I am pretty sure that all of us have been asked the question, “So, what’s your favorite wine?”
Most often my answer is, quite honestly, “All of them.” At other times I answer, also quite honestly, “It depends.” I think both answers reflect that I enjoy different pleasures at different moments in my life.
Occasionally a persistent person pins me down with, “Aw, come on. You know a bunch about grapes. (Really, that’s what they say.) Which wine do you drink the most?”
So, I stroke my grey beard, squint slightly and in a solemn tone, I accede, “Sauvignon blanc.” For a long time I have been drinking more SB wines, volumetrically & numerically, than any other varietal.
Why do I prefer SB over all the others? There are a couple of reasons: the first is based on the stylistic pleasures that SB provides; and the second comes from an appreciation of the challenges faced by winegrowers as they manipulate their SB vines to express the terroir of the vineyard.
As I noted above, I do enjoy just about every type of wine at one time or another; red & white, sweet & dry, sparkling, fortified, and non-vinifera wines. And because SB has a fantastic range in its flavor profile, SB provides me with many more wine options than the usual varietal suspects.
The aromas and acidity that define SB are amazingly broad: grassy, flinty, bell pepper, cat pee, gooseberry, juniper, fig, pear, citrus, peach and kiwi. All of these flavors come from the grape, not from manipulations in the winery. (I am not a big fan of many wine maturation products.) SB provides winemakers with an incredible toolbox of flavors with which they may compose their finished wines.
Just in CA we find great SB from all of its growing regions: North, Central and South Coasts, Sierra Foothills, Lodi, and the Sac and San Joaquin Valleys. Then beyond these narrow borders, I really enjoy SB from South Africa, NZ, Loire and Chile.
I believe that SB requires more attention from winegrowers than many other varieties; during vineyard establishment and during annual cultural operations.
Winegrowers of all varieties commonly seek to grow “balanced vines”. Balanced vines, neither under-cropped nor over-cropped, are the key to the sustainable production of high quality winegrapes which yield wines that meet both the winegrower and winemakers goals and objectives.
In an interesting little twist, SB tends to be a naturally “unbalanced vine”. SB is very vigorous (shoot-wise) while producing rather small clusters i.e. it produces lots of leaves compared to a relatively small crop.
One way to measure vine balance is using the ratio of vine cluster weights (fruit) compared to weight of prunings (shoot). Typical values for most varieties Chardonnay, Cabernet sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Syrah will be from 5 to 10. SB commonly has a fruit to shoot ratio of 4. One interpretation of the SB fruit to shoot ratio of 4 is that SB vines are under-cropped, i.e. out of balance.
Now, there is the common myth that good wines only come from low yielding vines. One inherent problem with a low yield to high shoot ratio is that the clusters grow and mature within a shady canopy. When clusters mature in a shady environment their flavor profile is strongly skewed towards the methoxypryazines compounds. When I have found these “veggie bomb” wines, I am pretty sure I have sickened houseplants that I used as dump buckets. Clearly, in moderation, the grassy methoxypyrazine flavors are highly desirable.
So what strategies do winegrowers employee to produce balanced SB vines?
A grower has two opportunities to produce balanced vines. The first comes during vineyard establishment and the second opportunity comes every year as part of the annual cultural practices. The choices made during vineyard establishment will dictate the cultural practices decisions made annually. Vineyard establishment choices are: site selection which define; climate and soil water holding capacity; varietal & rootstock choices; vine spacing; trellis and training style. Annual cultural operations that influence vine balance are: pruning, canopy management (shoot thinning / suckering, leafing, positioning), cluster thinning, row middle floor management (cover cropping), irrigation and nutrition. It should be noted that initial planting errors are not easily overcome in later years without significant expense, time or crop effects (quality and yield).
Do the majority of winegrowers agree on the best management practices that will achieve vine balance? Short answer is “No.” (Note: I think agreement is coming slowly. See Lodi Rules, California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, Central Coast SIP, Oregon LIVE, CCOF, etc.)
The last two years I have led winegrowers on tours of Sauvignon blanc vineyards in California’s North Coast. On one of these tours we visited 14 SB vineyards all within a 10 mile wide circle. Only two of the 14 vineyards were trained and trellised in the same fashion.
A couple of growers had made establishment decisions (vine spacing, trellis and training) that allowed them to then make minimal vine manipulations during the year (no shoot positioning no hedging, no discing). Several growers were fighting themselves by employing excessive pruning, early irrigations and clean cultivation that forced them to hedge and thin shoots during two and even three passes. As one grower interpreted these latter actions, it was as though they were “applying the gas and brake pedals at the same time.” While it could be argued that the vines were in better balance, it is hard to argue that the multiple passes and irrigation inputs could be viewed as part of a successful sustainable winegrowing program.
Many French vignerons gloat about their system of appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) and revile many New World cultural practices–irrigation, shoot and cluster thinning, etc. I do appreciate that during the last five hundred or so years the French have learned winegrowing practices that express their terroirs. I expect that California winegrowers within the same AVAs will farm very much like their neighbors in 2313 or so. (I wonder how a French vigneron would respond to growing grapes in California’s dry summers and mild fall weather plus the “option” to irrigate?)
Well, I see by the clock on the wall that it is time to go.
What topics would you like chat about in future musings?
Some Winegrowing Topics for SB:
Mixing green and tropical flavors within the same vine: four cane VSP. (Is this a field blend aka Old Patch Red?)
SB: Horizontally divided canopy vs. VSP vs. CA sprawl.
More about the future of Smart-Dyson.
To achieve vine balance : is the process dictated by the vine or by the grower? Can we “tame the beast”?
Capacity vs. vigor concepts in SB.
Blend SB within a block based on harvest timing (Brix & flavors): veggies at 20.5, tropicals at 23.5
Cool climate regions tend to produce lower fruit to shoot weights. Thus, SB from NZ & Russian River tends to be “greener” or “cat pee” wines. But what about growing big canopy vines in Lodi?