

Ceres 2013 Composition Bannockburn

Notes of cherry and plum spiced with black tea move through the palate to a clean close with a dry finish. The tannin here is smooth through the mouth while certainly apparent and give a snug, complete finish to the wine. The acidity continues to persist long after the flavors while still lingering with savory spice and the mineral sapidity of the region.

As described by the tasting’s winemakers, Lowburn tends to create quite distinct wines in its youth that become more synchronous with the region overall as they age. Claudio Heye of Domaine Thomson explains that Lowburn Pinot noir tends to be richer with more fruit forward flavors. In his view the higher proportion of gravel in the area includes reflected light to increase ripening without higher ambient temperatures. Even so, as the region gains older vines with deeper roots they tend to be more expressive of soil type and drainage while younger vines tend to show off clone and climate. So, with the preponderance of schist through the region, as the vine ages it tends to be more expressive of schist and the architectural differences of gravel to sand to clay through the subregion than of the microclimate distinctions between subregions. Because of the relative youth of the area’s vineyards winemakers feel they are still very much getting to know the peculiarities of Central Otago’s subzones.

Winemaker Matt Dicey of Ceres and Mt Difficulty has found that younger vines in Central Otago tend to not give more structure from more cellar extraction, so instead winemaker efforts to pull more from the fruit contributed to the bigger wine reputation of the region. As the vines have aged, though, he finds that the clusters are also giving more structure innately to the wines. In this way, he says, it is easier to focus on the texture and elegance of the wine rather than on trying to build its form on the palate.

As Dicey explains, his biggest lesson in the last 15 to 18 years has been letting go of the science to embrace the art of winemaking, thinking more holistically to allow the flow in the process of winemaking to happen. Integral to that process has not been ignoring the science as much as simply knowing the individual steps within the process more intimately. As the basics become more familiar there is less of a need to focus on them.

Flight 4

Prophet’s Rock 2013 Home Vineyard Bendigo

100% destemmed and grown on a glacial terrace of chalk and lime.

Really pretty with notes of wild cherry and cherry bark and light forest accents this wine offers richer complex scents that carry from the nose then lifted through the palate. The palate offers pleasing density while still feeling delicate with deep red violet fruits sprinkled through with spice and a savory element through a long finish. Supple, lightly tactile tannin comes in with balancing acidity for a nice sense of delicacy and persistent.

Aurum 2013 Madeline Lowburn

100% whole cluster.

With lifted aromatics of cultivated rose blossom, bush and bramble and a body of savory depth, this wine opens with an expressive nose and follows with a taut, firm palate. It needs time in bottle to show all it has to offer but there is a lot of depth and substance here with an underlying sense of pure fruit and a nice purity to the wine overall with pleasing palate tension. It is simultaneously feminine and strong in its expression with ample tannin that is still succulent and not aggressive. Notes of rose bloom carry throughout.

In this flight the conversation focused around cellar choices as they relate to growing conditions primarily in relation to the choice to do whole bunch fermentation or not. Winemaker Lucy Lawrence of Aurum explained that she made the Madeline whole cluster Pinot originally as a cellar experiment and was fascinated to find the approach did not simply change something like tannin structure but instead the entire form of fermentation. As she described, the kinetics, temperature changes and arc of fermentation were all entirely different when done with full clusters included. Then in the end she also liked the overall presentation of the wine. While most of the Aurum wines are not done 100% whole cluster the Madeline is.

Paul Pujol of Prophet’s Rock points out that the choice of whole cluster depends too on the climate and drainage of the site as differing growing conditions impact the lignification of the stems. The elevation and intensity of the soils – underlying chalk and lime – at the Prophet’s Rock site in Bendigo, Pujol expains, mean the wines can easily revolve around structural intensity or extraction and his experience there over time has been much more about taking away techniques to find harmony. In other words, while the more valley floor growing conditions of the Aurum vineyard support a lovely expression of whole cluster fermentation in Pinot it is not clear the mountain conditions of the Prophet’s Rock do as well.

To read and see (he got more photos than I did) more about the Master Class tasting in Central Otago, check out the venerable Jamie Goode‘s write up here:

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I’ve flown to New Zealand to attend and speak at the New Zealand Winegrowers annual Pinot Noir NZ event. People fly in from all over the world to attend and this year is no exception. There are speakers and attendees arriving from all over Europe, the United States and Canada, Australia and of course New Zealand. Many of us too have flown in in advance to tour the wine regions of the country getting to know the geography and unique growing conditions, and how they express through the various wines. The first couple days have several of us in Central Otago studying primarily Pinot noir from the area’s subregions. I’ll be posting about a Central Otago Master Class on structure in Pinot as well as a vintage study for the region in the next couple days.

