25 Feb 2016 To coincide with today’s article looking at the ageing potential of oaked Sauvignon Blanc, we are republishing as part of our Throwback Thursday series this article in which Jancis takes us back one step to look at how well Sauvignon Blanc and oak work together.
22 July 2014 We tend to think of Sauvignon Blanc primarily as an unoaked wine, but I must say I have been hugely impressed by some oaked Sauvignons and in fact would probably more easily recall thrilling oaked Sauvignons than unoaked ones, despite the ocean of unoaked examples from Marlborough and Sancerre that washes around the globe.
So when my fellow Master of Wine Richard Bampfield, who represents the interests of Jean-Christophe Mau of Bordeaux négociant Yvon Mau in the UK, invited me to a blind tasting of oaked Sauvignons around the world, I jumped at the chance. As it happened, the day of the tasting was boiling hot, so it was fortunate that Richard had decided to hold the tasting in London's only winery, London Cru, as it was deliciously cool and spacious (even if winemaker Gavin Monery muttered darkly that he could do with more space to vinify the grapes they ship in from France and Italy).
A total of 32 wines from nine regions in eight countries, pictured above before the tasting, had been decanted into neutral clear glass bottles. I was concentrating on assessing the quality of the wines rather than trying to identify their origins, but some of them expressed their provenance more obviously than others. That said, I didn't realise that the wines were ordered strictly by geography. I present my tasting notes below in the order I tasted the wines in case you think my perceptions may have been coloured by what I tasted previously.
Since the tasting had been organised from a Bordelais point of view (not least because Château Brown in Pessac-Léognan is managed by Jean-Christophe Mau for its owners the Mau family and the Dirkzwager family who own a Dutch wine importing and retail business), I suspect I was not the only taster to think that perhaps we would be treated to one or two of Bordeaux's starriest white wines. A suggestion of an Haut-Brion perhaps? Or at the least a Pape Clément or Smith? In the end, when given the crib admirably assembled by Laura Clay, we saw, and probably should not have been surprised, that Chx Brown, La Tour Martillac and a particularly lean Carbonnieux were the grandest white bordeaux included. And very good Brown it was too – which made me curious about how some of these even grander examples would have shown. (It is notable how often at the Southwold tastings every January we are disappointed by the performance of the Haut-Brion whites when they are served blind with other dry white bordeaux – a category that is usually 'won' by Pape Clément or Smith.)
While we are on the subject of oaked Sauvignon from Bordeaux, I cannot resist commenting on what I regarded as the usual lamentable performance of Caillou Blanc de Ch Talbot, although I see that for the group as a whole, this flabby wine was in the top three. I very much liked the group's other candidates for the top three however: Ch Brown and the glorious Reyneke Reserve 2011 from South Africa that was my favourite wine overall, to which I happily gave 18 points out of 20.
In fact, an analysis of my scores by region or country shows that my favourite source of oaked Sauvignon overall was South Africa (remember, I was tasting blind, even though at about the same time I was writing this article raving about South African wines). One of my three 17.5-scorers was the South African Chamonix 2012, the others coming from Mondavi of California and Greywacke of Marlborough in New Zealand. See below for my average score per region/country with the total number of wines in the tasting in brackets:
South Africa 16.75 (6)
Napa Valley 16.67 (3)
NZ 16.43 (7)
Bordeaux 16.14 (6)
Turkey 16.00 (1)
Friuli 15.75 (2)
Chile 15.75 (2)
Australia 15.67 (3)
Loire 15.25 (2)
The Loire average was dragged down by our extremely disappointing bottle of the Didier Dagueneau, Pur Sang 2008 on which we all remarked. This had been much more convincing last time I tasted it. But it could not be simply its advanced age because the Mondavi Fumé Blanc of the same vintage showed extremely well, I thought. Indeed the Californians in general looked very good, and rather obviously Californian in some cases.
But this was not a collection of wines for oakophobes. I know there are some tasters for whom even a whiff of oak automatically disqualifies the wine. Many of these wines had more than 'a kiss of oak' and most were fermented as well as aged in oak, even if for many the casks were as big as 500 or 600 litres rather than the traditional 225-litre barrique. None of the top wines had more than 50% new oak but many of them wore their oak on their sleeve – but often combined with truly stunning fruit to make a wonderfully complex whole. And my feeling is that if the wine is young and the oak obviously top quality, then so be it.
