Wine in Context #2: Oaked Sauvignon
I think in any other year the Oaked Sauvignon Blanc tasting that I arranged with Richard Bampfield MW in November 2015 would have been my favourite wine event of the year; there was, however, some very stiff competition in 2015. I learnt a lot through arranging this tasting, and I developed a great appreciation of the generous nature of eight vignerons in the Loire Valley, as I sourced almost all my bottles direct from the eight domaines (the only exception being a couple that came through Justerini & Brooks).
For me the tasting came just at the right time. I know there are more than one or two wine drinkers out there who are allergic to the combination of oak and Sauvignon Blanc. It is easy to pick holes in such a belief, for example Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux is heavily reliant on oak, and plenty of drinkers go ga-ga over Silex from Didier and more recently Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau without realising that it is raised almost exclusively in new and nearly-new oak. But that’s not the point, because I understand the ‘allergy’. These two famous names are exceptions to the rule that do it well, and until a few years ago I also had the Sauvignon-oak allergy. The typical Sauvignon fruit character in combination with buttery oak just seemed to jar. I couldn’t understand why a number of domaines in Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Menetou-Salon persisted with what seemed to me to be a winemaker’s folly.
Then I tasted couple of examples with a few years of bottle age, and I suddenly realised the purpose of these wines. It was a revelation, like the first time I really ‘got’ Sherry, or the first time I tasted 19th-century Madeira. Oaked Sauvignon Blanc is not a wine to drink young, and thus we must put our entire understanding of this variety – the wines of which are almost universally touted for drinking young – in the bin when it comes to the oaked wines. These are wines for the cellar, and when you come back to them with 8-10 (or sometimes more) years bottle age you suddenly realise their purpose. And the style is completely different, not at all like aged unoaked Sauvignon Blanc. It was like a veil had been lifted from my eyes. Even after years of researching the wines of the Loire, it was only now that I finally understood what this select group of vignerons who combined oak and Sauvignon were up to. And this was the phase I was in when Richard Bampfield’s invitation to co-host the tasting popped into my inbox.
Those domaines that sent wines were La Tour Saint-Martin (best wishes to Bertrand who is reading this from his hospital bed – courage Bertrand, get well soon), Alain Cailbourdin, Masson-Blondelet, Didier Dagueneau, Lucien Crochet, Alphonse Mellot, Vincent Pinard and Henri Bourgeois. Any fears that the wines would be green, over-oaked, weedy or otherwise soon dissipated once the corks were pulled. My only disappointment was that one of the bottles of 2002 Silex was corked, leaving just one bottle for the entire tasting. This was something we planned for by having three bottles of each wine, but there were only two of this wine available to us.
So what did I learn here? First, I learnt that putting on a tasting, even a small one such as this, is hard work. First you have to beg for bottles (thanks to the eight domaines again!). Then you have to arrange to have them shipped over, and generally feel like a nuisance by emailing the same people again and again for an update on where the bottles are (my nightmare was for tasters to turn up to half a tasting!), then there is the logistics of serving temperatures, venue, glasses and so on. Thankfully Richard Bampfield took care of most of this, but there was still a lot of checking and chasing to do. And I learnt a lot by meeting some of those who came to taste; I could explain why I chose those domaines, and those vintages, they could explain why they were there, and what their interest in oaked Loire Sauvignon Blanc was. In fact, meeting some new faces and talking about the wines was probably the most rewarding aspect of the day, and so I resolved at any tastings I go to in future to always put aside a minute or two for the host, if nothing else to say thanks for all the hard work.
There will be more Wine in Context moments over the next few days. If you are new to Wine in Context, a glance at Wine in Context #10: Return to Thieuley might be helpful. If you want to contribute, feel free to add your favourite moment in the comments below – or if you have a longer report from a great wine dinner, wine trip, wine tasting or other wine moment during 2015 you can email it to me, and I can host it on the blog for you.