We’ve also gotten to taste a peppering of white wines with meals and there are some lovely Chardonnays and Rieslings from Central Otago. While I didn’t manage to get a photo of either bottle, I quite enjoyed the Chardonnays from Felton Road and Maude. Felton Road has of course made a substantial name for itself world wide. They have some of the oldest vines in Central Otago as well as a long standing serious commitment to quality in both the vineyard and cellar. Maude, I’ll admit, is new to me. This is the first trip I’ve encountered the wines. Their Chardonnay offers just enough of a reductive edge to bring tension and a nervy cut to the shape of the wine. The flavors are all fresh and full of sapidity.

The Riesling of Central Otago has turned out to be a stand out for me and I’m hoping for more. In a few days we’ll do an Aromatics seminar in Nelson that will include a wash of Riesling, I’m guessing. I’m especially looking forward to it.

Our first night in Central Otago a bottle of Rippon Riesling was snuck into the middle of dinner. It was a refreshing surprise and one of my stand out wines for the first day of tasting. The 2011 offers an elegant gravitas – a wine with nice purity and precision that avoids austerity while still being restrained. The age offers just enough flesh on the palate to carry its wash of acidity with pleasure.

Rippon is one of the celebrated producers of Central Otago for both the quality of their wines and the beauty of their site.

Rippon is a family owned and run project. We were able to meet them on the last night in Central Otago while sharing dinner with the family at their winery. Winemaker Nick Mills, shown here, works with his mother, and siblings to produce the wines and run the business. I’m sorry not to have a portrait of his mother, who is an inspiring presence. She made dinner for several ten of us and was a pleasure to hear speak as well.

The other Riesling stand out from Central Otago was Prophet’s Rock, made by winemaker Paul Pujol, shown here. He’s also utterly charming – one of those thoughtful, jovial, and kind people I can’t help but want to spend time with. Originally from New Zealand Paul’s career had him making wine for a few years each in both Alsace and Willamette Valley before returning to Central Otago to make wine.

His 2010 Dry Riesling carries the glittering acidity of Central Otago housed in fresh stone fruits but most of all it opens the palate with purity and that sort of clarity that comes from glacial mountain water – if you’ve ever lived or traveled in a cold mountain region you know that pleasurable shock that comes from a cold glacial stream. It’s some of the purest flavor too on the planet – but then through the midpalate the wine opens to a kiss of apricot peach sweetness that closes the palate. It’s a lovely wine.

The 2014 Prophet’s Rock Dry Riesling comes in lighter and more finessed right now than the 2010, following a tighter arc across the mouth than the 2010. Some of that comes from age, I suspect, but there also seems to be a difference in vintage expression – less fruit focus on the younger vintage that I don’t think will turn into the level of apricot peach flavors of the 2010 though the younger wine offers fresh stone fruits too. Again, its gift is that purity.

The apricots of Central Otago are almost shocking in their vibrancy. They’re utterly high, bright acid like putting a light bulb in your mouth but then the fruit notes that come just after the shock are lovely. My first bite of one jolted me but then I couldn’t get enough. I’m a fan of that feeling of food or wine lighting up the back of my head. The apricots of the region share that sense of mountain glacial purity that I find in the Rieslings mentioned here, and while the wines aren’t shocking in the way the fruit is there is a spectrum of commonality between them – light touch flavors of stone fruit, glacial mountain purity, and an ultra long finish of pleasing acidity.

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IPNC Day 1: Vineyard Tour: Yamhill Valley Vineyards

The International Pinot Noir Celebration includes a day of vineyard tours in which attendees are split into small groups that then take a personal vineyard and winery tour, including tastings from four Pinot Noir producers, and a seminar on wine. The focus of the seminar is on helping participants understand the full steps of the process from vine to glass, including the decisions made by the wine maker.

Today, my sister (who is attending IPNC with me–pictures to follow) and I were on a vineyard tour of Yamhill Valley Vineyards, which included a wine maker panel with Yamhill as well as Cristom, Tyee, and Felton Road. Following are wine review comics of the Pinot panel wines presented.

