Long Island’s vintners are ready to celebrate Thanksgiving this year with universal gratitude for an extraordinary vintage. According to Paumanok Vineyards’ winemaker Kareem Massoud, “Vintage 2010 was off the charts, with unprecedented heat accumulations that were above average every month of the growing season. The sunny, warm and dry weather combined to deliver a superb level of uniform ripeness.”
The growing season had an early start as vines budded out in mid-April, easily two weeks early. At Paumanok, this made for an intense period of work in the vineyard because vegetative growth was so rapid that leaf-pulling in the fruit zone had to be done at the same time as shoot positioning. Both shoot positioning and leaf-pulling allow the vines to maximize photosynthesis while exposing the fruit to beneficial ultraviolet light. Especially in sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc (all genetically related varietals characterized by vegetal-tasting pyrazines when underripe), Kareem believes that early leaf-pulling, even before mid-June bloom, is crucial.
“This year, we made an enormous effort tweaking what we do, doubling the size of our crew in June and working six 12-hour days a week. Leaf-pulling is tedious, monotonous work, requiring real vigilance, but it pays big dividends,” he said.
In the case of sauvignon blanc wines, a certain expression of grassy or herbaceous aromas is considered appropriate for the varietal. Wines made from this grape in New Zealand have created a model that is commonly described as “cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush.” A more polite description of the high-pyrazine aroma would be “bell pepper” or “green bean.” However unattractive this may sound, it enhances many foods that are themselves edgy or herbaceous (briny oysters, tarragon chicken, pad Thai).
One of my favorite producers of top-quality New Zealand sauvignon blancs is the Goldwater Estate, a family operation similar to the Massoud family of Paumanok as pioneers and innovators. The Goldwaters also practice extensive leaf-pulling, encouraging the riper aromas of lichee or passion fruit. As Kareem Massoud says, “If you do the extra effort in the vineyard, sauvignon blanc is riper, with more fruit; still classic but not as amped.”
In the winery, Kareem also takes a middle road between making a purely fruit-driven wine (known in the trade as a “reductive” style) and a more complex, “oxidative” style that occurs when the must is allowed some exposure to oxygen.
In Bordeaux, where sauvignon blanc is the principal white grape (blended with a small percentage of sémillion), the tradition is oxidative because the wines have historically been fermented in small oak barrels. At best, white Bordeaux delivers pear and honeysuckle aromas with a whiff of smoke from the barrel. Earlier this year, I found the 2001 Domaine de Chevalier Blanc (a grand cru from the Pessac-Léognan region of Bordeaux) so dynamic and complex, I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.
I felt the same way when, about a month before Robert Mondavi died in 2008, I shared a bottle of his To Kalon Fumé Blanc Reserve with him and his wife, Margrit Biever Mondavi. Unable to speak after suffering a stroke, Mondavi still expressed his pleasure in this wine with shining eyes and a gentle smile. Margrit held the glass to his lips as she explained how, in 1966, Robert coined the term “fumé blanc” to distinguish this dry, French oak-aged sauvignon blanc from the ubiquitous sweet, simple California sauvignon blancs of the time.
In Chile, the French producers of Chateau Lafitte Rothschild make a well-crafted sauvignon blanc in the Bordeaux style at their Viña Los Vascos property. Unlike many insipid Chilean wines, this one has real vibrancy, without too much grass. Los Vascos’ white and red wines, like the Montes brand, show how major investments of capital and labor by people who have been successful in other areas can vastly improve the wines of a developing region like Chile.
Sauvignon blanc is also a principal white grape of the Loire, where a good Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé can be either expressively fruit-driven or intricately complex. Guy Saget and Pascal Jolivet make refined, zesty examples with a range of prices.
Giving thanks for all these hardworking vintners, I plan to toast them this Thanksgiving with a delicious glass of sauvignon blanc. Don’t know yet which one; it depends on what kind of stuffing we have. Sage? Go grassy. Nuts? Go complex. Either way, I’m grateful.
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.