No region in California exhibits a greater range of styles or higher overall quality.
California's Sonoma County is Chardonnay country, there's no denying it. It's everywhere, every year. Vintage after vintage, winemakers produce excellent, world-class examples. There's six times as much Chardonnay as there is of the next most popular white wine grape.
But it's that number two variety that has Sonoma restaurateurs huddled with their sommeliers, excitedly working out the food-pairing possibilities. "Sauvignon Blanc," confirms Fred Langley, chef-owner of Langley's on the Green, an upscale fusion restaurant in Windsor. "What grape goes better with food?" he asks.
And the food-pairing possibilities approach infinity because, when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, no region in California exhibits a greater range of styles, or a higher overall quality.
"Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc is a little Sancerre, a little Graves, and a lot of New World, all packed into one," says Christopher Sawyer, sommelier at Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar, in Sonoma Town.
A Mixed Case of Sonoma SB
94 Benziger 2002 Shone Farm Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley); $27. There's no oak in this wine, but it's amazingly rich anyway. The wine is very dry, with Meyer lemon flavors boosted by a firm minerality and rich acidity. Absolutely defines the unoaked style of Sauvignon Blanc. Editors' Choice.
94 Peter Michael 2004 L'Après-Midi (Knights Valley); $42. As rich as a Chardonnay, yet with Sauvignon's distinctive, savory profile, this is great wine. Few Sauvignons in California achieve this level of complexity. The lush, apricot-scented lemon and lime flavors are tinged with peaches, wildflowers and roasted nuts, with a firm, hard minerality throughout. Editors' Choice.
93 Dutton Estate 2005 Dutton Ranch Cohen Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley); $35. The Duttons, among the best growers in the country, have produced a rich, fruity wine, dry and complex in apricot, citrus, herb and mineral flavors. This is simply a tremendous food wine. Editors' Choice.
92 Chateau St. Jean 2004 La Petite Etoile Vineyard Fumé Blanc (Russian River Valley); $20. Always a rewarding wine, this year's Etoile is particularly rich. It floods the palate with complex fruit spanning the gamut from lemons and limes to pineapples and guavas. Barrel fermentation lends a creamy texture, while the cool climate gives the wine the acidity it needs for balance. Editors' Choice.
92 Quivira 2004 Fig Tree Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Dry Creek Valley); $16. Made white Bordeaux style, with barrel fermentation in partially new French oak and aged sur lies, this vineyard bottling is always interesting, but the '04 is the best I've tasted. It's rich and creamy, with complex flavors of Meyer lemon, ripe fig, honeydew melon, crushed pineapple and peppery spice. Yet for all that, it's quite dry. Editors' Choice.
92 Rochioli 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley); $30. A beautiful, refined Sauvignon Blanc, as usual, brimming with lemon and lime, freshly mowed green grass and tangy green-apple flavors. Partial barrel fermentation adds a creamy complexity. The wine is totally dry and bright in acidity, but it's really the fruit that stars. Editors' Choice.
91 Chalk Hill 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Chalk Hill); $25. Richer than the '03, this wine brims with the most savory Meyer lemon, lime and tart green-apple flavors, boosted and brightened with crisp, minerally acidity. Winemaker Steve Leveque for the first time barrel fermented this non-malolactic wine, to make it a little rounded and creamier. It was a good step; the wine is luscious.
91 De Loach 2004 OFS Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley); $20. Wow. This is one big, impressive Sauvignon Blanc. It's the grass and gooseberry, and the acidity. The wine hits the palate like a bomb, dry and crisp and explosive. Midpalate, the fruit emerges, yielding peaches, figs, melons, limes and kiwi. Editors' Choice.
91 Mauritson 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Dry Creek Valley); $16. Made from the old Clone 1, which gives classic grass and citrus flavors, and the Musqué clone, which contributes brighter gooseberry notes. Absolutely dry, and boosted by mouth-wateringly zesty acidity, it also has low alcohol by today's standards (13.5%). Editors' Choice.
90 Bugay 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Dry Creek Valley); $22. This is a sophisticated wine, partially barrel fermented and aged sur lies, which softened and mellowed it. The underlying fruit flavors, of citrus, fig, melon and spice, are ripe and juicy in acidity.
90 Geyser Peak 2004 Block Collection River Road Ranch Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley); $21. Interesting and aromatic. Scents of honey, apricot and clover. Quite tight and lean in the mouth, but with mouthwatering flavors of crisp green apple, lime and mineral. Finishes sharp, with piercing acidity. Editors' Choice.
90 Kenwood 2004 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc (Sonoma County): $15. Kenwood's regular Sauvignon Blanc was a hard act to top. This one costs two bucks more, and while it's richer in creamy oak and lees, it's really not better, just different. It's a yummy, complex wine, and this is a great price for this quality. Best Buy.