Felton Road 2008 Block 5 Pinot Noir

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“The truth is, we didn’t really have any genius when decisions had to be made. The problem is, the idea of making decisions focuses on the concept of better or worse, and the idea that the wine is on a trajectory of better or worse. But wine is actually multifaceted, and dynamic. So, instead, we tried to focus on critical moments. And, when there is a time to make a decision, to decide to do nothing, and also to avoid doing things differently, and it turns out we like it quite a lot. It’s turned out to be our philosophy and we’re big proponents of it as an approach.

“The decision to do something, or to not is a challenge because if you do something you can tell yourself that you tried your best. But resisting that decision, and deciding not to do something is much harder. You must be patient.

“The process of not making a decision. When thinking about wine, there are three factors that are going into the making of an individual wine. There is the place, it is a fixed fixed thing. There is one rule, and that is that you can’t move your vineyard. Then there is the weather that year. It is a fixed variable in that you can’t do anything about it but it changes from year to year. Then there is the viticulture and the wine making and we combine them because really they are one thing.

“The weather, you can’t do anything about it, but it effects the place, and you might change your viticulture and wine making choices in response to it. But, if you muck around in your viticulture and wine making due to weather, then when you taste the wine you can’t pick apart the effects of the place from the effects of the weather and what you have becomes just a beverage, not a complex interesting wine. So, we make wine from a fixed variable. We try to make it the same every time, to keep our wine making choices consistent so that what you taste is the place, and the vintage, the weather.” –Nigel Greening, Felton Road

Cristom 1998 Marjorie Vineyard Pinot Noir

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“We believe that handling the wine as little as possible is a benefit. We had early experiments to see what worked, and over time saw the less we handled the wine the better it was. So, when it comes time to make a decision [in the wine making], we try not to do something. It can be awfully hard. Especially when faced with data that tells you you are out of the box. But, that is what comes from experience–knowing when to go ahead and not do anything or when to jump in and try to do something.

“[I brought the 1998 because] the Estate vineyard, it was a difficult decision that year. It was a very low yield year, with low moisture, and pretty warm, and it didn’t have a lot of hang time. So, I wanted to leave the fruit out longer. We had 85 days that year, and normally we have 115, 125. It was a hard decision to pick, but we had to before the sugars got to high.

“In the cellar normally we don’t get a lot of sulfites, but in 1998 we were plagued with it. When that happened, I figured if we have this thing, I’m going to try to learn from it. So I dealt with it in a bunch of different ways. I racked some barrels. I sulfured some. I added silver to some, which is illegal but I tried it not to sell but to see the effect. I did nothing to some. It turned out that the sulfites, it resolved itself and no method did any better than any other. So, that reaffirmed the philosophy of my not doing anything.

It was a vintage where I was not happy with the hang time, but I was pleased with how the wine finally turned out. But, originally, I didn’t have high hopes for it. Sometimes wines surprise you. It can be the other way too. Wines you think you did a good job on can turn out not great in the long run.” –Steve Doerner, Cristom Wines

Tyee 2009 Estate Barrel Select

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“My family has owned the farm since 1885. I am a fifth generation farmer. I was born in 1974, the first year my parents planted vines. Then they planted more in the 1980s, so I helped with that. It is a small family owned farm, with hazelnuts. We had sheep for a time, hay, grass seed. Even if I’d left there, then I would still come back for harvest every year. In 2004 I became vineyard manager. Then in 2006 I became the wine maker, that was my first vintage.

“Our old winemaker used to say, ‘Stand back. Don’t touch anything!’ And that’s actually a reasonable approach to wine making.” –Merrilee Buchanan Benson, Tyee Wine Cellars

Yamhill Valley Vineyards 1994 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

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“There is no formula in my mind to making Pinot Noir, from growing it, to picking it, to turning it into wine. That’s probably why I’m still in it.” –Stephen Cary, Yamhill Valley Vineyards

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Thanks to Julie for her interest in Sauvignon Blanc!


Sauvignon Blanc is yet another grape that carries uncertain origins. There are a number of potential parent plants, each placing its possible motherland in differing areas of the world. What we do know is that its more contemporary history roots the grape in Western France, both Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. From here the vine has traveled throughout the wine growing regions of the world.

The phylloxera outbreak of the late 1800’s deeply impacted the grapes production volume throughout Europe, resulting in vines now younger than the crisis in that region. However, the planet still showcases Sauvignon Blanc vines older than the phylloxera epidemic as cuttings were transported to Chile before the infestation of Europe. Chile remains the only country in the world never impacted by the phylloxera louse as its geography offers natural protection through the desert in the North, the mountains to the East, and the ocean on the West. As a result, some of the oldest vines in the world (of other grape types too) reside in the Chilean countryside.

