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Sauvignon Blanc's New Life in California
By Ed McCarthy
May 27, 2008
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California Sauvignon Blanc, or Fumé Blanc as it is sometimes called, is the darling of many winemakers, sommeliers, and some wine writers.  But up until recently, it did not stir the same enthusiasm among many consumers.  I agree with those consumers; up until recently, most California Sauvignon Blancs were not very good.

The problem with California Sauvignon Blancs in the past was that they were suffering an identity crisis.  They had no particular personality or character.   Winemakers were making many Sauvignon Blancs in the same style as they made their Chardonnays, with barrel fermentation and oak aging, which earned Sauvignons the nickname, "Chardonnay wannabes."

The other problem with Sauvignon Blanc was a typical one for California, as it went through its growing pains: the variety was often planted in the wrong place, such as warm areas in the Napa Valley floor.  Consumers' reactions to the oaky, high alcohol Sauvignon Blancs that were being produced, often indistinguishable from Chardonnays, was predictable: sales went flat.

In the 1980s, another type of Sauvignon Blanc started to be produced on the other side of the world--New Zealand.  Actually, New Zealand winemakers allowed Sauvignon Blanc to express its true nature: when the variety is grown in cool areas and is not disguised or mucked up with new oak, the resulting wine is aromatic and rich, with lots of herbaceous, green grass, and citrus aromas and flavors.  New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs became wildly popular with consumers, breathing new life into this varietal wine around the globe. 

Of course, Sauvignon Blanc had already been well-established in France, where it produces wines such as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé in the Loire  Valley, and it is also the primary variety in white Bordeaux.  But the popularity of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs left a definite impression on California winemakers.  The oak-influenced  style, so dominant in earlier California  Sauvignons, faded out. California wine producers started planting Sauvignon Blanc in cooler areas so that they could capture the qualities that were found in New Zealand  and Loire Valley wines.

Today, many California Sauvignon Blancs are being made in two styles, which I'll call the grassy, herbaceous style and the fruit-driven style.  These wines are fermented and aged mainly in stainless steel tanks.  If winemakers use any oak barrels, they employ used barrels rather than new ones (used barrels do not impart oaky aromas to the wine, and usually only a part of the wine sees any oak).

Some wineries make two Sauvignon Blancs, one in which grassiness and herbaceousness are the primary aromas, and the other in which fruity aromas dominate.  Sémillon is often added to the fruit-driven style of Sauvignon Blanc, to tone down the grassy, herbal aromas which are natural characteristics of the variety when it's grown in cool regions.  Other producers combine characteristics of the two styles into one wine.  A few wineries continue to make the oak-influenced style of Sauvignon Blanc, but in most cases, the use of new oak has definitely been toned down even in these wines.

Even though the  grassy style is now commonly seen in California Sauvignon Blancs today, these wines are still quite different from their model, New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.  The most flat-out herbaceous Sauvignons continue to be made in New Zealand, plus the Alto Adige and Friuli regions of Northeastern Italy.  And frankly, many of the super grassy, vegetal, herbal wines from these regions are a bit too aggressive, too aromatic and too acidic for my palate.  They wear down my taste buds; I really can't drink more than a glass of this style, if that much.  Thankfully, California's Sauvignon Blancs made in the grassy style are not as intensely flavored as those from New Zealand and Northeastern Italy.

Some California Sauvignon Blancs made in the grassy style which I recommend include St. Supéry, a Sauvignon specialist--particularly its Dollarhide Ranch Estate; Voss Vineyards, with its crisp, acidic style; the Brander Vineyard in Santa Barbara, perhaps the most keen advocate in California of Sauvignon Blanc, with five different Sauvignons; Babcock Vineyards, also in Santa Barbara; Dry Creek Vineyard, another Sauvignon Blanc specialist (called Fumé Blanc here), with three different Sauvignons; Rochioli and Hanna, both in the cool Russian River Valley in Sonoma; and Cakebread Cellars, one of my favorite California  Sauvignon Blancs. 

