California Sauvignon Blanc Best Bets

Proud wineries are bringing California's under-the-radar white to new heights. Here are the wines to try for a genuine, but elevated, SB blast.



Do you drink much California Sauvignon Blanc? If you answered yes, you’re probably in the minority.

Most wine lovers say that SB makes for a nice cocktail sipper, but few would think of drinking it throughout the meal. Chardonnay, yes. Certainly white Bordeaux, maybe a great Sancerre. But not Sauvignon Blanc.

It’s not hard to discern why. Much Sauvignon Blanc is too sweet. Instead of refreshing the palate, it tires it. Even when the wine is fully dry, it can be linear, one-dimensional.

Unoaked Sauvignon Blancs, inspired by the stainless steel Chardonnay trend, can be crisp and fruity. But they’re not particularly complex. For that, you need the full-bore treatment of oak barrel fermentation and/or aging, sur lies with battonage and, sometimes, a little blending with a companion grape, often Sémillon.

Yet even when made in this Graves style, Sauvignon Blanc can be heavy-handed. The grape is a notorious overcropper, meaning that vintners sometimes let yields run amok. That gives a green, disagreeable cut to the wine that no amount of oak can soften. And sometimes, winemakers simply plaster on the oak too thick.

Happily, there’s an increasing quantity of very good Graves-style bottlings. Among top performers are Illumination (from Quintessa), Dutton Estate and Gainey, and smaller, newer producers like Source Napa, Joseph Jewell, Peter Franus and Modus Operandi.

But in terms of consistency, there are three California vineyards that reliably produce solid SB fruit year in and year out. Granted, there’s a certain arbitrariness in choosing just three. But these are solid bets. Try wines with these vineyards on the label and you may find yourself reaching for Sauvignon Blanc instead of Chardonnay with your next great meal.

Mondavi I Block: old vines, great terroir
The first thing you notice about the I Block of Robert Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard is its beauty. To the west, a few hundred feet away, is the wall of the Mayacamas. To the east is the winery itself, with its famous arch and campanile. And here, where you stand on dry, fine dirt, you perceive how the vineyard gently slopes from the base of the mountains to where it hits the valley floor, just across a dirt path, and levels off.

This is the Oakville bench, and the five-acre I Block, entirely planted to Sauvignon Blanc (called Fumé Blanc at Mondavi), sits in its tenderloin. The slight grade means that I Block is perfectly drained, even after a wet season like 2009-2010. Across that dirt path, on the vineyard’s flats, where the water settles, the wines are not so fine.

You notice, too, that the vines are entirely untrellised. They’re head-trained, bush-like plants grown in what’s called gobelet fashion (as in goblet), meaning the foliage forms into a rounded canopy of overhead leaves. More than half of I Block’s vines date to 1945, when head training was the norm; when old vines are replaced, their successors are trained in the gobelet style, notes Mondavi’s chief winemaker, Genevieve Janssens.

“And I Block is unirrigated,” she adds. “It doesn’t need to be watered. It’s so balanced, it takes care of itself. Our vineyard manager says it’s the vineyard where we expend the least amount of money and effort.” 

When a vineyard is balanced, the wine it makes will be balanced, unless the winemaker screws up, something Janssens and her team aren’t going to do. The grapes are hand-harvested, with younger vines picked earlier. In the winery, only free run juice is used, “because when you squeeze the press [grapes], the juice has more bitterness,” Janssens explains. Grapes from younger vines tend to be fermented in stainless steel barrels, while fruit from older vines goes into oak barrels.

The wine benefits from this combination. “I Block is like a history of humanity,” Janssens says. “The young fruit is impetuous, with great energy. The older vines have the benefit of old age, with philosophy and complexity.”

After the juice has rested overnight in a cold cellar, it is inoculated—no wild yeasts here. The fermentation takes about 45 days, during which time the wine is stirred on its lees about twice a week, in the process known as battonage, which gives a creamy, pleasantly tart note to the finished wine. When fermentation is complete, the wine remains on its lees for an additional nine months. It is never put through malolactic fermentation, to preserve vitality. In the August following the vintage, both tank and barrel wines are blended in a stainless-steel tank. A few months later, the wine is bottled, then held back another nine months before release. Production is small; only 233 cases were produced in 2006, which is the current release.

