August 5, 2014
“Sauvignon Blanc is the poor bastard child grape, it’s just so unappreciated,” sighs Dragonette’s Brandon Sparks-Gillis. “And there’s just so many producers who treat it like sh*t, and who treat it as just this cash cow, turn-and-burn grape, which I think is part of why it has a bit of a bad reputation.” Sparks-Gillis is one of Santa Barbara County’s most vocal advocates for the nobility of Sauvignon Blanc. While the grape’s value-driven examples from California, the Loire Valley, and New Zealand are popular everyday choices for much of the wine-drinking populace, few bestow the grape with the praise reserved for, say, white Burgundy. The team at Dragonette is among the few lavishing Sauvignon Blanc with an intensity of farming and winemaking to rival the world’s greatest estates. This week I spoke with Brandon Sparks-Gillis and John Dragonette about their work with Sauvignon Blanc in Happy Canyon.
Great wine often requires context. While I’m a believer in the merits of blind tasting, particularly if one is seeking to identify typicity within a grape variety or a region, many of the world’s most unique and treasured wines don’t show their best in a blind setting. I would include Dragonette’s Sauvignon Blancs in this group. These are wines that not only require but deserve a few hours at table with the right food and enough time and air to explore their nuances, along with an understanding of the philosophical approach behind them. The concentration in the wines, along with the use of oak, puts them in the rarefied air of producers like Francois Cotat, Didier Dagueneau, and Yquem’s ‘Ygrec,’ wines that are similarly proportioned and walk the tightrope between voluptuousness and mineral intensity effortlessly. In a blind tasting, these stick out when poured next to more traditional and/or mundane renditions of the grape, which I believe is something to be celebrated, not maligned.
The wines of Dragonette would not be possible without the unique geological and climatic character of Happy Canyon. While their initial Sauvignon Blancs incorporated fruit from outside the AVA, they have now devoted themselves solely to this amazing region. “We were inspired by a pretty wide range of Sauvignon Blanc initially,” says Sparks-Gillis. “As we started to work with Vogelzang and Grassini (both in Happy Canyon), we were really interested in what they were giving us. And as we started tasting the wines, we saw that they definitely lean a little more towards a Bordeaux expression of Sauvignon Blanc.” Without a doubt, the closest analogue to the area is Bordeaux, particularly the bold examples from producers like Smith Haut Lafitte and Haut-Brion. And unlike Bordeaux, the Sauvignon Blancs of Happy Canyon don’t require the addition of Semillon. “We initially sought out Semillon,” states Sparks-Gillis, “but we found that the wines from here were already so round and rich that we didn’t need it.”
Harnessing the power of Happy Canyon and fine-tuning how to best channel the area’s site character in the vineyard and the winery has been Dragonette’s greatest achievement. “Our dogma is to have no dogma,” emphatically states Sparks-Gillis. “We’ve had lots that range from 11.5% alcohol to 15%, and that may lean more towards one direction or another depending on the vintage. We want to let the season speak rather than having a dogmatic approach to when we pick.” They have worked tirelessly in the vineyard to control canopy and yield, seeking tiny, concentrated clusters that can strike a balance between fruit and minerality. “Sauv is all about minerality. There should be a fruit component, but if it’s all about fruit it can often get flabby and boring.”
The wines are never the ripest examples from Happy Canyon, though they’re certainly not ultra-lean, early-picked examples. The team at Dragonette believes that the area finds its truest expression in-between those two extremes. “I think in general, Happy Canyon has leaned toward a riper style, and that’s often where we find the best representation of place,” states Sparks-Gillis. “If you ask most people about Sauvignon Blanc, a lot of the things they’ll talk about- herbaceousness, cat pee, high acid- yes, these are related somewhat to climate, but they’re also very much stylistic decisions related to stylized winemaking.” This slightly riper, more intense character has been a big factor in the wines’ ability to age gracefully as well. “Happy Canyon typically drifts into the 3.4-3.6 pH range, but the wines still show a lot of spine. I think part of that has to do with our lower yields. Without that intensity and concentration, these wines don’t have the bones to age.”
The winemaking seeks to accent this concentration texturally and aromatically while preserving the minerality. Early experimentation with varying amounts of new oak has led them to what seems to be a relatively stable regime of 80% oak (of which only 10-20% is typically new) and 20% stainless steel, though again, the vagaries of vintage may shift these percentages. “A winemaking technique will often evolve from what someone who’s inspired us is doing, but ultimately we want to express the truth of Happy Canyon,” says John Dragonette. “For example, we’ve shifted to larger format cigar-shaped barrels similar to what Dagueneau is using, which is what most of our new oak is now, and that brings about a much slower evolution in the wines.” Rather than create wines defined by the spice or structural character of new barrels, they are using oak as a very subtle accent, with the ultimate goal of, again, emphasizing the site-driven character of Happy Canyon.
The two sites they are currently working with, Grassini and Vogelzang, create very different wines despite their close proximity and similar soils. The Grassini shows a unique top note of very fresh coconut, along with kiwi, guava, and piercing minerality. Sparks-Gillis says the wine’s green label is a nod to the character of the site. “Grassini has a little more of a green spectrum to the fruit, which is not to say herbaceous or underripe. This is more just-barely-ripe pineapple, kiwi, more of a freshness.” Vogelzang on the other hand is very deserving of its yellow/orange label: The more exotic of the two, its notes of fig, papaya, and musk are incredibly sexy, and more importantly, utterly singular; in short, it is the essence of Happy Canyon.
In a piece I wrote on Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc a few months ago, I said that no one had quite nailed it yet. Maybe I was being a bit hard on the area, but that’s because I have such strong conviction that Happy Canyon is capable of producing some of the greatest single vineyard Sauvignon Blancs on the planet. Now that I’ve had the chance to experience the Grassini and Vogelzang bottlings from Dragonette, and more importantly had the chance to experience them in the proper context, I can honestly say that these guys are nailing it. Brandon Sparks-Gillis says there’s no magic formula; rather, their success is the sum of numerous small steps that elevate the wines to their highest expression. “Getting from mediocre wine to good wine is not that difficult, but getting from good to great can be an overwhelming amount of work. We feel like our wines are getting there, but 10 years from now I hope people can taste our wines blind in a lineup and say, ‘that’s Dragonette.’ And hopefully there’s an element of greatness there.”