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Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc: An appreciation

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I reviewed a very nice Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc yesterday, the Robert John 2012 ($30), and while I won’t reveal my score until it’s published in some future edition of Wine Enthusiast, I will say that it caused me to write, “One of Napa’s secrets is how good its Sauvignon Blancs can be.”

A secret, of course, based on the subtext of this comment, which is Chardonnay. Napa has been horribly bashed over the years for it, which is all right with me: while I think the bashing can be a little mean, for there are some consistently good Napa Chards (Jarvis, Vine Cliff and Krupp come to mind), I will be first to admit this warmish, inland valley doesn’t have what it takes to produce world-class Chardonnay on a consistent basis, especially considering what even the merest Napa Chardonnay costs these days.

Sauvignon Blanc is, however, a different story. It’s America’s number two white wine (or is Pinot Grigio? Whatever; Sauvignon Blanc qualitatively is a better wine). SB wants a little heat for ripening. Grow it in a coolish area (the western Sta. Rita Hills, for example, where Chardonnay can thrive) and it’s too strong in those stringbeany, ammoniated cat pee aromas that, quite frankly, make me gag, especially in the cool vintages we’ve had the last three years.

Grow it too far inland, and it’s an insipid fruit cocktail, sugary, soft and spittable, often overcropped and clumsily acidified.

The Santa Ynez Valley has laid some claims among coastal appellations (among which I do not include Lake County) as a Sauvignon Blanc specialist; but other than that, no region wants to “own up” to this great Loire and, blended, Bordeaux white variety. Why this should be has been hard for me to understand for years, except to come up with the theory that a producer willing to invest in great Sauvignon Blanc can make more money, at perhaps not even the same costs, if he produces an average Chardonnay. There is probably a view among producers that consumers are only willing to pay so much for Sauvignon Blanc (perhaps less than $20), so why should they fuss about it.

Well, they should fuss about it because Sauvignon Blanc can make one of California’s great white wines. I attribute Napa Valley’s affinity for it to two factors: The climate, which is just warm enough but not too hot, midway between coast and the Delta; and Napa’s money. Proprietors there can afford to invest in Sauvignon Blanc if they wish to. Most of them presumably are making their real profits off Cabernet Sauvignon anyway.

Among the consistently fine Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs I have reviewed over the years are Mondavi’s (especially the Fumé Blancs from Tokalon), Ehlers Estate (St. Helena), Atalon, Stag’s Leap, Cade, Hand Made by Marketta (from the former co-owner of Chateau Potelle), Long Meadow Ranch (bearing a Rutherford appellation), Snowden, V. Sattui’s Carsi Vineyard, Round Pond, Bougetz, Kelleher, Laird and Raymond. All are distinguished wines, dry and fruity and crisp, with floral and mineral notes, and their prices are relative bargains compared to Chardonnays of equal quality. In fact, a good California Sauvignon Blanc is far more versatile with a wide range of food than an equivalent Chardonnay.

  1. Mark Lyon says:

    Hooray! California Sauvignon Blanc can be a great wine when growers and winemakers take it more seriously. I have been growing Sauvignon Blanc in Alexander Valley since 1980 and has seen that it does improve with more flashiness and less vegginess in mid-valley location that have more heat. Most important, it does well on your more fertile, loamy soils that are too rich for Cabernet .

  2. Was just down in the Central Coast for vacation and was reminded of how good SB is coming out of Happy Canyon. Margerum’s D and their affordable Sybarite are perfect examples of why Happy Canyon could be the “home” of SB IN CA.

  3. We, at Summertime in a Glass, agree with much of how you characterize Sauvignon Blanc, its current performance as well as its potential in California. As we know, it is a grape that deeply reflects terroir in addition to also demonstrating style in the cellar. As noted, there is a great deal of variety in SB growing conditions that produce different things. An often successful strategy for making quality SB is blending different vineyards/terroir to achieve winemaking goals – the right fruit structure, proper acidity, etc. This can, then, from time to time, accommodate cooler and warmer (in a general sense) growing conditions in the same bottle.

    Lastly, I would suggest that it is a great grape to play different roles at the right time – it can perform with food (as you noted) quite well across many culinary styles but can also be a porch wine/sipper when made in certain ways, as well. It is far from a one-dimensional grape and, depending on region (or the gross over generalizations that are made about them these days), it is sometimes unfairly too often cast as such. Cheers!

    PS – Please see our site – http://www.summertimeinaglass.org to learn more about the initiative.

  4. doug wilder says:

    Steve,

    I agree with you about the Long Meadow Ranch Sauvignon Blanc. If looking for others, I would suggest DeSante if you have not tasted it. Concerning Chardonnay, El Molino, from their Rutherford Estate vineyard is consistently good for over 20 vintages.

  5. GrapesRGreat says:

    Someone poured me a Silverado SB this week and I was really surprised how tasty it was. Good juicy concentration and plenty of interest for around $22.

    Even at $40, Merry Edwards benchmark SB is giving anything out of Napa a run for its money though.

  6. What about Honig, Duckhorn, and Provenance? Those are the labels I seem to come across most often.

  7. And what about Hartwell? Damn good SB too.

  8. Matt Mauldin says:

    Steve- I agree the eastern Santa Ynez Valley may be that sweet spot where Sauvignon Blanc may just be good enough to get it’s due respect. Regarding Napa Chardonnay, I do think the mountains can produce great wines- especially Veeder and Spring.

  9. Agreed that there are some excellent Napa SB’s. Yet it is common to relegate it to lesser soils, so it it is rare to see how good it could be. For instance if a property has a range of soil types, the bordeaux reds are likely to be planted on the alluvial or hillside soils with gravel or cobble. Then if there are richer, heavier soils, perhaps adjacent to the river, that is likely where the SB gets planted. It is a matter of economics, driven by bottle price. Originally Diamond Mountain Ranch had a small block of SB on the steepest, most gravelly slope. It made incredible wine with great flavor and structure (I recall 9 g/L total acidity at 24 brix) But inevitably it got budded over to Cabernet.

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