I Block can be interpreted as the quintessence of 100% Oakville Sauvignon Blanc, although it is also, of course, the essence of To Kalon. Janssens’s Reserve Fumé Blanc contains some Sémillon, also from To Kalon; though that fruit is sourced from other blocks in the vineyard, it often is as great as I Block. But for an experience of the greatest Sauvignon purity, I Block reigns supreme. It is one of the few California Sauvignon Blancs to be ageable; the 1999 is drinking beautifully.

Chalk Hill: estate blending from the western Mayacamas
Forty miles northwest of To Kalon—but with the Mayacamas in between—is Chalk Hill’s estate vineyard. Here, the mountains play a greater role, because the vines grow directly on its slopes and in its swales. This is true mountain viticulture.

The vineyard is 277 planted acres, with Sauvignon Blanc comprising 15% of the total. But, as Chalk Hill’s winemaker, Jordan Fiorentini, and vineyard operations chief, Mark Lingenfelder, remind you, the Sauvignon is divided among 11 clones of the variety, including the Musqué clone from the Loire and various forms of the Gris clone from Bordeaux and Chile. The Estate Sauvignon Blanc, which more often than not receives scores of 90 points or above, is a clonal blend.

 These are extraordinarily rich, balanced wines, never suffering from green, unripe notes. As with Mondavi’s I Block, the juice is fermented in both stainless steel and oak barrels, and aged sur lies. But the key to the wines’ consistency lies in the vineyard.

The vines follow the contours of the Mayacamas as it tumbles down from the high plateau of Knights Valley. The vineyard is shaped like a bowl; roughly half the vines, in the eastern part, are at elevations up to 600 feet. Here, in rocky, volcanic, well-drained soils, are planted red Bordeaux varieties, as you’d expect. “But at the highest elevations, it’s too windy to ripen Cabernet, so we grow Sauvignon Blanc instead,” Lingenfelder notes.

In the flat part of the bowl, which Lingenfelder calls Chalk Hill Valley, are more plantings of Sauvignon Blanc. “It’s cooler down here, with more fog,” the viticulturalist asserts, “and the soils are heavier clay.” This would be unsuitable for Cabernet; unsuitable, too, for Chardonnay, which does well just a few dozen yards away, in gravelly soil. “But Sauvignon Blanc loves the clay,” says Lingenfelder. The two sites—hillside and valley—“are two different worlds,” he notes, because the hills ripen weeks earlier. But from winemaker Fiorentini’s point of view, “It’s hard to say how the two Sauvignon Blancs are different. Quality-wise, they’re very similar.”

As at To Kalon, Chalk Hill’s Sauvignon Blanc is hand-harvested. The grapes are carefully sorted to pick out unripe berries and MOG (material other than grapes) and crushed—but, again, carefully. Fiorentini explains, “The most important thing in Sauvignon Blanc is aromatics, so the wine is protected from oxygen all its life.” Fermentation is mostly whole cluster. “The only reason we destem a little bit,” Fiorentini points out, “is for skin contact.” A chemical compound in skins, thiol, adds aromatic and textural complexities. Chalk Hill’s Sauvignon Blancs never undergo malolactic fermentation. “It gets too flabby if you do [malolactic]. We want that acidity to balance the richness,” the winemaker observes.

Every year, Fiorentini crafts a few clonal bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc. “We’ll look for the most unique, high-personality lots” from among the 35 or so lots produced. In recent years, the clonal bottlings have tended to be Musqué and Gris. The 2008 Musqué is a sensation. But so difficult are these wines to procure, and so unpredictable (there might not be a 2009 Musqué), that consumers are better off seeking the estate blend, which is far easier to find (production on the ’08 was 5,100 cases). It is classic Sauvignon Blanc, rich and citrusy, with just a hint of gooseberry. These wines hit their peak three or four years after release.

Brander: exploring SB’s possibilities
Visitors to the Santa Ynez Valley know that, once they pass the little town of Los Olivos heading east on Highway 154, the rolling benches and foothills of the San Gabriels turn thick with vineyards. Here, where Roblar Avenue hits the highway, is The Brander Vineyard. It dates to 1975, making it one of the oldest in the appellation.

