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Sauvignon Blanc: Napa Valley's Shining Underdog
By Jessica Dupuy
May 1, 2018
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In Napa Valley, in terms of actual plantings, Sauvignon Blanc has traditionally been more of an afterthought compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, and even Pinot Noir.  But Cabernet’s popularity didn’t really catch on in Napa until the early 1990s, when it saw a rapid rise to claim the majority of plantings within the region.  While Cabernet now claims 47 percent of overall plantings, it was Chardonnay that held the number one vineyard spot in the years following Prohibition.  And let’s not forget that if not for visionaries like Robert Mondavi who planted Sauvignon Blanc as early as the 1960s (labeling it Fumé Blanc as an homage to the Loire Valley), the French variety might have a different story in American wine altogether.  Indeed, among wine devotees, the Robert Mondavi To Kalon I Block Fume Blanc continues to be one of the producer’s most prized wines. 

Still, it’s Chardonnay that has long taken more of the spotlight in the region’s history accounting for about 15% of overall plantings in Napa.  (By contrast, Sauvignon Blanc accounts for only about 6%.)  However, a few Napa producers have intentionally cultivated Sauvignon Blanc in their estate vineyards with the belief that the region reveals wines that are distinctive, complex, age-worthy, and expressive.  I recently had a chance to ask a few of these producers what they found important about Sauvignon Blanc as a grape with a home in the iconic California region. 

"Given its vast number of microclimates in Napa, spanning from Carneros to Calistoga, and from the tops of Mt. Veeder to Howell Mountain, Napa expresses Sauvignon Blanc in many different fashions,” says Tom Gamble of Gamble Vineyards who farms 22 acres in the northern-most portion of the Yountville appellation, the veritable Entre-du-Mers of the region, just above where the two main rivers draining the valley come together.  “From those reminiscent of Loire’s citrus and flint, to Bordeaux’s mid-palate delights, to New Zealand’s greenness, Napa offers a lot of diversity for the grape.”

Chris Tynan, of Cliff Lede Vineyards even sees a better advantage for Sauvignon Blanc in Napa than Chardonnay.  “I think it can handle the diversity of Napa’s microclimates quite a bit better.   Chardonnay's flavors and acid tend to neutralize as the climate gets warmer, while Sauvignon Blanc retains its vibrant acidity and gains more complexity with a little more sunshine,” says Tynan.  “Of course Sauvignon Blanc also has its tipping point, so you don’t want it too hot.”

Given the appropriate soils and amenable microclimates, much of the identity for Sauvignon Blanc really comes down to a producer’s style.  Winemaker Kevin Morrisey of Ehlers Estate sees Sauvignon Blanc a personal passion and is quick to point out that the diversity of micro regions in Napa reveals very different expressions of the sensitive grape making it difficult to generalize across the region. 

“I wish everyone in California appreciated it as much as I do,” says Morrisey who carefully farms two separate blocks to produce elegant, floral, fruit-driven, Sancerre-style wines.  “When it’s planted on A+ soils and afforded first class farming, it can really be special producing beautiful notes of ripe peach and pear blossom.”

Though it would typically have been more profitable to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the silted, flood plain soils of Gamble Vineyards, Gamble quite literally took a gamble on five different clones of Sauvignon Blanc instead.  The vineyard’s location in the northern part of Yountville are located a few feet lower in elevation than Highway 29, harboring fog a while longer than other parts of the region.  Here, the Yountville Hill shields the vines from the last rays of the summer sun, which helps the grapes retain acidity for verve and energy.  Today, Gamble Vineyards offers two bottling from the made in distinctively different styles. 

“It really depends on what the grower and winemaker seek,” says Gamble.  “I am very particular about farming and winemaking, paying close attention to yields, vineyard management, and vine health.  It allows me to achieve a wide spectrum of flavors and aromas.”

In a similar vein, Cliff Lede’s Chris Tynan strives to achieve Sauvignon Blanc with depth, but rather than reaching towards a Sancerre style, he leans more towards a Bordeaux Blanc style of wine, blending in Semillon and Sauvignon Vert.

“I want to make something more contemplative that befits this noble variety,” says Tynan.  “The Semillon and Sauvignon Vert add richness and layered complexity to the blends.”

It is this attention to detail and focus on complexity and finesse that will continue to give Napa Sauvignon Blanc a bright, albeit less prominent future.  But even as a smaller player than Cab and Chardonnay, its potential in the region keeps these select producers loyal. 
“Coupled with the realities of sustainability in Napa, including economic sustainability, only well-made Sauvignon Blanc appealing to all the senses will survive,” says Gamble.  “What this really means is that Sauvignon Blanc planted for vin ordinaire is diminishing, leaving only the highest quality and thus elevating the overall reputation of Sauvignon Blanc."
Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($32):  Bright and crisp with aromas of white daisy and juicy white grapefruit, this wine offers vibrant flavors of lime peel and early peach with a high-toned finish.  A delicious wine as an aperitif or with grilled seafood.  94

Gamble Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2016 ($23):  A minerally expression of this light and lean grape, this wine is fragrant with orange peel, white flowers and candied ginger.  On the palate, Notes of lemongrass, fresh peach, and fleshy grapefruit lead backed by a steely palate that lingers with a tart spritz of lime and sun-soaked limestone.  94

Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($23):  Texas-raised winemaker, Christopher Tynan, shows restraint with this wine, letting the delicate notes of daffodil, mandarin, and powdered ginger shine through in a Sauvignon Blanc that offers a full body from partial time in oak barrel.  94