There are many iconic Sauvignon Blanc wines in the world: The flinty, mineral, citrusy Sauvignons of France’s upper Loire (Sancerre; Pouilly-Fumé); the exotic, gooseberry-scented showstoppers from New Zealand; the fleshy, structured, Sémillon-inflected whites of Bordeaux. Not always mentioned are the varietal Sauvignon Blancs of Northeast Italy, and especially the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, which truly have their own voice.
Friuli’s push-pull of Alpine and Adriatic air, along with its mineral-rich marl soils, provides a unique environment for Sauvignon Blanc to thrive, lending it its own distinct ‘Friulian’ character—one that combines the mineral grip of the Loire with the fruit expression of Bordeaux (and, for that matter, California). Friuli has also become the world’s epicenter of skin-fermented white wines, bringing a longstanding tradition of the region back into fashion. Many Californian winemakers have taken inspiration from Friulian white wine culture, including Nate Belden, maker of this deep and expressive Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma Mountain. This is an ever-so-subtle skin-fermented style—not an “orange wine”—and it reminded us not just of Friulian styles but of many Bordeaux whites as well. I found it both fascinating and immensely satisfying; it’s a wine that not only showcases the volcanic terroir of Sonoma Mountain but reveals dimensions in Sauvignon Blanc that are rare in Californian versions.
As I learned recently, Belden Barns has just three vintages under its belt—making this 2015 all the more impressive. I met Nate Belden and his family while attending the Sonoma County Barrel Auction, an event which, among other things, is a great way to discover fresh talent. He was only offering Pinot Noir that day, but I wasn’t complaining: it was superb. If his production allowed it, I would have already offered the wine on SommSelect. Wanting very much to work with him, I invited him over (not the other way around) soon after the auction, so we could sample his entire range. After pouring me this Sauvignon Blanc, I immediately knew we had a rising star in the game, and not because the wine was “showy” or indicative of lots of fancy technique—above all else, the wine is extremely well-balanced, expressing not just Sauvignon Blanc varietal character but a healthy mineral quality as well.
Despite both sides of Nate’s family having an established history in the farming business, he chose the path of high finance, but like a true country soul, couldn’t shake the itch to return to his roots. He had a constant eye on the property that would become Belden Barns for the better part of 2004, and when he visited a year later, the “For Sale” sign had been uprooted. He immediately called the realtor and, with a stroke of luck, learned the sale had fallen though. No more chances could be taken. He bought it soon after. Although Belden Farms is a new venture, the site itself dates to the late 1800s. Perched high on Sonoma Mountain, they benefit from their 1,000-foot elevation that serves as a buffer from sultry summer days, and volcanic soils that impart minerality to the wines. The vine material for this Sauvignon Blanc came from a downslope neighbor, the Dry Stack Vineyard, whose owners had sourced it from the Collio region of Friuli and gave Nate their blessing to plant some. This bottling refers to that planting (“Rosemary’s Block”) on its label, and its production also shows a Friulian influence: The 2015 was left in contact with its skins for a brief period during fermentation, and the finished wine was aged on its lees for five months in a combination of stainless steel tanks and neutral oak barrels. The wine was bottled unfined and unfiltered, so in addition to its coppery/pink cast from skin contact, the wine has a slight haziness to its appearance (it’s all flavor, folks—nothing at all to be worried about!).
When I blind-tasted my colleague David Lynch on this wine, his first guess—maybe because he’s such an Italophile—was that it was from Friuli. He remarked, actually, that it reminded him of Sauvignons made by the great Movia estate (actually just across the border in Slovenia). My own experience with the wine was similar, although I also found some kindred qualities to white Bordeaux, especially texturally: The lees/barrel aging has lent a slight creaminess while also blunting some of the grapefruity acidic edges typical of Sauvignon Blanc. A deep, coppery gold in the glass, there’s a riper, more orange expression to the grape’s citrus component, along with notes of melon, wildflowers, salted lemon, and very subtle, wood-derived spice notes. Whereas many Sauvignons are grippy and mouth-watering, this has a more dense, almost viscous texture while remaining bright and dry—indeed, the finish is marked by a little grip of tannin from the skin contact, along with a notable mineral savor. It is quite substantial, much less an aperitif style than one I’d want on the table with food. It’s ready to drink now—let it come up to 50 degrees and serve it in all-purpose white wine stems with richer seafoods dressed with plenty of lemon and herbs (this recipe should do the trick). This is a new-generation Californian wine that is not to be missed, especially at this amazing price!
Sauvignon Blanc 100%
Partial Used French