All in all, this is a wine style that can be extremely rewarding and rarely costs a bomb. The only aspect I find less than refreshing in some of them is a character I describe as 'oily', when a heavy oaky quality overbears the fruit.
I think of myself as a fan of Sémillon in the blend with the Sauvignon Blanc, but this tasting didn't show any clear correlations. It was fun though, and there were many wines worthy of your attention if you like substantial but appetising dry whites with real refreshment value.
Aged for three months in 100% new oak. Mildly catty nose. Edge of sweetness. Easy peasy rather than very demanding. No great intensity but the oak is certainly very mild. Tastes New World. And just a bit watery. Some reductive notes on the finish.
Old cask fermentation. Lots of vegetal refreshment on the nose. Green streaks all over and the oak is very low key indeed. This could almost be Loire. Very refreshing. Chew on the finish. Nicely balanced even if not flashy. Promises well. Very appetising.
Femented and aged for six months in oak barrels and demi-muids.
Smells strongly of peppermint! Quite pungent. Very cool and – really – almost as though it had been flavoured with peppermint. A bit raw and aggressive at this stage. Finishes very short.
47% Sauvignon Blanc, 43% Sauvignon Gris. Two-thirds fermented and aged for six months in French oak – one-third new oak, one-third old oak, one-third stainless steel.
Some obvious oak and not 100% clean. Sweetness on the front of the palate and a little slack. Rather oily oak. Could this be American? Quite heavy.
83% Sauvignon Blanc, 17% Sémillon. 15% barrel-fermented in new oak, five months sur lie.
Very pale – water white. Fresh, only very slightly oily, complex and arresting. Real zip and well crafted. Confident beginning, middle and end.
87% Sauvignon Blanc, 13% Sémillon. Barrel fermented.
Interesting perfume and complexity on the nose. Edge of lemon cream and real focus with 'mineral' finish. Racy but wears its undoubted oak well. Smoky undertow.
Fermented and aged for 18 months in 600-litre barrels. Pale gold. Oddly peachy nose. Strong green streak – distinctly vegetal – like chewing through a thick grass stalk. Never the twain shall meet. Rather crude. Very youthful.
Aged for six months in 500-litre French oak barrels. Smoky, struck-match note on the nose. Intense, fruit-led. Oak is a minor ingredient. Finely etched. Attractive wine. Quite refined. Still slightly chewy.
100% Sauvignon. Some wine aged for 11 months in 500-litre French oak.
Floral nose – very clean if not that complex. Quite rich on the palate and then just a little watery and simple on the end. Quite 'technical'.
100% Sauvignon. 15% fermented in oak, aged on lees for eight months.
Shy but intriguing nose. Juicy and salivatory. I can’t actually see the oak. Is this one of those Entre-deux-Mers wines with 'a kiss of oak'? Well made but it tastes as though the vineyard wasn't that thrilling.
74% Sauvignon, 26% Sémillon. Matured for eight months in 35% new oak barriques, 35% one-year old barriques and 30% third fill.
Deeper colour than most. A bit simple on the nose. Broad and a tad flabby. Oily oak. It's probably Bordeaux but not very successful, I feel. A bit clumsy.
64% Sauvignon Blanc, 36% Sémillon. Eight months in medium-toast barriques, 50% new, 50% second fill.
Struck match nose. Some tension, precise and well sculpted with ripe fruit and – surely? – some Sémillon. Rich but not fat. Very successful and quite serious. Long with only a hint of cat. Neat. Pretty ripe fruit. But very slightly short.
70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Sémillon. Matured for 10 months in barrel.
Light, 'mineral' nose. Precise and bone dry. Quite creamy. Confident. Green streaks. One of the driest and tartest. Loire?
70% Sauvignon, 30% Sémillon. Matured in 35% new oak for 15 months.
Rich, almost oily nose. Lots of emphatic presence on the palate. Just a bit of mousiness. Bordeaux, I assume, but pretty painful in terms of dryness and bitterness. It’s probably something pretty smart from Bordeaux that's still a bit youthful. Grip on the finish.
70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Sémillon. Fermented and aged in one-year-old oak barrels.
Chewy and crunchy. Good and appetising in a green apple sort of way. Off-dry and easy. Just a bit simple. One of the few to show a bit of sulphur.
55% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Sémillon. Aged for 8-10 months in 80% new oak barriques.
