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Should Sauvignon Blanc Always be Drunk When Young?
By Marguerite Thomas
Apr 9, 2013
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As usual, H.L.  Mencken said it best:  For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple--and wrong.

My most recent experience with being proven wrong had to do with Sauvignon Blanc.  Normally the words “Sauvignon Blanc” conjure up a taste-image of crisp, dry white wines, wines with the fresh aromas of spring greenery and (in the best examples) a complex, mineral-laden finish.   I do also enjoy certain fruitier-styled Sauvignons, the ones blessed by notes of lime peel, grapefruit, melon and perhaps even tropical fruit notes.  The common denominator that I, and like-minded Sauvignon Blanc lovers, look for in these different styles of wine is the racy vigor that’s emblematic of youth. 

Recently, however, I began to wonder if this vision of the wine’s potential might be limited.  Yes, the wines are usually consumed within a year, two at the most, of their release--but is youth really de rigueur when it comes to enjoying some of the finer examples of Sauvignon Blanc?  There certainly are plenty of exceptions to the general rule.  Certain Bordeaux chateaux, for example, especially in the Graves appellation, produce age-worthy Bordeaux Blancs--blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, usually matured in oak barrels.  And then there are the glorious Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon sweet wines from Bordeaux’s Sauternes and Barsac regions.  The Loire Valley, generally known as the “spiritual home” of Sauvignon Blanc, can also turn out wine that ages gracefully, especially those from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.  But Sauvignon Blanc from almost everywhere else--and these days it is planted in most grape-growing regions--is not known for its ageability.  Young wines are what we look for.

I recently put this truism to the test by tasting a trio of older Fumé Blancs* from Dry Creek Vineyard, one of California’s few strong, established Sauvignon Blanc producers (Dry Creek was the first new post-Prohibition winery to be built in Sonoma).  I added the current Dry Creek 2012 to the lineup as a reference point.  Here are some of my observations from this informal experiment:
The Dry Creek 1977 Fumé Blanc (which was aged in French oak barrels prior to bottling) proved to have a wet cork, which did not bode well for the wine.  Nonetheless, it shimmered prettily in the glass, showing off a bright golden-topaz color with only the slightest tinge of brown.  The wine was still perfectly drinkable, though I would describe its flavors as “interesting” rather than “delicious.”  Not surprisingly, there wasn’t much fruit left after all these years, and the overall taste was somewhat skanky (perhaps fulfilling the damaged cork’s prophecy).

1984 had been an exceptionally warm growing season in Northern California.  The grapes for Dry Creek 1984 Fumé Blanc were harvested at an average 22.2 degrees Brix.  The wine was fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, and aged in small French oak barrels.  After savoring the beguiling musky perfume that characterizes many still-viable old wines, I sipped, and was surprised by how full and lusty the texture was (the alcohol level was a mere 12.6%).  Some nice quince fruit flavors were still apparent, and the wine had a recognizable, though muted Sauvignon Blanc finish.

The Dry Creek Fumé Blanc 1995 seemed to have held up fairly well, a reflection, perhaps of what was generally an excellent vintage in California.  The wine was fermented in stainless steel and barrel aged in small oak barrels.  There was nuttiness in the flavors and a hint of Sherry, and still enough fruit to make it comfortably drinkable for people who appreciate older wines. 

Pale yellow, with citrus flavors and a steely grip (but minus the aggressive acidity of many contemporary Sauvignon Blancs) Dry Creek Fumé Blanc 2012 was as fresh, bright, crisp and refreshing as I’d anticipated.  It was fermented in stainless steel, with no oak aging, has an alcohol content of about 13.5%, and is available for about $14. 

I will always seek out the tangy purity associated with youthful Sauvignon Blanc, but if I can conclude anything from this limited and circumstantial experiment it’s the hope that every now and then my glass will be filled with a fine, rich Sauvignon Blanc that has been burnished by time and mellowed by maturity.  In this kind of situation, being proven wrong seems a good thing.

.     .     .

* Fumé Blanc is the name Dry Creek’s owner adopted from Robert Mondavi as a marketing ploy in the early 1970s, when Sauvignon Blanc was far from popular in California.  The invented name “Fumé Blanc” sounded French and upscale in its day, but would undoubtedly not be used were the winery starting out in the 21st century.  But after 41 years Dry Creek’s flagship Fumé Blanc has too much brand recognition to be dropped now.