The vineyard contains 20 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, mostly the same Gris clone grown at Chalk Hill. And a very special Sauvignon Blanc it is, earning any number of 90-plus scores from this magazine, more than any other from Santa Barbara County.

The majority is made from purchased fruit, ending up in owner/winemaker Fred Brander’s basic Santa Ynez Valley bottling. From the estate vineyard itself, however, Brander explores the possibilities of Sauvignon Blanc, crafting three distinct styles. Cuvêe Natalie, blended with Riesling and Pinot Gris, is stainless-steel produced and off-dry. Au Naturel is unoaked, 100% varietal, and bone dry. Brander’s richest bottling is Cuvêe Nicholas, named after Fred’s son; it is made in the Graves style, barrel fermented and aged sur lie.

In any given vintage, Au Naturel vies with Cuvée Nicholas for top honors. Both are made only with free-run juice. Au Naturel is extraordinarily complex, testimony to the greatness of the estate’s terroir. If the grapes are employed in Nicholas, with the added luxuriousness of oak and lees, the result is one of California’s most consistently great Sauvignon Blancs.

Brander himself credits the soil. “It’s very gravelly, with a little clay. We call alluvial soils like this ‘terrace deposits’, washed down from the Santa Ynez uplands,” or the slopes of the San Gabriels. The gravel makes the soil exceptionally well drained, although, with average annual rainfall of only 10 inches, the soil never gets very wet to begin with.

Add to this consistently dry weather a warmish climate, and you get what Brander calls a “uniform hydrology and terroir” that Sauvignon Blanc loves. For comparison’s sake, he notes, “it’s not as hot as Happy Canyon, but warmer than Santa Rita Hills.” Brander is leading an effort to have this area achieve its own Los Olivos American Viticultural Area designation.

The vinification of Cuvée Nicholas echoes that of Mondavi I Block and Chalk Hill estate, with a single exception: it contains as much as 25% Sémillon. Brander may feel that, given the uniformity of his Gris clone grapes, he doesn’t have the option of blending with different clones. But the Sémillon makes up for that. “The vines are over 30 years old, and when they’re good, they’re very good,” he says. “As the vines get older, we get much smaller clusters, and we harvest later, let them ripen to 25, 26 [Brix]. That brings an oily, almost Pinot Gris-style richness. It’s wonderful with the balanced grassiness of Sauvignon Blanc."

Indeed, Nicholas shows hints of grass alongside ripe melons, citrus and figs, but it’s never green. “We never overcrop, which gives unripe flavors,” Brander explains. And the fairly warm Los Olivos climate allows for consistent ripeness. Back in the 1980s, Brander made Sauvignon Blanc from Brian Babcock’s vineyard, in the Santa Rita Hills. “Boy, was that grassy!” he remembers, without fondness.

After crush, most of Nicholas goes into French oak, 50% new; a small percent is put into stainless steel. The wine is kept in barrel only three or four months before bottling, and is released to the market in spring following the vintage. Says Brander, “Most people who do oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc will keep it in barrel closer to a year. Certainly, they do with white Graves. But I find the fruit suffers [with longer barrel aging], and I want to preserve as much fruit in Nicholas as possible.” As at Mondavi and Chalk Hill, Brander avoids malolactic fermentation on his Sauvignon Blancs. “I want to retain that malic acid character as much as possible. And I don’t want the textural character associated with malolactic to come into play.”

You have only to taste the current 2009 vintage of Cuvée Nicholas to appreciate its purity. It is a wine to savor now and for a few more years.

While it’s accurate to say that Cuvée Nicholas, Mondavi’s I Block and Chalk Hill’s Estate are the closest California comes to white Graves, it’s not entirely fair: they are not white Graves and do not pretend to be. They simply elevate California Sauvignon Blanc to its highest expression. If consumers are getting serious about Sauvignon, it will be because of wines like these.

Increase Your Odds :

 

 

Top Producers of Recent Vintage California Sauvignon Blanc

Atmosphere 
Brander
Chalk Hill
David Arthur
Dutton Estate
Foxen
Gainey
Greenwood Ridge
Groth
Joseph Carr
Joseph Jewell
Long Meadow Ranch
Modus Operandi
Peter Franus
Quintessa
Robert Mondavi
Santa Barbara Winery
Six Sigma
Source Napa
Tangent

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