I am now officially on the warpath against too many single-vineyard wines. Saint Clair Family Estate in the Marlborough region of New Zealand finally pushed me over my personal tipping point. The other day MaryAnn Worobiec and I spent most of the morning tasting 2009 Sauvignon Blancs. For a stretch it seemed that, upon removing the bag, every other wine was another single-vineyard bottling from Saint Clair.
Wineries argue that they are exploring terroir, identifying which parcels produce something distinguishable from each other and can deliver inherent characteristics that make them special. Too many wineries that bottle a lot of single-vineyard cuvées, however, end up making a bunch of wines that are no better than their less-expensive blends. Only they cost more.
And that was exactly the case with Saint Clair. Of the seven single-vineyard Pioneer Block bottlings we tasted, each priced at $24, we rated only two outstanding (90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale). Saint Clair’s entry-level Vicar’s Choice ($17 retail) did just as well, because it had more inherent charm. The winery makes a reserve and five more single-vineyards as well, apparently not imported here.
Other wineries make it just as difficult for us, and by us I mean consumers as well as critics. The whole idea strikes me as anti-consumer. Siphoning off what are theoretically your best grapes to make smaller quantities of more expensive wines requires a winery’s fans to spend more either by buying more bottles or choosing from among higher-priced wines. The results better be worth it.
In tasting through the Saint Clair Pioneer Block lineup, we found ready distinctions among the individual lots. The Oh! Block is tangy and open-textured, brimming with tangerine, Key lime and guava flavors. Foundation Block is jazzier, shooting sparks of passion fruit and gooseberry flavor as it zings across the palate.
Less impressive were 43 Degrees, which offered sweet pea character, both the flower and vegetable, mixed with peach flavors and a sense of sweetness, and Bird Block, which was considerably denser in texture, with an orange marmalade character most prominent. The appropriately named Cash Block delivered layered bell pepper overtones atop the lime and stone fruit flavors. Snap Block skewed to the bell pepper end of the flavor spectrum.
By comparison, the entry-level Vicar’s Choice was bright and refreshing, generous with its melon, apricot and mineral aromas and flavors, finishing with lime and herb notes that did not quit. I liked it a tad more than the basic Marlborough bottling, which seemed a bit sweet, with raging acidity to balance it, making it taste like a lemon sweet-tart candy.
It is unusual for any producer to make this many Sauvignon Blancs. Usually this tendency toward multiple bottling falls to Pinot Noir-centered wineries and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Chardonnay. That follows the Burgundy model, where the producers must do it at least partly out of necessity, since ownership of individual vineyards has been broken up over generations. In any event, I can appreciate this if the wines justify it with both quality and distinct character.
As a marketing ploy in the New World, some wineries must find that a plethora of single-vineyard bottlings works, despite the marketing challenges of selling so many different labels. Recently, however, several wineries have discontinued some of their single-vineyard me-too bottlings, opting to improve their regular wines or their reserves with the more distinctive grapes. That’s a trend I can support.
Marco Mandracchia — montreal quebec — January 15, 2010 3:03pm ET
Mark Sinnott — Issaquah, WA — January 15, 2010 3:14pm ET
Richard Zaremba — Philadelphia — January 15, 2010 3:24pm ET
Bill Andreotti — Aurora, IL USA — January 15, 2010 5:52pm ET
John Lawrence — Michigan — January 15, 2010 7:32pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 16, 2010 2:28am ET
John Lawrence — Michigan — January 16, 2010 9:50am ET
Morgan Dawson — Rochester, NY — January 17, 2010 8:47pm ET
Lowry Sweney — Los Angeles, CA — January 17, 2010 8:49pm ET
David A Zajac — Akron, OH — January 18, 2010 11:24am ET
John Lawrence — Michigan — January 18, 2010 12:33pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 18, 2010 1:00pm ET
Pacific Rim Winemakers — Portland, OR — January 18, 2010 2:54pm ET
John Lawrence — Michigan — January 19, 2010 6:46pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 20, 2010 3:09am ET
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