How do you account for the growing popularity of Sauvignon Blanc? Chardonnay, still firmly ruling as the master and commander of white wine, has the oak thing going and I guess there's no explaining why some people like the taste of oak more than wine. On the other hand, today's best and most exciting Sauvignon Blancs never see the inside of an oak barrel.
So, what's up with Sauvignon Blanc? Ask the Kiwis. I'm not prepared to go out on a limb and say that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand pulled a huge number of white wine drinkers out of the Chardonnay rut, but it sure helped. Years ago, at the Vinifera Conference in Seattle, the subject was Sauvignon Blanc and Kevin Judd sprung his Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the crowd and the assembled went wild. The non-oaked 'Sauvy' was refreshing and crisp, with distinct tropical passion fruit aromas and flavors, supported by tangy lime juice acidity; everything that California Sauvignon Blancs (and the few Washington Sauvignons made then) were not in those days. Cloudy Bay opened the door for New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and American wine drinkers rushed in, primed for a new wine style.
Since those days in Seattle, scads of Kiwi Sauvignons have entered the U.S. market and even American wineries that make their own Sauvignon Blanc are importing a New Zealand Sauvignon. More recently, a handful of California wineries have adjusted the style of their Sauvignon Blancs to be more like those made by the Kiwis. And, South African Sauvignon Blancs that bear more than a passing resemblance to the Kiwi style are popping up in more U.S. markets.
One drawback for consumers interested in exploring the wide range of California white wines made from Sauvignon Blanc is that a sizeable proportion of them are labeled Fumé Blanc, a variation on Sauvignon Blanc that had its beginnings among California producers with the release of Mondavi Fumé Blanc. As the story goes, in the early 1970s, Mondavi was struggling to sell Sauvignon Blanc, so he Americanized the Loire wine name Blanc Fumé (Pouilly Blanc Fumé) and sales soared. Traditionally, Pouilly Fumé and its neighbor Sancerre were mostly oak-free Sauvignons, although both oaked and non-oaked Pouillys and Sancerres are made today. The confusion arises when consumers, thinking they are buying a California Sauvignon in the Loire style, like Mondavi Fumé Blanc, discover a wine with noticeable oak.
Recently, Jackson Family Wines (JFW) held a mini-seminar, previewing its own Sauvignons -- Matanzas Creek, Kendall-Jackson and Murphy-Goode "The Fumé" -- alongside Long Boat, a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that JFW imports from New Zealand. It was a revealing kaleidoscope of styles showing that, with a little patience and searching, there is a Sauvignon Blanc (or Fumé) for everyone.
Francois Cordesse, French-born winemaker for Matanzas Creek, a winery situated in bucolic Bennett Valley but a few miles from downtown Santa Rosa, claims that Sauvignon Blanc is a challenging variety. 'The juice is neutral and only develops aroma and flavor later in its ripening process.' He poured the Matanzas Creek Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc 2007, made mainly from grapes grown in Knights Valley. Cortesse maintains that Sauvignon Blanc loves the hot days and cool nights in Knights Valley, a diurnal shift in temperatures that produces Sauvignon Blancs that are 'very aromatic, like grapefruit.'
Cordesse fermented 21% of the juice in French oak then aged it in barrels for three months. The aromatics of the wine show noticeable hints of spicy Muscat from the blending of 13% Sauvignon Musque, a highly aromatic variety that Cordesse says must be used with discretion. 'Sauvignon Musque is a clone of Sauvignon Blanc, and while it can be overwhelming, it adds a nice aromatic profile.' I liked the complex aromas, melding Muscat, citrus and mineral notes and thought the wine showed richly textured flavors with some toasted oak.
Kendall-Jackson winemaker Mark Theiss showed the K-J California Vintner's Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, a proprietary blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Viognier and Muscat Canelli, from Mendocino and Lake County grapes. 'Kendall-Jackson started in Lake County 26 years ago, and we like the citrus character in Sauvignon Blanc grown there,' he says. But Theiss disagrees with Cordesse about growing and making Sauvignon Blanc. 'I don't think Sauvignon Blanc is a challenge. For me it's a fun grape to grow and a fun wine to make.'
Theiss fermented and aged a scant 8% in new oak to add, as he says, 'a hint of softness and a bit of smoke.' My take on the wine is that it was all tropical fruit with ripe pineapple aromas and flavors and crisp acidity. Overall, the wine was simple, with high-profile fruitiness from the addition of the Viognier and Muscat Canelli. Stylistically, the K-J Sauvignon Blanc fills the niche for consumers wanting a value easy-to-drink Sauvignon with straightforward flavors and a sweet impression in the finish.
Long Boat is a new Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc imported by Sovereign Wine Imports for Jackson Family Wines. The name pays homage to Polynesian explorers who sailed thousands of miles across a turbulent ocean in a long boat before reaching what is today called New Zealand. Long Boat specializes in grapes from higher altitude vineyards, up to 1,000 feet, in the Waihopai and Awatere Valleys of Marlborough, at the northern end of the South Island to extract the most from the Sauvignon grapes. Still, Craig Murphy, winemaker for Long Boat, says they have to watch the grapes closely. 'There is no problem with aromatics in Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. If anything, we need to dumb down the aromatics a little.' Murphy says that the cooler northern parts of Marlborough give more 'capsicum' (green bell pepper), while the southern areas show more tropical fruit.
For the vibrant Long Boat Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($20), Murphy selected his grapes row by row, to balance acidity and develop both green fruit and tropical fruit flavors. Most of the juice was cold fermented in stainless steel and a small portion in older French oak barrels. Murphy employed the older oak to add spice while softening the herbal character inherent in Sauvignon Blanc. The Long Boat Sauvignon offers clearly defined aromas and flavors of green plums and passion fruit with just a hint of lime zest. There's more mineral and lime juice on the palate and the wine finishes fresh and clean with plenty of fruit. Long Boat is everything you would want in a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc -- and then some.
Murphy-Goode has been making Sauvignon Blanc since 1985, mainly from Alexander Valley grapes. With the 2007, winemaker David Ready decided to try something different. For starters, the wine was named 'The Fumé,' as in, 'the one and only!' The majority of The Fumé was fermented in stainless steel to preserve the bright fruit flavors and Ready fermented just over 4% of The Fumé for three months in French oak. Traditionally, Murphy-Goode used Alexander Valley grapes, but for The Fumé, Ready broke with tradition by blending grapes from Lake County and Mendocino, with Alexander Valley fruit. 'The Lake County fruit adds lemongrass and fig flavors while the Mendocino grapes contribute a hint of gooseberry and minerality,' says Ready. There's a small measure of Semillon in the wine.
Murphy-Goode North Coast The Fumé 2007 has the aroma and flavors of ripe stone fruit with traces of citrus peel. The aromatic characteristics carry over to the flavors, mixing nicely with subtle mineral notes. Even with the small time spent in wood, there is a nice textural element that carries through to the finish, showing a little heat from the 13.5% alcohol. Missing for me was any trace of 'smoke' implied in the new name for this wine.
One of the nice things about having a range of styles is it makes the hunt for your personal favorite Sauvignon Blanc that much easier and pleasant. Sometimes, though, choices complicate the hunt. My favorites from the Jackson Family Wines portfolio of four Sauvignon Blancs are chosen for different reasons. I liked the Long Boat for its clean pure varietal flavors, but I also couldn't resist the Matanzas Creek for its sensual texture and smooth flavors.