SIAG Resident Master Sommelier, Catherine Fallis, aka grape goddess®, explores the Sauv Blanc from one of the New World’s oldest wine regions, Livermore Valley. Though it’s place in history undeniable, many have not had the good fortune of tasting and exploring this important wine region. It’s profound connection with Sauvignon Blanc dates back to the 19th century and the wines made from the grape there reflect this experience and depth of tradition…
Livermore Valley Regional Tasting Profile
Livermore Valley was once one of California’s prime sources of grapes. In 1882, Charles Wetmore planted cuttings of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from Chateau d’Yquem in his Cresta Blanca Vineyard. The 1884 Cresta Blanca made from these grapes won the Grand Prize at the 1889 Paris Expo, becoming the first American wine ever to win a prize in France. More recently, Hugh Johnson wrote about what a prime spot this valley was for Sauvignon Blanc due to its well-drained, gravelly limestone soil, similar to what is found in Bordeaux. The gravel, comprised of egg-sized stones deposited from rushing waters in now dry arroyos are easily visible. Along Tesla Road, they are as large as a melon or a basketball.
Yet with all of this early recognition, the potential of Livermore Valley wines has not been fully realized. A major challenge has been the fact that like Silicon Valley, much of Livermore Valley transitioned rapidly from rural ranchland to housing developments and strip malls. And like the Santa Cruz Mountains, many wine producers turned to Monterey County for fruit once their vineyards were gone. Today however there are 4,000 vineyard acres planted here.
Livermore is a wide spot in a long chain of identical valleys running N-S behind the East Bay Hills, and is the warmest valley from Southern Monterey to San Francisco. Marine influence is mostly blocked by the East Bay Hills and the Santa Cruz Mountains so the days are warm, but gaps in the hills allow evening cooling with fog from the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific. The Altamont Ridge blocks much of the San Joaquin Valley heat. Harvest starts and ends later than it does in Napa Valley, and there is less rainfall. Livermore is cooler than the northernmost points in Napa Valley.
Carolyn Wente pioneered the San Francisco Bay AVA to help the area gain worldwide recognition, which did help in export markets, but Livermore Valley only now is trying to earn a reputation as a truly fine wine destination. Joining Amador and San Ramon in the “Visit Tri-Valley California” marketing group has helped draw attention to the fact it is only 33 miles from San Francisco. This should help drive folks to tasting rooms and wineries. But what would help even more would be a focus on terroir, on specific vineyards, and perhaps a tendency towards a couple of varietals at which they excel. On that list, I would definitely include Sauvignon Blanc.
I asked respected wine writer and educator Fred Swan, owner of NorCal Wines, to comment on the local Sauvignon Blancs. He said, “My favorites, aside from Steven Kent and not in order of preference as that changes from vintage to vintage, are Wente Louis Mel, Murrietta’s Well Los Tesoros (which also comes from the Louis Mel vineyard, but is small production at just 8 barrels), Concannon Reserve Assemblage Blanc (a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon), and Occasio Winery Del Arroyo Vineyard.”
In the tastings I conducted of several local wines, a signature style did not emerge. I did enjoy the diversity of the range, starting with the light, low alcohol 2013 Cuda Ridge Sauvignon Blanc. It was softly grassy, savory and juicy, like biting into those oversized grapes found in Europe in the fall, and would be easy to pair with a wide range of appetizers. The 2013 Page Mill Winery Sauvignon Blanc offered floral, peach, and banana notes along with an underlying vein of resinous scrub like lavender or thyme. The 2013 McGrail Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc was very ripe with tropical fruit, even lychee, along with tarragon and a light hay note.
Vineyards such as Steven Kent’s Ghielmetti and Wente’s Louis Mel are proof that Sauvignon Blanc can excel here, especially when given the chance to fully reflect its terroir. The 2013 Steven Kent Winery “Lola” Sauvignon Blanc Ghielmetti Vineyard offered notes of green pea, basil and tomato leaf, white asparagus, yellow pear, Serrano chile, black peppercorn and peach. It was bright, electric, and punchy and had a long, clean, fruity finish.
The 2012 Wente Louis Mel Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc was beautifully balanced and complex as well, with notes of soft dried grass and herbs, pink grapefruit, lemongrass, sweet peach, apricot, honey, and lemondrop. I loved its soft fleshy texture brought to life with lively tart acidity and it had a long dried herb/pineapple tinged finish. Wente also produces the 2013 Murrieta’s Well Los Tesoros Small Lot Sauvignon Blanc – in this vintage only 3 barrels were made so it is only available at the tasting room. This was bright and punchy with notes of red delicious apple, pineapple, creamsicle, banana pudding, nutmeg, white pepper, rhubarb, and sage. The finish offered notes of mango and vanilla, though it sees no oak. They also produce a limited amount of Los Tesoros White Meritage.
~ Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, aka grape goddess®
Master Sommelier at Planet Grape® LLC – www.planetgrape.com, a wine consulting firm providing education, entertainment, content, and sommelier services, Catherine created her alter-ego, grape goddess®, to help bring wine down to earth for consumers as well as those entering the wine industry. She is the only person in the world to hold both the Master Sommelier and Advanced Certified Wine Professional credentials, is the world’s only Master Sabreuse, opening Champagne with a sword, and is a Wine Advisor to restaurants and wine bars. She is Contributing Editor/Columnist, The Tasting Panel Magazine & The SOMM Journal, Adjunct Instructor at San Francisco Wine School, Tasting Panel Lead at Swanky Wine Shop, and resident Master Sommelier at Summertime in a Glass.
Tags: catherine fallis, chris chandler, cuda ridge, grape goddess, livermore valley, livermore valley winegrowers association, mcgrail, page mill, steven kent, wente