Remarkable Sauvignon Blanc From California

In the California wine industry, Cabernet Sauvignon is king, Chardonnay is the most widely planted varietal in the state, and there is cult worship for Pinot Noir. But when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, well that is too often disregarded as something of a second-rate grape, or a wine that just doesn’t get the pulse racing.

Thankfully, there are dozens of producers in the Golden State that do take Sauvignon Blanc seriously and craft excellent wines; then there are a precious few that aim to make wines from this grape that can rank with some of the best examples from around the world. It’s these types of offerings of Sauvignon Blanc that I’d like to examine in this article.

Whenever there is a discussion of Sauvignon Blanc in California, the name of Robert Mondavi is inevitably mentioned. Mondavi, whose family managed the Charles Krug Winery in Napa Valley in the 1960s, left to establish his own winery in nearby Oakville, as he wanted to promote a higher quality of wine, in the manner of French vintners. He believed California producers should emulate the French in several ways, and for his first Sauvignon Blanc in 1966, Mondavi labeled the wine as Fumé Blanc, the term fumé – meaning “smoky” – deriving from Pouilly-Fumé, one of the famed Sauvignon Blancs from France’s Loire Valley, .

The wine was an instant success and clearly helped the popularity of this varietal, especially in Napa Valley in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s. While most producers still labeled their wines as Sauvignon Blanc, a few followed Mondavi’s lead and employed the name Fumé Blanc.

Soon however, Chardonnay became the premier white wine of California, both as far as prestige and number of acres planted, while Sauvignon Blanc was forced to take a back seat. That is still true these days, but there has been something of a mini-renaissance for the varietal, especially in Napa Valley and Sonoma County, as artisan producers are discovering the distinctive qualities of this world-class varietal.

Here are notes on several recommended current Sauvignon Blancs from Napa and Sonoma:

Clos du Val Sauvignon Blanc 2021 (Napa Valley) – Established in 1972, Clos du Val has French blood (or wine, if you will) in its veins, as the winery’s founders, John and Henrietta Goelet and Bernard Portet, were active in the wine industry in France; Portet grew up in Bordeaux, as the son of the technical director of one of the area’s most famous chateaux. Portet sought to make a more subdued, less robust style of red wine, and succeeded brilliantly. The Clos du Val Sauvignon Blanc is also in a Bordeaux style, as a small percentage of Semillon is included in the blend, giving the wine a bit more herbaceous character. The 2021 was aged in a combination of steel tanks and new and used French oak, and displays admirable varietal character – notes of freshly cut hay, along with pear and chervil – in a subdued style; the wood notes are barely noticeable. The wine offers excellent freshness and harmony; this would be wonderful paired with sautéed scallops. Enjoy this over the next three to four years. (90)

Crescere Sauvignon Blanc Ritchie Vineyard 2019 (Russian River Valley) – The word crescere in Italian means to grow, to raise up, to elevate, to increase. A fitting name for this winery, as owners Joe and Elena Reynoso sold their fruit from this Sonoma estate to other wineries for 20 years before deciding to make their own wines. Their 2019 Sauvignon Blanc is what you would expect from this varietal when grown in a cool climate, with aromas of freshly cut grass and dried pear, along with an appealing note of sunflower oil. Quite rich, this has elements of New World Sauvignon Blanc, along with Old World Loire character. I love the assertive nature of this wine, yet it is never too aggressive. Pair this with a wide range of foods, from spinach quiche to baked rainbow trout. Enjoy over the next three to five years, perhaps longer. (94)

B Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Grist Vineyard 2021 (Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County)

B Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Jewell Vineyard 2021 (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County)

B Cellars is located in Oakville in Napa Valley in the heart of the high-rent district for Cabernet Sauvignon. Along with several offerings of Cabernet Sauvignon, B Cellars also produces various examples of Chardonnay, and two Sauvignon Blancs from Sonoma County. The 2021 Grist Vineyard from Dry Creek Valley is clearly styled like a classic Loire Valley white and is quite appealing; pair this with seafood dishes with herbal sauces and enjoy over the next 3-5 years. (91)

The 2021 Jewell Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from Russian River Valley is a bit lighter, and offers textbook Sauvignon Blanc flavors and perfumes of grapefruit, chervil and thyme; pair this with sautéed river fish or a grilled chicken salad, and enjoy over the next two to four years. (90)

Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc To-Kalon Vineyard “The Reserve” 2019 (Oakville, Napa Valley) – Here is one of the signature examples of California Sauvignon Blanc, with the fruit sourced from the famous To-Kalon vineyard, situated directly behind the Robert Mondavi Winery. The Sauvignon Blanc vines here are among the oldest in North America, dating back to 1945; the vines for The Reserve Fumé Blanc were replanted in the mid-1990s.

This is a classic Sauvignon Blanc with excellent ripeness and a rich mid-palate; there are varietal notes of freshly cut grass, pear and even a hint of gooseberry. The finish is powerful and has assertive herbal tones, hallmarks of what a great Sauvignon Blanc is all about. This is not a Sauvignon Blanc for sipping on a summer day, rather this is a formidable offering meant for strong dishes, such as baked rainbow trout or grilled scallops. Enjoy this over the next three to five years. (93)

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc 2020 (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) – If the Robert Mondavi To-Kalon can be described a long-time classic California Sauvignon Blanc, the Merry Edwards can truly be identified as a modern-day classic. Unlike many examples of Sauvignon Blanc from California (or anywhere in the world), this is barrel-fermented, which provides texture as well as greater complexity; the fruit is of such high quality and the winemaking is so proficient, that you hardly notice the wood components in the wine. There is lovely acidity and notable persistence (the finish is quite long), while there are subtle notes of basil and yellow crocus in the finish. Beautifully made, this floats across the palate and is a seamless wine. I paired this with a Thai chicken entrée, which was a heavenly match, while I would imagine gazpacho or seafood salad would also be delightful with this wine. This is a dazzling effort – enjoy over the next three to six years. (94)

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