Sauvignon Blanc Varietal Wine Reviews

Below the preferred wine from each region is reviewed through a wine review comic. However, a number of other Sauvignon Blanc varietals are also reviewed here through a text-only review. Each review is demarcated in this post with a bold title section. At the bottom of the post a brief note indicating which Sauvignon Blanc wines came out as favorites.


Sauvignon Blanc generates several world famous wines originating in Western France. In Bordeaux, the grape is one of several allowed as part of the dry white blend known as Bordeaux blanc–we’ll look at examples of such blends next week. It also plays a key role in the sweet wine blend, Sauternes (another we’ll look at next week). In the Loire Valley the wine is most well known for its production focus as Sancerre.

White Sancerre brings a mineral focus, and elegance to the grape, cultivating Sauvignon Blanc in either chalk or flint soil, both of which can be sensed in the final varietal when fermentation temperatures are kept high. While flint tends to offer leaner, long lived renditions, chalk instead generates a wine, by comparison, with a heftier body and mouth feel. Sancerre is generally placed in Stainless Steel vats for fermentation, thus abstaining from any oak influence on the flavors or aging potential of the wine.

By many, Sancerre is considered one of the most elegant, dry, and pleasing white wines in the world.

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Wine Review: Daniel Chotard 2009 Sancerre Imported by Kermit Lynch

Sancerre is generally understood to be less grassy than other varietals from this grape. This Chotard is no exception. The fruits are distinct, and pleasant, carrying noticeable and refreshing flinty minerals. Subtle white flowers lift the citrus, and slight tropical scents and flavors profile. The acidity here is also pleasing, bringing a nice mouth watering crispness to the fruit.

More on France

Though Bordeaux and Loire Valley are the largest production areas for this variety, it is grown throughout the country with differing styles of wine resulting. Though it does not play a huge role there, Sauvignon Blanc is one of the many grapes grown in the Languedoc-Rouissillon region of the South.

Wine Review: JeanJean 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Languedoc

This wine from JeanJean offers a clean, fresh fruit focused varietal with medium complexity, and finish. The nose hosts Meyer lemon, lime, passion fruit, and scents of honey suckle. On the mouth, you find Meyer lemon, lime, and tropical fruits. Refreshing, approachable, and pleasing to drink.

Though I did not draw a wine comic for the JeanJean, if you are looking for a Sauvignon Blanc to drink, this wine is recommended. I appreciate the clean, citrus focused, mouth watering elements of this wine.


Introduced to California in the 1880’s, Sauvignon Blanc went through a long period of being out of favor in North America. This reputation was changed when Robert Mondavi coined a new name for it–Fume Blanc–and marketed it as an exciting new dry white alternative to chardonnay. The pitch worked.

The Fume Blanc name is unregulated through the state, thus allowing wine makers to choose if they’ll sell their wine under the varietal name, or the Mondavi nickname. Because of the lack of regulation the production style with either moniker can vary widely.

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Wine Review: Hanna 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley

The grassy elements common to Sauvignon Blanc show lightly in the Hanna. They are well-balanced with fruit elements, and acidity that offers distinctive, recognizable fruit flavors. Fresh citrus, and light lychee notes dance in the nose, while citrus zing into balance with deepening melon flavors on the palate. The wine also showcases crisp pear as it warms. This wine is very refreshing both for its well-defined flavors, and fresh fruit focus, as well as the mouth watering acidity. Well-balanced, fresh, and crisp varietal here.

Wine Review: Frog’s Leap 2010 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

I want to note that I appreciate the humor offered from the Frog’s Leap label that puts the words “open other end” near the bottom, as if anyone could open the bottom of a bottle without simply breaking it. In the midst of wine tasting I appreciated finding the subtle humor.

The Frog’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc (SB), however, was my least favorite of the many SB varietals I tasted. Sauvignon Blanc does best in climates where the temperature at any one part of the day does not reach too high–in more extreme conditions the grape tends to ripen quickly resulting in less distinct flavor components in the final wine. Here we find mushy flavors–they are not distinct or crisp, and instead traverse your palate as washed out fruit. The nose is very light with faint tropical fruits, and oak. The mouth shows a powdered candy taste alongside lime and passion fruit.

New Zealand

Though the grape was originally planted in New Zealand as an experiment to be mixed with other white varieties, here SB varietals are now famous. New Zealand established an internationally known wine industry for its strongly fruit focused, tropical notes rendition of the grape. Interestingly, production practices in the area have been strongly influenced by geography historically. Because there had only been proper production facilities on one island, while the grape was grown on both, grapes had to be transported by truck over long distances before they could be separated from their skins and pressed. As a result of the extended skin contact in transport, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc tended to offer fuller flavors and intensity in the wine.

