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WineLine No. 11
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
Sept. 16, 2001

An oft-used cliché in modern wine writing is the self-righteous diatribe against the sorry state of Sauvignon Blanc from California. They're trying to make ersatz Chardonnay, we write, over-oaked and under-flavored and totally devoid of any varietal characteristic (minerals, grass, citrus - grapefruit, passion fruit - and that elusive "gooseberry" flavor we like to toss out because we're certain most of our readers have never tasted a gooseberry and we want to sound suave and knowledgeable).

The cliché continues along two lines: Either back to the source, with an homage to the mineral crispness of Sancerre, or to the new New World of the fully blown Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand.

Believe me, I know this cliché. I've perpetrated it myself.

Imagine my surprise then, when the Napa Valley Vintners Association rolled into town for its biennial "tannin tasting" at the French Embassy. (Wonderful irony in the choice of venue.) I came with a toothbrush in my briefcase to scrape the purple stains off my teeth, and indeed there were some very good Cabs despite the prevalence of '98s. But the show stealers were the other Sauvignons - quite a few with the exuberance and acidity of New Zealand but a lushness that said California ("maturity," perhaps?) and brought the wines back a little bit from the edge.

So chalk one up for the wine writers: The winemakers listened, and learned from the examples we held up.

But that means we have to retire that tired old cliché about the "Chardonnay wannabes," or at least put it in the past tense.

California Sauvignon Blanc is back.

Yay!

To be sure, there were Luddites who flaunted the common wisdom of the 1980s that good Sauvignon Blanc needed to be stripped of the "grassy herbals." Dry Creek Vineyards, Frog's Leap, Chateau Souverain and Geyser Peak, for examples, always maintained the varietal character of Sauvignon Blanc in their wines. More recently, Mason, Voss, and St. Supery joined the bandwagon (sometimes with the help of an antipodean winemaker imported from Down Under). What's worth cheering is that more and more wineries are following their example.

Most of these wines were made in tank, with stainless steel on most of the grapes; some had a touch of oak to add a hint of toast or richness. For instance, Andrew Hoxsey of Napa Wine Company said he fermented 20 percent of the grapes in barrel to avoid getting what he called a "donut wine" - nothing in the middle. Honig ages most of theirs in large casks to understate the oak. But the overriding characteristic of these wines was that none was "oaky."

Perhaps we're seeing the evolution of a new style of California Sauvignon Blanc: Expressive fruit along a fairly wide spectrum, allowing for analogies to New Zealand, Sancerre or Graves, but backed up by lush ripeness and enough wood to make the wine - and our palates - stand up a little straighter.

I've already described what I like in a Sauvignon Blanc, so I'll just list my favorites from the Napa Valley Vintners Association road show (all Napa Valley appellation):

  • Napa Wine Company 2000

  • Frog's Leap 2000

  • Stonegate 2000 Gunn Family Vineyard

  • Stonegate 2000

  • Honig 1999 Reserve

  • Honig 1999

A note on pricing: Most of these retail in the high teens or even around $20. But there are some very nice Sauvignon Blancs on the market now under $10, usually with a California appellation. Look especially for Callaway Coastal 2000 and Camelot 2000.

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