Think You Know Sauvignon Blanc? Try Aging It | Wine Enthusiast
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Think You Know Sauvignon Blanc? Try Aging It

The idea of aging Sauvignon Blanc, especially in the United States, may sound unusual to wine drinkers who love the varietal for its light, fresh flavors and crisp acidity. In France’s Loire Valley or Bordeaux region, however, serious Sauvignon Blanc fans know that this white wine has profound aging potential—as little as one year and as much as 10, and in some cases even more. Now, a handful of California winemakers producing aged Sauvignon Blanc want to get the word out.

Tom Gamble, proprietor of Gamble Family Vineyards in Napa Valley, began aging Sauvignon Blanc in 2001. A trip to the Loire and Bordeaux in the 1980s inspired his passion for the style—particularly the great examples from Domaine de Chevalier, Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Château Malartic-Lagraviere, Pavillon Blanc, Château Haut-Brion Blanc and—perhaps most of all—those from winemaker Didier Dagueneau, particularly his Loire-based Silex and Pur Sang.

In comparison to an unaged Sauvignon Blanc, aged versions showcase a more refined palate with complex aromatics and flavors. Gamble Family Vineyard’s 2018 Heart Block Sauvignon Blanc can be consumed now, but also cellared for five to seven years.

“It keeps its bright tropical and citrus notes, but is accompanied by flavors of honeycomb and toasted brioche,” explains Jaime Medina, the operation’s associate winemaker. “The acid is in balance with the overall creaminess of the wine that comes from being aged in oak.”

Jesse Katz, winemaker with Aperture Cellars in Healdsburg, California, had experimented with aging Sauvignon Blanc years ago while working at Screaming Eagle in Napa Valley. But it wasn’t until he founded Aperture with his father Andy that he committed to creating “world-class and age-worthy Sauvignon Blanc.”

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The first vintage of Aperture’s Bordeaux Blanc, released in 2016, is a barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc with 16% Sémillon. To this day, Katz says the wine still shows “a lot of fruit on the palate and some more nutty, honey and spice characteristics [that] are starting to come out.” He thinks the wine has at least another decade of aging potential; the 2022 vintage is currently available.

All this said, most California producers are not cellaring their Sauvignon Blanc on-site before releasing them, says Andy Erickson, proprietor of Favia Wine in the Coombsville area of Napa Valley. “I think serious wine consumers are interested, but there aren’t a lot of examples out there, unless you age it yourself.” Instead, he continues, most age-worthy Sauvignon Blancs—including those mentioned in this article—are sold young. Buyers then have the option to stash them away.

The delayed gratification is worth the effort, he believes. Erickson has been aging Sauvignon Blancs since he first began growing the varietal in 2005. “It can take on some very interesting savory, generous, and umami tones: Think fresh peach versus peach pie, or lemon peel versus lemon curd,” he says.

According to Erickson, making exceptional aged Sauvignon Blanc starts with “great terroir,” a sentiment echoed by several winemakers interviewed for this story.

“Farming for an age-worthy white wine needs to be even more meticulous than farming red grapes,” notes Gamble. “The key is achieving the desired grape flavors at the lowest possible sugars in order to have plenty of acid to survive fermentation and aging.”

Katz agrees that site specificity must be prioritized above all else—even clone selection. Not that it’s unimportant; Katz prefers later-ripening clones, as well as the Musqué clone for its less grassy, more floral and stone fruit characteristics. At Aperture, this means sourcing grapes for their Bordeaux Blanc from three California vineyards: Dry Stack, the coolest site in Bennett Valley; Aperture Estate in Sonoma Valley; and Farrow Ranch in Alexander Valley.

“They are not mass-production blocks,” he says. “We try to get even ripening so we can harvest at lower brix and pH with rich flavors and bright acidity.”

After site selection and grape quality, aging techniques are most significant to successfully elevate the ageable characteristics of the wine. Gamble uses barrels for both fermentation and aging made with wood sourced from colder forests, which translates to tighter grains in the wood that can slow oxygen transfer in the barrel. He also limits lees stirring: “Too much stirring and an excess of oxygen is introduced, effectively shortening the wine’s bottle life,” he shares.

Both Gamble and Katz say they limit their use of new oak barrels, which can add an excess of wood tannin. “We build decadence from the 1/3 new oak—light toasted French oak and the Château Haut-Brion barrels with toasted acacia wood heads—and sur lie aging,” says Katz. This process allows for a wine with tension to frame the fruit without showing oaky flavors, an excellent equation for aging.

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Even though these three winemakers have been producing age-worthy Sauvignon Blanc for decades now, it’s still a style that’s not quite mainstream among U.S. wine lovers.

“I think it’s a surprise to most people that Sauvignon Blanc wines age at all,” admits Erickson. He’s sure that can all change at first sip, though. “Once they’ve tasted one with some bottle age, it opens their eyes that the variety deserves more respect than it gets.”