Fresh, clean, lots of fruit and seems quite evolved. No edgy acidity. Ticks all the boxes and spreads across the palate. Well made. Very appetising.
100% Sauvignon. Fermented and aged in new oak. Chalky nose. Masses of rather raw acidity. Seems to have lots of malic acidity and little perceptible fruit. Either very young or it will never really settle down. Crude.
100% Sauvignon. Fermented and aged for 20 months in oak, 30% new. Sweet nose, full of fruit. But not too much else. Spearmint this time. Catnip. Not unpleasant at all but not very sophisticated. Almost tastes as though there were some flavouring in it.
100% Sauvingon. Cuveé juice fermented in old oak barrels. Rich, creamy nose. This somehow smells Austrian! Mix of richness with good freshness. Very attractive whole. Great for current drinking with a real edge of appetising green fruit. Very satisfying.
100% Sauvignon. 50% matured in French oak cuves and foudres. Lots of cat on the nose. One of the tensest wines in the line-up. It really tingles. More green than anything else. Long and reverberant. Not the most complex fruit but very well made.
Fermented and aged in oak barrels, less than 10% new. Tense, light and smoky on the nose. Off-dry and nicely balanced. Just a little oily in an attractive pungent way. Still a bit chewy. Lots of oomph on the palate.
Fermented in (mostly old) barriques for 12months. This is virtually the first wine to wear its oak on its sleeve! Tight and quite rich. Very flattering because of all that ripe fruit. Wonderfully easy to enjoy already. The biggest impact of the lot. Flattering and already quite evolved. And quite sweet!
A portion was fermented in neutral French oak barrels. Water white. Simple, rather commercial nose. Sweet start and it doesn’t really go very far. A bit astringent on the finish. Hard work for the moment.
Matured in 500-litre French oak puncheons for 16 months. Rich, complex and bordelais on the nose. Then lots of rather aggressively jagged green fruit on the palate. Much better on the nose than the palate.
30% fermented and aged in French oak barrels, 5% new. Only one bottle, we were told! (Must be the Haut-Brion, said Richard Bampfield.) Water white. Smells rather simple. Green and unripe flavours. Chewy. Not very harmonious. Still astringent. Very cool and damp! Hard work at the moment.
60% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Sémillon. 11 months' oak ageing, 50% new oak.
Broad, rich and flattering. One of the smoothest, fullest examples that fills the palate right out to every extremity. Hugely flattering and well balanced in a Smith Haut Lafitte or Pape Clément sort of way. Quite a bit of alcohol. Rich but lively. Wonderful texture. Very long. GV
60% barrel-fermented in 60% new oak. French oak from Nevers and Allier, with 10% American oak.
Water white. Mild, well-balanced nose. A bit sweet and simple on the front palate. Competent rather than thrilling.
60% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Sémillon. Sémillon fermented in barrel, the blend aged for eight months in 7th fill 300-litre barrels.
Smoky nose with a sweet mineral undertow. Good balance and ready to enjoy. Medium intensity. All elements are well integrated and it's not too sweet on the palate. Creamy. Lots to enjoy in medium gear.
Fermented and aged for 10 months in French oak casks, 25% new. Low-key but well-married nose. Relatively rich and full on the palate. Evolved. In fact it has lost a bit of its youthful oomph. Well-mannered but not thrilling.
100% Sauvignon Blanc. Fermented and aged for 15 months in 300-litre barrels, 50% new.
Quite a bit of oak on the nose. Also some exotic tropical flowers. Then real tension. Not to be trifled with! This is real wine with extreme excitement. Great breadth and a wonderful marriage of ripeness with tension,. Pungent but nothing artificial. And the oak is beautifully managed.
74% Sauvignon Blanc, 26% Sémillon. Aged for 10 months in 400-litre barrels for Sauvignon Blanc, 225-litre barrels for Sémillon. French oak, 30% new.
Slightly vegetal nose. Sweet – almost sickly start. Too sweet and sour for me. Not married. And then chewy on the end. Gangling and awkward. Though there is certainly body. And oiliness. Bordeaux, I assume, but not a refreshing one.
Sauvignon Blanc. Fermented and aged for 10 months in barrel. Mild nose. Rather aggressive acidity. Very youthful and unformed. Lots of density but not yet there. Edinburgh rock/fructose flavours.