The metaphor is apt. In the Sancerre region of France's Loire Valley, Sauvignon Blanc is not traditionally oaked or blended. By contrast, vintners in the Graves region of Bordeaux treat Sauvignon Blanc in a Burgundian manner, with barrel fermentation, aging sur lies and blending with Sémillon for complexity. The "New World" style Sawyer refers to is usually associated with New Zealand's Marlborough region: racy, pungent, unoaked wines that are like Sancerre on steroids.
Sonoma County produces all three styles from its range of climates: The hot, dry Alexander and Sonoma valleys, the cooler, wetter Russian River Valley (including Green Valley) and, sharing characteristics of both, Dry Creek Valley and areas of Chalk Hill. Each climate brings different flavors to the wines. When you couple these varying styles with different kinds of soils and clones, such as the coveted Musqué, and winemaker options such as the amount of oak (if any) and whether or not to blend it with another variety, you can begin to appreciate the possibilities.
Alexander Valley Sauvignons tend to be serviceable rather than exciting. It's too warm there for the grapes to retain the savory acidity Sauvignon Blanc needs. The problem is also that the valley is dominated by big, corporate wineries that sometimes overcrop their grapevines, resulting in wines that are aggressively weedy. Family-owned Murphy-Goode does a much better job from benchland grapes. Although Geyser Peak is an Alexander Valley winery, they get their best Sauvignon Blanc grapes from Russian River. Iron Horse's Cuvée R is probably the best in the appellation—but then, their grapes hail from stressed, low-yielding mountain vineyards, and Iron Horse fattens the wines by blending in up to 20 percent Viognier.
Russian River Sauvignons, on the other hand, can be thrilling, among the greatest in the state: Benziger's Shone Farm, Dutton Estate's Cohen Vineyard, Chateau St. Jean's La Petite Etoile, De Loach's OFS, and Rochioli's estate bottling are prime examples. It's a function of climate: When the vintage is great, so are the wines. Whether they're unoaked, such as Benziger's, or made Graves style, they have a complex array of fruit and mineral flavors and juicy acidity, even when the wines undergo some malolactic fermentation. Rochioli likes a little oak, including some in French barrels, to give it a softening touch of cream and roundness, although unlike past vintages, the '05 had no new oak. "We had such a big crop, I had to use all my new barrels for Pinot Noir!" Rochioli explains.
Some of Sonoma's lesser-known appellations also produce stunning Sauvignons. But there aren't enough wineries in these areas to make sweeping generalizations, except to say that the best Sauvignons, such as Peter Michael's L'Après-Midi (Knights Valley), Benziger's Paradiso de Maria (Sonoma Mountain) and Chalk Hill's rich estate (Chalk Hill), are made from low-yielding vines, grown in well-drained soils. These wineries inspire all to create world-class wines.
Dry Creek Valley, right in the middle of the warm-cool spectrum, is home to the most consistently good Sauvignon Blanc in Sonoma. The wines may lack the peak thrill of the best of Russian River Valley, but they're good, often great, and it's hard to find a disappointing one.
Grady Wann, the longtime winemaker at Quivira, whose Fig Tree Vineyard bottling comes from the west side of Dry Creek Valley, observes, "We're cooler than Alexander Valley, but warmer than Russian River, which shifts Sauvignon's character to this herbal, citrus and melon side, but still with bright acidity."
The variety was first planted there in 1972, at Dave Stare's Dry Creek Vineyard. (Stare called it Fumé Blanc, following Robert Mondavi's lead in Napa Valley.) Dry Creek's unoaked Fumé Blanc is a good value. Also unoaked is Mauritson's; crafted by owner-winemaker Clay Mauritson, it is one of the best in the valley. Quivira's Fig Tree Sauvignon Blanc and Bugay both take a Graves approach, with barrel fermentation and sur lies aging, but in both cases, Sauvignon's savoriness shines through.
Then there's Kenwood, whose Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc is a blend from various regions. With moderate alcohol and extraordinarily high acidity, it's a great value. For $15, you get a bit of the best the county has to offer.
Nurturing Sauv Blanc in Chardonnay country: Why bother?
Sauvignon Blanc doesn't cost as much as Chardonnay. At almost every winery that produces both, the Chard retails for more. "Sauvignon Blanc, in consumers' minds, has always been the little sister of Chardonnay," says Mike Benziger, winemaker at Benziger Family Winery.
There are historical reasons why. Back in 1941, when the U.S. was still emerging from Prohibition, the influential wine educator, Frank Schoonmaker, classified California Chardonnay as "Great," dubbing Sauvignon Blanc only "Good to Fair." Even in 1975, at the height of the boutique winery era, the critic Robert Gorman dismissed California Sauvignon Blancs as "lesser wines." Chardonnay's market share in February 2006 was 21.5 percent of U.S. case sales, compared to Sauvignon Blanc's measly 3 percent.
