Sauvignon Blanc Gets Serious

Photo by Allie Smith / Unsplash

Chewing on lawn clippings isn’t likely to ever take off as a culinary trend, so I was a bit befuddled when I started reviewing Sauvignon Blanc. The varietal shows lots of cut grass, lime peel, apple skin and other green flavors driven by pyrazines—which are natural chemical compounds found in many Bordeaux varieties, including red grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon— and they can be off-puttingly bitter or just plain weird to many palates. So Sauv Blanc quickly became my least favorite common varietal to taste, thanks to grassy bottlings that seemed simultaneously simple and similar.

But as the Sauv Blancs kept coming, my mind and taste buds opened. I found a wide range of flavors and styles, from tropical notes of guava (often founded in warmer climes, such as Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara) to the zesty spice of white pepper (more typical of cooler sites, like Presqu’ile Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley). I started to enjoy both extremes, one being silky and rich, the other crisp and fresh, and found appreciation in bottlings that deftly offered elements of each.

As with every other varietal, I also learned that there is a vast array of winemaking techniques—from barrel vs. stainless vs. cement aging to prolonged skin contact, lees stirring, and clonal selection—that can enhance certain Sauv Blanc characteristics while downplaying others. After years of focused experimentation in certain corners of the Central Coast, some dedicated vintners are starting to discover replicable methods for making world-class Sauv Blanc each vintage in styles that can appeal to many tastes.

This force is quite strong in Santa Barbara County, where, over the past two months alone, my wine country wanderings have stumbled into plenty of Sauvignon Blanc situations. In May, I hung out with Frederic Brander, who started his Sauvignon Blanc-focused winery in the Santa Ynez Valley 40 years ago. Brander—who produces about 13,000 cases of Sauv Blanc annually through 11 different bottlings, including five single-vineyard expressions—believes that many winemakers merely use the grape to have another white wine offering, almost as an afterthought. “The potential for Sauvignon Blanc in California is huge,” Brander told me, “but it seems like there is not a lot of effort.”

In June, veteran winemaker John Falcone (now at Gainey, formerly of Rusack, Atlas Peak and other wineries) came over to sample a lineup of mostly red wines that I’d recently reviewed. There wasn’t any Sauvignon Blanc in sight, but as the sun started to set, Falcone suddenly expressed dismay at how the grape gets treated by the critics, explaining that he’s systematically examined scores over the years that show Sauv Blanc gets routinely lower scores than, say, Chardonnay. That made me look at my scores over the past year, and though the bulk of my Sauv Blanc reviews are favorable, my favorite Chards snag bigger numbers than other white wines. Guilty as charged.

Two days later, I attended a Sauv Blanc roundtable at Dragonette Cellars in Buellton, where 12 winemakers each showed off a couple recent wines while discussing technique and terroir. Seated to my left was Kathy Joseph, who’s focused on the grape with her Fiddlehead brand since 1989 and produces both ends of the style spectrum every year, from the vibrant Goosebury to the lush Hunnysuckle. Many Fiddlehead alumni were also present (Tyler Thomas of Star Lane and Karen Steinwachs of Buttonwood, to name a few), as were vintners from both Happy Canyon (Katie Grassini of her family’s vineyard, Adam Henkel of Crown Point/Westerly) and the soon-to-be-appellated Los Olivos District (Fabian Bravo of Brander, Mike Roth of Vincent).

Perhaps most illuminating of Sauv Blanc’s bright future were the wines South African-born Ernst Storm. His 2014 Santa Ynez Valley blend straddled the line, offering what he called “New World freshness with Old World texture.” Then we tried the 2013 Presqu’ile Vineyard, which I already considered one of the most memorable white wines I’ve ever tasted. At 12.2%, it’s as green as can be, but I love the spicy white pepper and tremendous energy—it’s the perfect symbol of my complete reversal on how I feel about Sauv Blanc.

“You can drive from Happy Canyon to Presqu’ile in about 20 minutes,” said Storm of how vast the Sauv Blanc universe can be in Santa Barbara County alone. “But the wines are completely different.”

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Published on July 16, 2015
Topics: Sauvignon Blanc