Cakebread Cellars is difficult to categorize, style-wise, because it combines elements of all three styles.  Cakebread does employ used oak, a bit in fermentation--most of the wine is fermented in stainless steel--and three-quarters of it is aged in two-year old barrels; the rest is aged in stainless steel.  The use of oak adds structure to the wine, but grassiness and fruit are still retained.  Cakebread adds 5% Sémillon and 5% of the Sauvignon Musqué clone--which a number of California wineries are using because of the rich aromatics  and viscous character that it imparts to the wine.  Cakebread's Sauvignon Blanc ages particularly well, which is quite unusual for California Sauvignons; it actually improves with five or six years of  maturing.  A fine Sauvignon Blanc, it retails for a reasonable $25 to $28.

The good news about California Sauvignon Blancs is that they remain moderately priced, compared to their far more expensive cousins, California Chardonnay.  Many good ones are in the $12 to $20 price range, with some of the best between $20 and $30.  Only a few Sauvignon Blancs retail for more than $30.

The fruit-driven style is becoming more popular in California, because quite a few wine producers do not want the intense aromas and crisp acidity found in the grassy, herbaceous style.  Fruit-driven Sauvignon Blancs are made in the same manner as the grassy-style Sauvignons: fermentation and aging is mainly or totally in stainless steel tanks, with little or no use of oak, certainly no new oak.  The main difference is that Sémillon (and/or sometimes Viognier) is added, up to 25%, to counter Sauvignon's grassy, herbal tendencies, and to emphasize fruit flavors, such as citrus, melon, fig, and/or pear.  Often, the Sauvignon Musqué clone is part of fruit-driven Sauvignon Blancs.  Winemakers like to say that the prototype for their fruit-driven style of Sauvignon Blanc is the Loire Valley's Sancerre, but personally, I find Sancerre to be more minerally and with less apparent sweetness than you see in California Sauvignon Blancs, which are typically made from riper grapes.

Some of California's best Sauvignon Blancs are made in the fruit-driven style.  They include Flora Springs 'Soliloquy'; Grgich Hills Fumé Blanc; Duckhorn Vineyards, Groth, and Spottswoode, all in the Napa Valley (Spottswoode might be a bit difficult to find, but it's worth the search).  Franciscan Estate has just released its very first Sauvignon Blanc, a 2007, made in the fruit-driven style but with delicate, herbal notes, and well-priced at $17. 

And then there's one of my all-time favorites, Mayacamas Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc.  Bob Travers and his son Chris produce only about 600 cases of Sauvignon Blanc in their mountain winery near Mount Veeder; its style is one that I love: it's crisp, lively, and assertive, and zings the palate with lime notes; defiantly fruit-driven.  Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc, like all the wines this legendary winery produces, is very long-lived; in a good vintage, it will age and improve for 10 years or more.  For me, it is well-worth the $33 price.

Two Sauvignon Blancs made in the oak-influenced  style that I admire are Selene, from Hyde Vineyard in Carneros, and Chalk Hill Estate, in Sonoma's Chalk Hill Valley.  Winemaker Mia Klein uses 45% new French oak and 55% stainless steel fermenting and aging her Selene Sauvignon Blanc.  Selene is rich and elegant, with pronounced lemon and tangerine aromas and some spice and toastiness in the background.  It retails for $27.  Chalk Hill's model is white Bordeaux (Graves); it adds both Sémillon and Sauvignon Gris (a cousin of Sauvignon Blanc) to its blend, half of which is fermented in new oak, half in stainless steel, but all of the wine is aged in new oak (about $28).

Other regions around the world making good Sauvignon Blancs are  the Chilean coastal areas (San Antonio and Leyda Valleys; Casablanca Valley), and Western Australia.  Like California, Chile didn't make fine Sauvignons until it discovered where to plant the variety--in the cool Pacific coast.  Western Australia, another relatively cool region, invariably combines Sauvignon Blanc with Sémillon.  The wines from both of these regions are really tasty and well-priced (most of them $12 to $15).

If you haven't tried Sauvignon Blancs lately, now might be a good time to see what changes have taken place in this wine in the last few years.