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Savoring Sauvignon Blanc

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It’s been so warm lately that I’ve found myself in a Sauvignon Blanc kind of mood, instead of the full-bodied red wines that I normally crave during our normally cold, wet winters.

Fortunately, there’s a lot of great California Sauv Blanc around. I’ve given higher scores to SBs over the past year than in any previous year. Some of my standouts have been Grgich Hills 2012 Essence, Robert Mondavi 2011 Fumé Blanc and also their 2011 Reserve To Kalon and To Kalon I Block, Ehlers Estate 2012, Babcock 2012, Ziata 2011, Brander 2011 Au Natural, Atalon 2012, B Cellars 2012, Rochioli 2012, Mananzas Creek 2012, Galerie 2012 Naissance, Capture 2012 Les Pionniers, Cosa Obra 2012 Hummingbird Hill, and 2012 Sauvignon Blancs from Girard and Long Meadow Ranch. All these scored quite well.

I’ll tell you what I love in a good Sauv Blanc, but first, two things I hate: residual sugar, and too much of that awful, cat pee pyrazine stuff. Marlborough New Zealand Sauv Blancs sometimes have too much of the latter for me, although they’re almost always (and thankfully) bone dry.

I thought for the longest time that California wineries didn’t take Sauvignon Blanc seriously. Too many of them made it, but it seemed like a labor for the market, not one of love. Some wineries–Brander in particular comes to mind, and certainly also Mondavi and Rochioli–always excelled at it. But for the most part, ehh. If I wanted a white wine that was dry, crisp and elegant–and wasn’t Chardonnay–I generally had to look beyond California.

But something has changed. I’m not sure what. Today’s best California Sauvignon Blancs (all are from cooler coastal appellations) seem cleaner, livelier, drier and more attractive. Maybe the market  has improved, so vintners feel they can raise their prices a little, and put correspondingly more effort into the winemaking. Maybe winemakers are telling their vineyard managers to cut back on yields so the wines aren’t watery. I have a hunch more and more sommeliers are looking to drier California Sauvignon Blancs for foods that are increasingly spicy and complex, especially here in California with all our ethnic influences. A good, dry Sauv Blanc is really good with chicken- or pork-based Mexican food, and I’ve enjoyed the wines with everything from sushi to ceviche.

Sauvignon Blanc acreage in California has been holding pretty steady over the past ten years, especially compared to explosive varieties like Pinot Gris–but then, the latter started from a much lower base. Sauvignon Blanc plantings outnumber those of Pinot Gris, but not by much (14,911 vs. 12,473). Napa Valley is not generally thought of as a good home for Sauvignon Blanc, but it actually is. The variety likes neither overly cool nor overly hot conditions. Napa lies in that sweet spot where ripeness is even and balanced most of the time.

The main challenge for Sauvignon Blanc is to hold its own against the onrush of suddenly fashionable varieties–Vermentino, Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, Malvasia Bianca, Verdelho and others–that also are light-bodied, delicate, dry and crisp. Where Sauvignon Blanc can gain adherents is by stressing its associations with Cabernet Sauvignon, in a sort of halo effect. It’s true that California ripens Sauvignon Blanc sufficiently that it normally loses that pungent “sauvage” note found in, say, a good Sancerre. But, at its best, California Sauvignon Blanc is the nearest any white variety grown in the state gets to true nobility, except, of course, for Chardonnay.

  1. Hmmmm….the need to associate SauvBlanc w/ CabSauv is a reasoning that sorta escapes me.
    Part of the improvement of quality in SauvBlanc can be attributed to the use of the SauvMusque clone; discovered buried on the FPS list by DougMeador back in the late ’70′s.
    One would be remiss in not mentioning the contributions of DaveStare over the yrs. He’s been a champion of SauvBlanc ever since he started working w/ that variety (from JoeRochioli) back in ’72 and has been a tireless promoter of it over the yrs. The DryCreekVnyd SauvMusque is a SauvBlanc that can, year in/year out, stand toe-to-toe with any in Calif. Alas, DryCreekVlly is not the NapaVlly and DryCreekVnyd is not a hot/trendy name wnry, so it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
    Tom

  2. Regina Lyrz says:

    Thanks for the good thoughts re: SB…I totally love this varietal ….all year long! One you didn’t mention and maybe haven’t had an opportunity to taste – St Clemente ‘Bale Lane’ Sauvignon Blanc. Lovely wine from older vineyard on Bale Lane north of SH. No RS but I swear it smells and tastes like cut pineapple. Yum!

  3. Marlene Rossman says:

    Somehow I doubt that Vermentino, Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, Malvasia Bianca or Verdelho will eat into the Sauv Blanc market. Most folks have absolutely no idea what those varieties are and don’t know how to pronounce them. When I was a working somm, I often tried to get people to order Viognier and most said, “don’t you have Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc?”

  4. Steve,

    What’s wrong with pyrazines and mercaptans? Without them, SB would just be another vinous white. You are probably talking about amounts of certain characteristics.

  5. wine: Nothing “wrong” with them. I just don’t want too much of them. These are matters of personal preference.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Regarding your comment . . .

    “I thought for the longest time that California wineries didn’t take Sauvignon Blanc seriously. … But something has changed. I’m not sure what. Today’s best California Sauvignon Blancs (all are from cooler coastal appellations) seem cleaner, livelier, drier and more attractive. …”

    . . . might I suggest that what has “changed” is the welcomed arrival of a stellar vintage: 2012.

    Unlike the 2011 vintage, which you have castigated for mold and mildew problems.

    Or the 2010 vintage, which produced some (but not many) noteworthy white wines.

    ~~ Bob

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