- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2003

They’re getting better. Yes, California sauvignon blancs, long egregious underperformers, are showing signs of improved quality.

The category remains nowhere near as strong as the cabernet or chardonnay from the same state — let alone French or New Zealand sauvignon — but the top California wines do taste better than ever before.

Although hundreds of California sauvignon blancs come onto the market each year, few taste truly distinctive. Why so many prove disappointing is something of a mystery. With nearly 12,000 acres under vine, sauvignon blanc ranks second only to chardonnay as a premium white varietal in California, and it grows well in many parts of the state.

The problem does not seem to involve terroir so much as attitude — specifically, many California vintners’ puzzling attitude toward this particular grape variety.

Like all vinifera grapes, sauvignon blanc came to America from Europe, and vintners here inevitably make their wines with foreign archetypes in mind.

What complicates matters with this variety is that it is used to make two different but equally distinguished types of wine abroad. The first emphasizes the grape’s naturally aggressive character, while the second tries to tame it.

Wines from Bordeaux exemplify the softer approach. Customarily barrel-aged and blended with semillon, the best examples exhibit nutty, custardy, sometimes even slightly honeyed flavors. By contrast, wines made in the sharper style taste of green berries and tart grapefruit, with a grassy, herbal edge. The upper Loire Valley in France, particularly the twin appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, is this style’s original European home, but wines from New Zealand, especially the Marlborough region, have taken it to a new level of intensity.

Until recently, California winemakers aiming for the assertive style tended to produce excessively herbaceous, vegetal wines. This often was the result of poor (or uninformed) vineyard management, as the grape clusters did not receive sufficient sunlight. The berries remained underripe, and the wines tasted unpleasantly of asparagus or peas.

Other winemakers took the opposite route. They barrel-aged and sometimes even barrel-fermented their wines much as they did chardonnay, exposing them to oak so as to mute any vegetal notes. Too often, though, they obliterated the taste of anything other than wood and turned naturally delicate wines into plodding clunkers.

No matter the style they pursued, for a long time, few California producers treated sauvignon blanc as seriously as they did cabernet or chardonnay. They allowed vineyard yields to get large, and because the wine invariably was ready to bottle early, regarded it as a cash cow while they waited for their purportedly more noble offerings to mature.

Today, superior viticulture and sensitive winemaking enable vintners to produce better wines. As important, more winemakers are handling sauvignon with respect. Inspired and no doubt somewhat embarrassed by their New Zealand compatriots’ accomplishments, they seem determined to prove that they, too, can make first-class New World wines from it.

A series of recent tastings of nearly 75 California sauvignon blancs showed that while many still disappoint, more offer genuine charm than ever before.

The tastings also revealed the presence of a third style, a middle ground of sorts between racy versions and heavier, oaky ones. Neither too aggressive nor too tame, the top wines made with this approach have their own character.

In truth, this third style has been around for a while. Robert Mondavi pioneered it in the late 1960s when he invented the name “fume blanc” for a new mode of sauvignon. The name recalled Loire wines, but the wine itself was oak-aged. With customary chutzpah, Mr. Mondavi marketed it as an American original.

The name fume blanc is still used, although it does not signal a particular approach and is more an annoyance than anything else. What has changed recently, however, is the emergence of a bevy of fine wines in the middle ground, as well as some notably better wines made in the more traditional styles. Clearly, new producers are exhibiting a deft touch with sauvignon, and old hands are showing marked improvement.

The following recommendations are divided by style, with the most exciting wines in my tastings highlighted. Prices are approximate.

Assertive sauvignon blancs

These wines see little if any wood. They tend to come from cool vineyards and so display plenty of crisp, refreshing acidity. As a whole, they seem a touch sweeter and fuller than their French or Kiwi cousins and are neither as edgy as the finest from New Zealand nor as nuanced as the best from the Loire.

Still, a good California sauvignon in this style was a virtual anomaly as recently as a decade ago. Vintners back then seemed afraid of the variety’s natural raciness. So three cheers for today’s winemakers who are willing to go full-throttle.

Mason Napa Valley 2001 ($18) tastes of grapefruit and limes, has excellent balance and a long finish. It’s as good a California wine in this style as any I have tasted. Also from Napa, Voss 2001 ($20), while not quite as vivacious, offers bright flavors that linger effortlessly on the palate.

Two other assertive sauvignons that proved impressive were Preston Dry Creek 2001 ($23) and the bargain-priced Geyser Peak Sonoma County 2002 ($10), by far the best buy in the category.

Varietally true but subtler

This ultimately may become the most successful California style. The wines tone down but do not abandon sauvignon’s vivacity, so they taste recognizably of the grape. At the same time, they augment its characteristic citrus and herbal character with hints of spice or earth, some reflecting oak aging, others a specific clone or site. At their best, the wines taste wonderfully elegant and refined.

A number of wines in this style stood out in my tastings. At the head of the pack came three favorites, each with strong track records but better than ever. Grgich Hills Fume Blanc Napa Valley 2001 ($23) is graceful, sophisticated and deliciously multilayered. Slightly edgier but still not at all aggressive, Cain “Musque” Ventana Vineyard Monterey 2001 ($23) and Babcock “Eleven Oaks” Santa Barbara 2001 ($25) also taste complex and complete.

Not quite up to the level of those three but still well worth trying are Chateau St. Jean Fume Blanc Sonoma County 2001 ($15), Markham Napa Valley 2001 ($14), Morgan Monterey 2001 ($15), and Roshambo Sonoma County “Frank Johnson Vineyard” 2001 ($18).

I also should note that although I did not taste it this time around, some of the best sauvignons in this style consistently come from Gainey Vineyard in Santa Ynez. Look especially for its Limited Selection.

Tamed sauvignon blancs

Wines made in this style often make me ask, “Why?” They invariably are marked by oak and mute the grape’s vigor so much that I am hard-pressed even to identify them as sauvignon blanc. However, when I taste a wine like Chalk Hill “Estate Bottled” Sonoma County 2001 ($27), I understand the answer. Rich but refined and impeccably balanced, it may not be true to type but nonetheless is delicious.

Many wines I tasted seemed much too woody, but I tried two others that showed fine balance and integration. On the lighter side, Selene “Hyde Vineyard Carneros 2001 ($26) is very graceful. If you want something richer, try Cakebread Cellars Napa Valley 2002 ($26).

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