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Giving Sauvignon Blanc its due

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Lord knows I haven’t been a big fan of California Sauvignon Blanc over the years. I thought that, compared to white Bordeaux, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, and even Marlborough, my state has been a distant second, or third. The wines have tended to be either overly sweet, or green, or just plain thin and acidic.

But in the past year, I noticed I’m giving some pretty good scores to Sauv Blanc. I gave a little thought to blogging about it, but the moment never seemed right, until yesterday, when, by coincidence, two things happened. First, I got an email telling me I was mentioned in a Facebook post, so I clicked on the link, which took me to the feed page of a winery, Vellum, where the poster had written: “The 2010 VELLUM White was awarded 92 points from our friends at Wine Enthusiast Magazine. A wildly high score for a white Bordeaux blend!!” (The wine actually is 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillon, and was raised in neutral oak.)

At the same time, I was about to review a bunch of Sauvignon Blancs that had come in from Flora Springs, Dutton Estate and J Ludlow. I enjoyed that flight very much, for the most part, and once again found myself giving out some pretty good scores.

I checked out Wine Enthusiast’s database for my highest scoring Sauv Blancs over the past 365 days and found about 40 that got between 90 and 93 points. The four 93 pointers were Trione 2010 River Road Ranch (Russian River Valley), Duckhorn 2010 (Napa Valley), Robert Mondavi 2008 I Block Fume Blanc (Oakville) and Hall 2010 T Bar T Ranch (Alexander Valley). Except for the Trione, the others are wines I’ve known and praised for years; Hall bought T Bar T from Iron Horse some years back. Iron Horse,  I believe, used to jazz their Sauv Blanc up with a little Viognier, to brighten it and give it some uplifted floral notes. I don’t know if Hall still does. And then, of course, Mondavi’s I Block always is triumphant. And by the way, that wine ages.

Anyway, people sometimes ask me why I don’t give Sauvignon Blanc scores as high as Chardonnay. For example, in the past year I’ve given two 96s, to Shafer 2009 Red Shoulder Ranch (Carneros) and Foxen 2010 Block UU Bien Nacido Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley). The answer probably won’t satisfy everyone. It’s simply that I don’t think Sauvignon Blanc–at least in its California incarnation–has the depth and richness of Chardonnay.

I admire Sauvignon Blanc more than I love it. I respect its dryness (when it is dry, which too often it isn’t), its acidity, its streamlined minerality, its spiciness, its exotic range of flavors, its palate-cleansing properties. Those are all good things, especially at the table. Sauvignon Blanc is probably the most food-friendly white table wine in California. But when I’m in the mood for a cold white wine, it’s almost never a Sauvignon Blanc that I grab, but Chardonnay. That’s why they call Chardonnay a “noble” variety, but not Sauvignon Blanc. Even in France, Sauvignon Blanc never elicited the profound excitement that white Burgundy, including Chablis, did and still does.

  1. Hi I’m Robert. I enjoy good wine. My view of SB is very similar. After spending fifteen to twenty dollars of my limited wine budget for a rather thin and uninteresting bottle of crap, three or four times, Sauvignon Blanc quickly became my least favorite varietal. However, I have recently tried some white Bordeaux (Washington)that IMHO is really good. Perhaps I could come to admire California SB.

  2. I think the biggest problem with California Sauvignon Blanc is the QPR. I happen to love the variety, like a lot but when I’m looking at a $20 price on what can and far too often is, a rather boring Sauvignon Blanc from Napa or Sonoma when I can find a wealth of fresher tasting, complex and frankly, better wines for less money from the Loire Valley, well give me Touraine, Quincy and Sancerre thank you very much….

  3. Interesting topic, surprised not more discussion. When I was in school in 60′s and in Vit 126, Sensory Analysis I was surprised by Dr. Amerine’s statement in class that the best white wines that were made in California were from Sauvignon Blanc. If I am not mistaken, I think the best were coming from Livermore then.

    Flash forward to today. There are several different styles in California, but for some reason most come up lacking. The New Zealand imitators are often thin and insipid, or simple in captured fermentation bouquet, maybe tinged with sulfite. A riper style, neutrally aged can be often be green,veggie, and off putting. Even the riper style, barrel fermented, aged sur lie, later bottled can be still be green on aroma and the taste, and not helped by the oak. The very ripe style breeching 15% alcohol can be quick ageing and tired, and sometime smelling faintly of a cigar butt. It seems hard for anyone to get it just right, though it is great when it happens.

    Seems to happen more often in the Loire or Bordeaux. I once looked at a couple of especially nice vintages of H.Brion Blanc in the lab. (maybe it doesn’t count because they’re half Semillon) They were over 14 alc., high amount of oak phenolics, surely lots of new barrels, relatively high acid, no ML. Despite analytical oak, the aromas were citrusy and honey-like and the flavors were balanced, yet rich and creamy. My subsequent attempts to approximate the wines were, of course, unsuccessful.

  4. As a certified SB fan, from multiple countries and terroirs, this column made me slightly cranky.

    Steve – I don’t get your last paragraph. You give a nice list of SB’s better attributes, then say when you reach for a cold one, it’s Chardonnay rather than SB…and that’s why Chardonnay is “noble”? Sounds more like Coors.

    Rob and Samantha – there are SBs at all price levels in a variety of styles in California, not just $25 afterthoughts in fancy Napa tasting rooms (although some of those are really good these days). I’d point to Lake County in particular for QPR SB. I’ve had some terrific $10-15 versions from Monterey as well.

    Morton – “green” (or pyrazines, if you prefer) is not a flaw for most SB fans, in fact it’s sought after in various permutations by some. “Over 14 alc., high amount of oak phenolics, surely lots of new barrels…citrusy and honey-like” is fine when you can pull it off (which is fairly rare, usually they end up like ghastly post-nuclear Chardonnay mutants). But they aren’t at all what many SB drinkers are looking for, whether they be followers of Sancerre, Leyda Valley or NZ.

    That said, I admit it can be difficult to find “your” SB. Its flavor is extremely mutable, depending on viticultural and winemaking decisions. Now I have to go unwind over a nice glass of Russian River Sauvignon Blanc.

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