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Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc Strikes Back! | 1 Wine Dude

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc Strikes Back!

Vinted on August 3, 2009 binned in California wine, wine bloggers conference
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If you want to understand the changing palates of the California wine consumer (that’s consumers of CA wine, not wine consumers from CA… although those two populations can certainly overlap… ok, whatever), you need to understand peaches.

That’s right.  Peaches.

Jill & Steve, the owners and winemakers at Matthiasson in Napa, are also growers and sellers of peaches.  And they can explain how tastes have changed by observing the people that buy different varieties of their peaches.

“It seems to be generational,” noted Steve when I visited the Matthiasson farm in Napa last week. “Older consumers prefer a more mild, balanced, pure peach flavor. You can eat those peaches all day long and feel refreshed every time. Younger people buy peaches that are like an explosion of fruit.  They’re high in flavor, high in acid, high in sugar, high everything – it’s tough to eat more than one of those.”

I’d argue that the same thing could be said of Napa, CA Sauvignon Blanc wines – and I basically have said that, on numerous occasions.   The majority of SB wines (in my experience, that is) being produced out of Napa are too big, too oaky, to overblown, and lack the pure SB characteristics that are the hallmark of SB fruit (grass, citrus, high acidity, minerals…).

What I learned last week in Napa was that not all Napa SB is trying to be Chardonnay in disguise.  There is some SB being produced that is excellent, well-balanced, and surprisingly refreshing.  It just happens to be a big pain in the ass to make it that way, because according to the Napa winemakers that seem to be getting SB right, by and large Napa growers are habitually picking SB way too late…

At a dinner with Opus One winemaker Michael Silacci, I was introduced to Christine Barbe, a Bordelais transplant to Napa who has previously worked for the Gallo and Mondavi wine companies.  Christine, being true to herself, is attempting to make SB wine in Napa that has the soul of France. She is succeeding, and her small-production 2008 Toquade SB is a lovely, balanced, and refreshing wine. Best of all, you can tell by smelling it that it’s SB and not some kind of Frankenstein monstrosity constructed from overripe SB grapes.

What Christine will tell you is that it’s a struggle to get her grapes picked early enough, as most growers think she’s nuts for wanting the grapes off the vine at a lower than “normal” brix reading.  What she knows, better than most Napa SB winemakers, is that picking SB grapes at fuller phenolic ripeness in Napa mutes some of the pure SB flavors in the resulting wine.

The traditional compensation for this in Napa is to oak the living shit out of the wines, which Christine deftly (and blessedly) avoids.  Some readers will recall Michael Silacci’s challenge to me to try Toquadeit’s not exactly going to be mistaken for a wine from New Zealand, and that’s okay by me, because it’s a unique SB expression that’s well worth seeking out.  Oh, yeah – Mike, you’ve earned an “I told you so.”

Speaking of unique wines, let’s get back to Matthiasson.  During last week’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Sonoma, I’d made it a bit of special weekend project to get more people exposed to their excellent and insanely interesting white wine, which is a blend that contains a healthy proportion of SB.  I was really pleased to hear from Jill that they’d be pouring during the “speed tasting” portion of the conference, and when asked what they should pour I advised that they pour that white (which is to say, I emphatically insisted that they pour it).

Anyway, by all accounts their white wine opened up a barrique of whoop-ass on the tasting.  I’ve seen their white listed by several conference attendees as one of the best (if not, the best) wines poured during the tasting.  Check out some of the comments by bloggers who tweeted their tasting notes during the speed-tasting (see inset pics throughout this post) and you’ll see that Matthiasson has a pleasing and inspiring SB-based wine. 

And yes, Virginia, it’s really coming from Napa.



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