- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Poor overall performance may show vintners’ attitude

It was 1995 when I first reviewed and reported on California sauvignon blanc in The Washington Times. Back then, almost all of the wines tasted were disappointing. They were either unpleasantly vegetal or overly oaky, with little varietal character. Five years later, when I again surveyed the category, some seemed better, but a distressing number still were unappealing.

Today? I had the opportunity to sample more than 75 California sauvignons in a series of tastings last month. The result: The best wines showed remarkable improvement, but many more still lack distinction.

Like all grapes of the vinifera species, sauvignon blanc came to California from Europe. It is used there to make two very different styles of wine. The first emphasizes this grape’s naturally aggressive character, while the second tries to tame it.

Wines from the Graves and Pessac-Leognan appellations in Bordeaux exemplify the softer style of sauvignon. The best examples exhibit nutty, custardy, occasionally 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 is its original home, but wines from New Zealand, especially the Marlborough region, have taken it to an exciting new level of intensity.

Although a handful of California vintners make unmasked sauvignon blancs, most producers prefer to fashion softer wines.

In doing so, they often use the Bordeaux model as a rationale if not an excuse. Yet the climate in California is both drier and hotter than in southwestern France, and the resulting wines frequently taste flabby rather than round and often seem simplistic rather than compelling. When fermented and aged in oak barrels, they can end up tasting of little more than wood.

Some critics have gone so far as to suggest that California is so warm that it may be an inappropriate place for sauvignon blanc. Yet not all of California’s vineyards are searingly hot, and vintners elsewhere grow sauvignon successfully in comparable climes — in central Chile, for instance, or the Cape region of South Africa. The difficulty with California sauvignon blanc thus cannot be a difficulty of locale.

The real problem with this grape in California appears to be vintners’ often perplexing attitude toward it. Some seem almost afraid of its inherently racy character, while others insist on treating it as a second-class varietal, a grape capable of making only simple quaffing wines. Taken together, these confused and confusing approaches surely contribute to sauvignon’s overall poor performance as a varietal wine.

The proof that most California sauvignons underperform can be found in the glass, where many taste bland and nondescript. At the same time, the proof that they need not do so can be found in the small group of wines that taste truly compelling. What becomes disappointing is the large gap between the two groups.

The small number of first-rate California sauvignon blancs come from producers who clearly care about the grape. They treat it with the same sort of respect that others reserve for supposedly more prestigious varietals such as chardonnay, cabernet or pinot noir. Thus, they grow their vines in appropriate locales and fashion their wines with distinct styles in mind.

Those styles sometimes resemble the original European models — barrel-aged and round a la Bordeaux or sharp and racy a la the Loire — but they increasingly make their own mark. Unlike my tastings 10 or even five years ago, even with some good wines from the same producers, the finest wines today seem to be establishing their own personalities and, in the process, defining a California style.

That style necessarily acknowledges the reality of terroir regardless of the specific locale. That’s because no matter where in California wine country a particular vineyard is situated, the grapes inevitably will be blessed with abundant sunshine. The result will be ripe fruit, and that ripeness needs to be expressed in the wine. Even a good California sauvignon that emphasizes the grape’s herbaceous edge will feel fuller and taste richer than most European renditions.

At the same time, sugar ripeness by itself is no guarantee of wine quality because the grapes need to mature fully in order to develop aromatic appeal. The trick for the grape grower is to expose the developing fruit to just enough sunshine, and the improvement in the quality of the top California sauvignons seems to be related to improvements in vineyard management — specifically, advances in trellising the vines and controlling the growth of the canopies.

The following seven wines, listed alphabetically, represent California sauvignon blanc at its very best. All are well worth buying because they compete successfully with some of the world’s best renditions. Yet it remains important to remember the large disparity that exists between the best and the rest.

Most California sauvignons aren’t even near the same league as wines from France or New Zealand. Change, however, can come quickly in the world of wine. Let’s hope that five years from now, many more wines will be following the pacesetters recommended below.

Dry Creek Vineyards, DCV-3 Fume Blanc, Dry Creek Valley, 2004 ($25) One of the pioneers with California sauvignon, this producer has had its ups and downs through the years. However, this particular rendition, made with grapes from an estate vineyard first planted in the 1970s, is excellent. Fashioned with a Loire model in mind, it tastes like Sancerre on steroids.

Gainey Vineyard, Limited Selection, Santa Ynez Valley, 2003 ($22) This may well be America’s finest sauvignon blanc, as more than any other it succeeds in defining a style that seems distinctive rather than derivative. The wine tastes slightly grassy, with well-defined citrus notes, but it feels surprisingly lush, with a wonderfully long, evolved finish. Kudos to the Gainey family and winemaker Kirby Anderson.

Grgich Hills Fume Blanc, Napa Valley, 2004 ($30) This now-venerable Napa Valley winery excels with all the wines it makes. Although it’s best-known for chardonnay, its sauvignon (labeled as fume) is first-rate as well. Bright and bouncy, it shows citrus and green melon flavors and tastes deliciously harmonious.

Mason, Napa Valley, 2003 ($18) Fashioned in a Loire and New Zealand style, although fuller in body, this wine tastes clean and crisp, with a very attractive core of bright citrus (primarily grapefruit) flavor and an underlying herbal edge. An excellent companion for fresh seafood dishes.

Rochioli, Russian River Valley, 2004 ($32) Tom and Joe Rochioli excel with pinot noir, but this wine demonstrates that they’re no slouches when it comes to sauvignon blanc. It shows plenty of varietal character, with fruit flavors echoing fresh grapefruit and lime. Although more than a third of the blend was fermented in oak, those flavors are so expressive that it never seems heavy.

Selene, Hyde Vineyard, Carneros, 2004 ($28) Made by Mia Klein, one of California’s finest winemakers, this wine tastes and feels rich. The primary flavors echo lemons, limes and summer stone fruits, while secondary notes hint at flinty minerals and dried herbs. Perhaps most impressive, the wine is in excellent balance.

Spottswoode, Napa Valley, 2004 ($32) Made with a healthy dollop of semillon (like fine white Bordeaux), Spottswoode’s estate sauvignon has been quite good for a while now, but it seems to have improved markedly in the past few vintages — perhaps because of vineyard replanting. A crisp, fresh wine, it supports its melon and citrus fruit flavors with an intriguing minerality.

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