"Working by Hand" (Winemaking)
- Most common styles
- Still; dry and sweet
- Winemaker choices and option
- Virtually all winemakers make use of available options (skin contact, malolactic, lees-stirring, choice of fermentation vessel, etc.)
- All options are used -- stainless steel, concrete, oak (barrels, vats, barriques, and oak alternatives)
- Aging potential (yes/no). If “yes,” give range
- Yes. Still versions should be enjoyed young (2-5 years), while some (mostly oak-aged examples) have the potential to age 8-10 years. The best sweet examples can live up to 15 years in California.
- Presented solo or frequently blended with
- Many are monovarietal, but blends for both still and desert styles (often blended with Semillon and Muscadelle) are prominent
Working by Hand
The end intent will drive many of the decisions made by the winemaker, whether a Loire Valley-style (100% pure, minimal if any wood-aging, lean and fresh) or a white Bordeaux-style (likely blended, often oak-aged, rounder in texture). Once that decision has been made, many of the actual steps will be dictated by the choice of expression. Dessert styles often follow the latter directives, incorporating residual sugar and the incorporation of botrytis.
Leave the fermenting wine must (grape pulp and solids) in contact with the skins before, during and/or after fermentation.
What it does
It “pops” the fruit character by extracting components from the skins that make the wine very opulent and flashy. The downside is that over time the wines often brown and oxidize (that is, age) more quickly and can ultimately seem more like sherry than Sauvignon Blanc.
Also referred to by the French term “macération pelliculiaire” (as made famous in recent history by Bordeaux’s late Denis Dubourdieu), it is often employed. Cold soaking the unfermented must pre-fermentation is the most common approach. Post-fermentation skin contact is rare. Whole cluster pressing, as opposed to simply pressing the berries, is sometimes employed for drainage and must clarity, and can equate to a refined, less bitter wine.
What it does
Proponents of wild yeast embrace the unique flavors derived from “place,” including savory and matchstick-like aromas that many love. Cultivated yeasts are more predictable and can be selected/customized to contribute specific flavors and aromas.
Some winemakers blend the two -- sometimes starting with native yeast and reserving the use of commercial yeast only if something does not go right (e.g. fixing a stuck fermentation). Others may create cuvées/cocktails of specific commercial yeasts to achieve a desired flavor profile, since each strain contributes something different. For more on the role of yeast and Sauvignon Blanc, visit University of California, Davis’ "The Role of Yeast in Grape Flavor Development during Fermentation: The Example of Sauvignon Blanc" by D. Dubordieu, T. Tominaga, I. Masneuf, C. Peyrot des Gachons, and M-L Murat
The wood employed for most wine barrels, used for aging the wine or actual fermentation of the wine in the barrel. Barrel decisions include the type of wood, the amount of toast (when the staves of the barrels are bent over an open flame), size (smaller = higher ratio of wood to wine = stronger oak influence) and the age of the barrels.
What it does
- Caramel or butterscotch flavors that many identify with Sauvignon Blanc dessert wines come not from the grape but from oak-aging.
- Heavily toasted barrels impart more intense roasted flavors (caramel, molasses, toffee, coffee, and burnt sugar).
- Oak bestows a waxy, velvety texture and can add a sweet buttercream flavor to the wine.
- New oak contributes much more flavor than older, previously used oak which, depending on the wine and the grapes, may be a better choice.
- Small (barrique-size) barrel fermentation at warmer temperatures than those in stainless steel and over shorter increments of time also imparts a richer, smoother texture to the wine than one not fermented in barrel.
As previously noted, at least half of Sauvignon Blancs are made in the absence of wood, favoring neutral stainless steel or concrete to allow the purity of the variety to shine. For those that do employ oak, there is a modern movement towards keeping the oak in check, i.e. minimizing “over-oaking,”
Converts wine's malic acid (the sharp acid found in tart green apples) into milder lactic acid (as in sour cream, yogurt, etc.).
What it does
Softens the wine's acidic edge, contributes a velvety smooth texture, and can add a strong buttered-popcorn flavor. In red wines, it is mandatory for stability’s sake (few exceptions).
Vintners can decide to entirely prevent ML, e.g. in a warm vintage, or allow it to happen in a portion of the wine, later blended with the rest. With Sauvignon Blanc, it is used more for stability than flavor. Diacetyl (the component that imparts the buttery popcorn notes) is not important and usually eschewed.
Stirring or agitating the dead yeast cells (lees). During alcoholic fermentation, as the yeast metabolizes the sugar and produces alcohol, dead yeast cells tumble slowly to the bottom of the fermentation vessel, where they can be stirred, aka bâtonnage.
What it does
Adds smooth texture (a rounder “mouthfeel”), additional toasty flavors and an extra dimension of complexity.
An increasingly common practice that originated in Burgundy, lees stirring is frequently employed to add roundness and texture to Sauvignon Blanc. For those desiring either pure or blended styles with texture, roundness and creaminess, lees stirring is an important tool.
As noted above, Sauvignon Blanc is often made as a wine of less than 100% pure variety. Traditionally, the Bordeaux model assembles Sauvignon Blanc with its familial cousins (Semillon and Muscadelle de Bordelais) in varying percentages to make a classic “Bordeaux blend.” When the percentage of Sauvignon Blanc falls below 75% (85% for exports), it can no longer carry the Sauvignon Blanc label moniker.
What it does
Adds roundness, in addition to diverse flavors and an extra dimension of complexity.
Blends result in different styles of wine. Increasing the proportions of other grapes can either augment Sauvignon Blanc’s aggressive nature or tame it, in which case Semillon, by far, is the grape of choice. Muscadelle, if utilized, is just a few percentage points and quite rare in California. Combining different clones and selections (e.g. classic clones with Musqué clones) is another way of adding complexity to Sauvignon Blanc.