"I'll give you some basics," says Tom Rochioli, who makes the wine at his eponymous winery. "The deal on Sauvignon Blanc is, it has cash-flow value. Sauvignon Blanc spends very little time in the winery. Typically, we bottle it in January, let it bottle age for a few minutes, then release it in February." His Chardonnay isn't bottled until the end of July, and isn't released for another month, meaning it remains as unsold inventory for almost a year.
If you ask Benziger why his single-vineyard Paradiso de Maria Sauvignon Blanc costs only $22, and his Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay retails for $35, he replies in the same pragmatic vein as Rochioli: "We still make money off Sauvignon Blanc, and the reason is, we can sell it much faster than Chardonnay." And with French oak barrels running upwards of $800, the cost of producing Chardonnay, which is nearly always oakier than Sauvignon Blanc, increases accordingly.
Ultimately, though, winemakers play with Sauvignon Blanc because they love it. "Sauvignon Blanc has its purpose as far as a crisp, clean wine goes," says Rochioli. Sir Peter Michael, a British billionaire, grows the variety on a portion of his mountain vineyard that could undoubtedly sustain great Cabernet, and sell for two or three times the price. But he doesn't need the money. "On sheer bottle price, it's not for the dollars," concedes general manager Tom Eakin. "It's because Sir Peter loves top-quality Sauvignon Blanc and wanted some available."
At Chalk Hill, winemaker Leveque concedes, "Yes, from a business sense, it doesn't make much sense" to grow the variety. "But we're passionate about Sauvignon Blanc, because it does so well in our soils and climate." Besides, Leveque notes, "Restaurant people and sommeliers are looking for something that's versatile at the table."
In the grip of acidity
When Gorman was dismissing Sauvignon Blanc 31 years ago, he noted, almost parenthetically, the opposite view of Maynard Amerine, the legendary enology professor at U.C. Davis: "It is Professor Amerine's belief that Sauvignon Blanc is the best California white grape variety."
What Amerine, an esthete and connoisseur, probably liked about Sauvignon Blanc was the same thing chefs savor: acidity. "For me, it's a very easy wine to pair with food, because of the brightness. You're not in front of a glass that's flat," declares Didier Ageorges, Chalk Hill's executive chef. Ageorges points to Sauvignon Blanc's "natural balance" with the locally produced foods Sonoma County is famous for: Pacific crab; fresh oysters from Tomales Bay that he cooks up in a gratin and serves with a leek fondue; and the micro greens that are so popular these days. He also likes the wine with fried calamari, because "the acidity cuts the grease." Ageorges's most requested pairing, though, is shrimp wrapped in phyllo, served with a Thai hot-and-sweet sauce enriched with reduced orange juice.
The wine list at Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen restaurant, in Healdsburg, offers 40 Sonoma County Sauvignon Blancs. Palmer calls it "the most food-friendly white wine because it always has enough acidity to balance with different flavors." For Palmer, each Sauvignon Blanc style lends itself to unique pairings. With a steely, unoaked wine like Mauritson's, he'll serve tuna sashimi or tartare, whereas a Graves-style Sauvignon goes better with a rich main course, like ling cod in tomato cioppino.
Both Langley, the Sonoma restaurateur, and Geoff Kruth, wine director at the Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant, in Forestville, feel that Sauvignon Blanc should have little oak or none at all, to maximize freshness. "If I smell oak, it's not for me!" Kruth asserts; he likes to serve Gary Farrell's unoaked, Marlborough-style Sauvignon as an apéritif. For Langley, Sauvignon's raciness is perfect with the spicy fusion foods he prepares. "In my restaurant," he says, "we offer a melting pot of cuisines. Indian food, Japanese, Chinese and Hispanic all have bold flavors that are great pairings with Sauvignon Blanc." Mike Benziger agrees. "Sauvignon Blanc's acidity matches really well with Caribbean, Mexican and Asian foods" that in turn influence California cuisine. At Quivira's winery dinners, they pair the Fig Tree Sauvignon Blanc with grilled asparagus wrapped in a thin slice of chevre-stuffed prosciutto.
"I'm not sure why people don't get the drift of Sauvignon Blanc," says Sawyer. "They're not looking at it from a food point of view. After all, it's about how you apply wine to your real life."
The good news is that people are getting the drift of Sauvignon Blanc. According to Gomberg, Fredrikson and Associates, a California group that analyzes the wine industry, nearly half of all the Sauvignon Blanc sold in the U.S. now is in the "superpremium" or "ultrapremium" price range. Sauvignon Blanc's time in the spotlight has arrived.