SF Chronicle 100 best 2011 wines

Sauvignon Blanc: The Chronicle recommends

Jon Bonné
Sunday, October 16, 2011

This typically humble grape has always had the potential for greatness. There’s evidence in Bordeaux, Sancerre, Italy’s Friuli – and increasingly in New Zealand. And of course, there has been serious California work, mostly under the guise of Fumé Blanc. Although California has often been dinged for abusing this grape in cheap, underwhelming wines, there is a new, small band of true believers.

Perhaps because it needed an image rehab, Sauvignon Blanc has become a magnet for a host of avant-garde winemaking techniques, including a typical mix of fermentation in steel and mostly old barrels, to say nothing of concrete vessels and beyond (see sfg.ly/rpJL81). While these are more expensive than the average bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, they are operating in far more serious territory than most.

Here are snapshots of the state-of-the-art, Sauvignon Blanc edition.

2009 The Ojai Vineyard McGinley Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($28, 14% alcohol): Pinot maestro Adam Tolmach’s lesser-known talent lies with his very serious Sauvignon Blanc, sourced for the 12th year from this parcel of shale and serpentine subsoils, now farmed organically. Tolmach believes in neutral oak barrels (but no lees stirring) to provide that rich, deep texture, which is offset by a soaring acidity. Aromas of Anaheim pepper and bay leaf, with intense lemon-peel flavors and mineral distinction. A serious effort that could stand up with the best of the Loire or Friuli.

Top 100 Wines: Cheers to thinking small

As I approached the finish line for this year’s Top 100 Wines, it became clear that 2011 would build on a welcome trend from last year: the triumph of the little guy. Certainly we have great bottles here from bigger names. But once again, many of the best wines to be found on the West Coast are from wineries that work on a small scale. This shift in scope makes perfect sense. There is always the opportunity to make great wine on a big scale; the beauty of the Louis Martini Sonoma County Cabernet or Domaine Chandon’s Brut Classic are perfect evidence. But the attention to detail you get on a small scale is an engine for greatness.

More often than not, greatness is a matter of one or two people meticulously keeping an eye on every step of farming and every step in the cellar, whether you’re Bob Betz making a few hundred cases of single-vineyard Syrah, or Bob and Jim Varner extending their Chardonnay talents to thousands of cases of Foxglove.
This attentiveness from vintners mirrors a desire by more wine lovers to look beyond scores and dive into the particulars of the wines they enjoy. That knowledge-is-power approach also helps explain one big change you’ll notice in this year’s list: the inclusion of alcohol levels for each wine.

Prompted by longtime reader interest in the topic, The Chronicle in April began printing alcohol content for each wine we recommend. Alcohol levels shouldn’t be a final barometer of quality — I found top wines below 12 percent and well above 14 percent — but they are useful to consider when shopping. Now as you browse the Top 100 list, you can compare my selections by one more data point.

It also is clear that the best West Coast winemaking is acquiring an ever lighter touch, helped in part by generally milder conditions in the 2009 and 2010 vintages. We began to see shifts in wine styles in last year’s Top 100; that trend is clearly continuing, which is good news for those who prefer subtlety over raw power.
Witness the new self-assuredness of domestic Chardonnay, which is rebounding from its era of excess and showing the distinctive side of what can be an easily abused grape. New labels like Cartha and Sandhi are unveiling impressive bottles that embrace the best traditions of Chardonnay not just from California, but from anywhere in the world.

For that matter, there’s the beauty of Pinot Noir in 2009. Here’s a grape that’s still struggling with fame, and yet for all the overwrought and overprocessed versions, there are more vintners than ever seeking to express its purity. Whether it’s interpretations of sites like the Demuth or Suacci vineyards, Gavin Chanin’s sublime take on Bien Nacido or Anam Cara’s contemplative expression from Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains, there is a widespread interest in making wines that do more than pay lip service to a true sense of place. The transparency of winemaking in Pinot Noir is better than ever, and the result is that the best of American Pinot can now rightfully sit next to the finest specimens from anywhere in the world.

Great winemaking can appear in more unexpected forms. The innovative work in white wine is changing the playing field. We’ve been acknowledging the quality of unique blends for a couple years, and this year such bottles as Arbe Garbe’s Pinot Grigio-driven effort are not simply intriguing; they’re paving a path to the future. Add in the rise of great Grenache Blanc and Albarino and even impressive Colombard, and you have a diversity of white wine that hasn’t been witnessed on these shores since the carefree early years of California’s modern wine era.

It is a great time to be a winemaker who is willing to take risks. A new generation of West Coast wines is finding a welcome reception much farther afield; you’re as likely to run into a wine lover in New York rhapsodizing about La Clarine Farm or Ryme Cellars as you are in San Francisco. These wines often find an audience without a marketing budget or a big-dollar distributor, and they prove the power of American craft.
It is also a great time to be a devotee of wines from this coast. So let’s pay tribute to those who think small — and their exceptional work to keep our glasses filled with something wonderful.

Email Jon Bonné at jbonne@sfchronicle.com or twitter.com/jbonne.