The growing conditions here vary widely from vineyard to vineyard, thus creating very different flavor elements within the region. Still, due to the maritime climate of the long, narrow islands, the grape celebrates one of the longer growing seasons seen anywhere in the world. As a result, the New Zealand flavors tend to be ripe, rich, and full of fruit.

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Wine Review: Nine Walks 2011 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

The Nine Walks Sauvignon Blanc has a light nose of candied lime, and tropical fruits. The palate carries forward the tropical fruit with fresh lime, meyer lemon, passion fruit, and hints of pleasing pepper and oak. The minerals here are very light. This varietal is subtle in its delivery, and crisp.

Wine Review: Long Boat 2009 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

The Long Boat offers both herbs, and minerals with sage and subtle flavors of river rocks. The focus on both the nose and the palate are youthful green apple, passionfruit, and meyer lemon, along with unripe pineapple. Accents of white flowers raise the profile. The grass, and green pepper elements common to the grape variety are also present here.

Wine Review: Nautilus 2010 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

This wine shows a clear tropical fruit and citrus focus. There is also green pepper, and light oak showing themselves here. Very fruit focused wine. Not a favorite.

Wine Review: Kim Crawford 2010 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

The grass tendencies of this grape show here on both the nose, and mouth. The Kim Crawford offers the classic full flavor rendition that New Zealand is famous for. The nose has tropical fruits, and passion fruit, while the mouth continues this blend, along with some peach notes, and obvious oak-bite and heat. There is quality here but it is not my style of wine.


Recent focus has developed quality Sauvignon Blanc in Chile. The well-aged vines of the region along with the more recent focus on quality wine production in the area have combined to produce crisp, flavorful varietals. Contrasting the wines of this region against others mentioned, the Chilean Sauvignon Blancs are generally considered closer in French style, rather than New Zealand. That is, the flavors are more often refined, and cleaner with more of a tendency towards citrus and minerals, and less towards tropical fruits.

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Wine Review: Veramonte 2010 Casablanca Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Bright distinct fruit are found here in both the nose, and the mouth. Lime, meyer lemon, and passion fruit fill the nose, with them carrying forward in the mouth alongside juicy pear, and hints of tropical fruit. This wine is smooth, with a touch of spice.

Wine Review: Arenal 2009 Casablanca Valley Sauvignon Blanc

The flavors here are light, and less distinct. There are notes of candied lime in both the bouquet, and flavors, along with tart green apple, pineapple, grapefruit, light white flowers, and subtle tropical fruits. This wine offers mild heat. It is light, and smooth, showing citrus-candy flavors with a citrus bite. Not a favorite, though I’d recommend it above most of the New Zealand wines mentioned.

Varietal Characteristics: Sauvignon Blanc

Typical to this grape are fruit elements ranging from citrus and tropical fruit. Tropical fruit flavors tend to be more commonly found in New World wines, while citrus elements are generally common throughout. The grape is also known to have an herbaceous quality most commonly showing as grass, and bell pepper.

In less ripe growing seasons Sauvignon Blanc takes on an incredibly pungent (even often called aggressive) odor that people politely refer to as “cat box”, or more pointedly call “cat pee.” This characteristic is less commonly found in the varietal today as the link between this bouquet-flavor component and ripeness levels was recently discovered. Greater sun exposure in cooler climates is one solution to avoiding such flavor elements. In other words, cat box characteristics occur due to temperature, and sun exposure related growing conditions, and are not considered a flaw in the wine. For some, the quality is desirable.

Though the grape is most widely produced in Bordeaux, Loire Valley, California, New Zealand, and Chile, it is also found in small production numbers in South Africa, small portions of Australia, and in other areas of Europe.

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Which SB Wines Win?

Along with the JeanJean, the four wine review comics indicate my favorites of those tasted. Of the styles addressed here, Sancerre is my preference, with the clean, mouth watering qualities of the JeanJean, and the Hanna being next.


Monday will consider a side-by-side wine tasting of two very different Semillons, one offered young from Barossa Valley, Australia, and the other an older release from California.

The rest of next week will explore the commonly side-by-side relationship of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon through a comparison of Bordeaux blanc blends (from Bordeaux, and from elsewhere), and then of late harvest wines in both blended and varietal versions of the two grapes.

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