Sauvignon Blanc Gets Serious on California’s Central Coast

Photo by Andrew Schoneberger

In a domestic wine market dominated by Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc is often stuck strumming second fiddle.

It’s common in California, where more than 15,000 acres make Sauvignon Blanc the fourth-most planted white variety, but it’s frequently employed as a lighter, aromatic alternative to Chardonnay. Historically, that strategy resulted in Sauvignon Blanc being a tepid afterthought, or, in the case of Fumé Blancs from Napa, just another oaky sister to Chard, rather than a standalone star.

Winemaker smells wine
Half of the annual production of Paso Robles’ Desparada label is currently Sauvignon Blanc / Photo by James Collier

That’s not so anymore on California’s Central Coast. From the tips of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the deep canyons of Santa Barbara County, there’s a Sauvignon Blanc renaissance underway.

Producers are elevating the grape in a variety of styles, from brisk, grassy versions that recall France’s Loire Valley to richer, sometimes Sémillon-spiked wines reminiscent of white Bordeaux. Curious consumers are embracing the variety’s very distinct aromas and flavors, and winemakers feel that Sauvignon Blanc turns out to be a tremendous translator of terroir.

“Sauvignon Blanc is one of the more sensitive-to-climate grapes that exists,” says Doug Margerum, who’s dabbled in Sauvignon Blanc in Santa Barbara County since the 1980s. He now sees it as the primary wine for Margerum Wine Company. “The grape has so much flavor and so many expressions, depending on the style a winemaker desires.”

The diversity of the category gives it far-reaching appeal. “It is the ultimate food wine and pairs especially well with the lighter, often seafood-based cuisine we have here in Santa Barbara,” says Margerum.

Other winemakers, like Vailia Esh of Desparada in Paso Robles, are intrigued by the grape’s unrecognized cellar potential. Her first Sauvignon Blanc was in 2012.

“That was the year I had a 19-year-old Sauvignon Blanc that literally blew my mind,” says Esh. “I didn’t know it could age like that. It inspired me. I wanted to make a wine that could age like that.”

Today, she makes more than a half-dozen Sauvignon Blancs each vintage from six different Santa Barbara vineyards, amounting to one-half her annual production.

Balance Is Best

Both Esh and Margerum make Sauvignon Blanc in Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, an appellation on the eastern edge of the Santa Ynez Valley. Warmer than the wind-whipped Pinot Noir and Chardonnay lands to the west, Happy Canyon is a hub for Bordelaise varieties. Winemakers from near and far are finding much to love about Sauvignon Blanc from here.

“Happy Canyon, with its marine soils and high diurnal variations, when properly farmed for reasonable yields and vine balance, makes for a unique wine,” says John Dragonette of Dragonette Cellars, about 20 miles away in Buellton. “It’s at once ripe with tropical fruits, but balanced with fantastic natural acidity and a terrific mineral edge. Tasting top Loire, New Zealand, and even Napa wines against serious Happy Canyon wines demonstrates the unique terroir of this appellation, for sure.”

Winemaker with grapes
Grassini Family Vineyards has three Sauvignon Blancs, ranging from acid-driven stainless bottles to richer, barrel-fermented versions / Photo by Katie Grassini

Sauvignon Blanc is the only white wine made by Grassini Family Vineyards, whose estate is in Happy Canyon. Proprietor Katie Grassini is bullish on the grape, and she aims to change consumer perceptions of it by offering a range of three distinct versions, from acid-driven stainless wines to richer, barrel-fermented versions.

“Folks tend to think of Sauv Blanc as a sort of a one-trick pony, something easy to sip by the pool on a hot summer day,” she says. “Just by adding some skin contact or a little French oak to the program, we’re able to bring out beautiful complexity, richer texture and lush layers in this wine, the perfect companion wine for an elegant meal.”

Sémillon as Sidekick

Up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Nathan Kandler is pursuing a new frontier for Sauvignon Blanc under the Lexington label.

“I wanted to challenge the status quo,” he says. “So much of it is an afterthought or made pretty cynically, quick to market and all esters and pyrazines. I wanted to make a serious style that could reflect the site and show terroir.”

Kandler picks the Sauvignon Blanc grapes on the slightly riper side, but he offsets that with underripe Sémillon.

“Our style has weight and texture, but is also bright and linear,” says Kandler. “That yin and yang of tension and weight is classic Santa Cruz Mountains.”

Nine of the Best Sauvignon Blancs We Drank in 2019

In the Los Olivos District of Santa Barbara, Karen Steinwachs makes a number of Sauvignon Blancs—including one flavored with hops—for Buttonwood, whose vines date to 1983.

In her Signature blend, Steinwachs finds that the Sémillon softens the racy qualities, while she says the 40% Sémillon used in the Devin bottling “gives it that nutty, toasty and textural character that works well with barrel aging and pairs with heavier dishes in the autumn and winter.”

Velvet Bee Winemaker Phillip Kaplan puts 50% Sémillon in his Queen Bee Blanc. He sees Sémillon as the key to more widespread success for Sauvignon Blanc. “The blend is popular with a broader audience, particularly in a blind format,” he says.

Racy and Rocky

The Sauvignon Blancs from the Arroyo Seco appellation in Monterey County are especially distinctive.

“Many of the vineyards are planted in old river rock, with very little soil,” says Adam Comartin, whose namesake Sauvignon Blancs are available by the glass at restaurants throughout Silicon Valley. “This directly translates to the mineral tones in the wines.”

Nearby, Kristen Barnhisel started to make J. Lohr’s white wines in 2015. Her Flume Crossing and F&G Sauvignon Blancs are fast becoming a more prominent part of the company’s portfolio.

“It can offer such an array of flavors, from more grassy characteristics to lime and key lime notes, gravelly minerality, fig, melon and many others,” she says of the grape. “I love how these flavors change daily in the vineyard prior to harvest.”

To capture that complexity, Barnhisel schedules about 10 different picks through her Sauvignon Blanc vineyards each harvest.

Winemaker in vineyard
John Dragonette of Dragonette Cellars believes the terroir of Central Coast’s Happy Canyon is particularly suited to Sauvignon Blanc Photo by Andrew Schoneberger

Down in the Edna Valley, Molly Bohlman makes wine for Niner Estates from the Jespersen Ranch, just four miles from the chilly Pacific Ocean. That leads to racy, grassy wines, which she enhances by opening up the vine canopy to get more sun on the fruit and encourage riper characteristics.

She’s plays with other techniques as well, which she believes to be the key to the grape’s growth.

“Sauvignon Blanc producers on the Central Coast will continue to experiment with different fermentation techniques and aging vessels like concrete, amphora, and barrels in order to make a more interesting wine,” says Bohlman. “If we all work towards making more unique and memorable Sauvignon Blancs, the future will be bright.”

Published on April 2, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings