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James Cheng  /  MSNBC.com
California sauvignon blancs: Becoming more like their New Zealand cousins.
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 4/6/2005 4:43:58 PM ET 2005-04-06T20:43:58

California sauvignon blanc just isn’t what it used to be.  And that’s most definitely a good thing.

For many years, this crisp, acidic grape was too often masked in oak and hawked as fumé blanc, a style that came about mostly because California winemakers — notably Robert Mondavi — were convinced no one would buy such a curiously named thing as sauvignon blanc. That, plus the fact that California vintners were having huge success with big, buttery chardonnays that used the crutch of oak aging.

So wineries gave their sauvignon blanc an unfortunate dose of wood and slapped on the new name. As recently as a decade ago, this was still largely the California formula, and it worked like a charm.

For a while.

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“We were all making sauvignon blanc styles that were sometimes hard to taste the difference from chardonnay,” says Daryl Groom, winemaker at Sonoma’s Geyser Peak Winery. “If you want something to taste like chardonnay, you might as well make chardonnay.”

Sauvignon blanc has always suffered from a bit of an identity crisis. In Bordeaux, winemakers mix it with semillon (in varying combinations) and age it in barrels to create a round, rich white wine. In the Loire Valley, meanwhile, under appellations like Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé (which shares nothing with the California stuff save part of its name), sauvignon blanc is almost always vinified on its own, usually in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels (or a combination).

Bordeaux can certainly find beauty in sauvignon blanc, and winemakers there rely on it to add finesse to Semillon-based Sauternes such as Chateau d’Yquem, one of the world’s most expensive bottlings. But it’s in the Loire that sauvignon blanc’s classic, unadorned beauty has been most lovingly expressed. Sancerre, especially, is renowned for displaying the grape’s bright, grassy essence. 

Then in 1985, New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc was released, signaling a new take on an old style. Southern Hemisphere winemakers largely followed a Sancerre approach — highlighting the fruit’s grassy, citrusy nature — but offered an even crisper expression of the grape. The result: In the past 20 years, New Zealand sauvignon blanc has upended the sauvignon blanc market, casting it in consumers’ minds as an approachable, affordable wine meant for casual drinking.

Initially, California stuck with its fumé formula. But sauvignon blanc’s fortunes in the state are changing. While fumé blanc has by no means disappeared, many wineries are losing the oak and choosing to follow New Zealand’s lead. Much California sauvignon blanc now offers the same bright flavors as its Kiwi cousins, and while fumé blanc once topped the rankings of California wine awards, its acclaim has largely been usurped by the new methods.

One of the leaders in this mini-revolution, Geyser Peak's Daryl Groom, reached California in 1989, his native Australian palate already well acquainted with New Zealand’s steely style. In fact, his sauvignon blanc can easily convince you it hails from the other hemisphere, an achievement he manages by melding grapes from across a broad swath of the state — as far north as Lake County, northeast of Sacramento, and as far south as Monterey.  Grapes from cooler areas give his wine a sharp citrus note, while warmer-weather grapes give it a fuller mouthfeel without ever touching a barrel. (Another way that Groom maintains the zing in his sauvignon blanc is by keeping his considerable output — 112,000 cases — in cold storage tanks and releasing it in small batches. In this way, inventory doesn’t back up on shelves and bottles remain fresh.)

Other sauvignon producers are more interested in a compromise approach, and it’s hard to find these wines’ roots in either the Loire or Bordeaux. David Coventry, of Morgan Winery in Salinas, Calif., takes cues from both French styles: His wines retain a clean, minerally taste, but he also uses barrel aging and a dose of semillon.

“We have to develop an individual personality. We can’t bag off the personality of France,” Coventry says. “There no longer is a mothership connection.”

The crucial factor, says Randy Mason of Oakville’s Mason Cellars, is that drinkers now consider California sauvignon blanc to be a wine that requires serious skill and application, rather than simply a second-stringer to chardonnay. “All of a sudden you’re seeing these great flavor profiles,” says Mason, who started using the grape at Lake Spring Winery in 1980, during the fumé heyday.

No one style seems to dominate the new crop of California sauvignon blancs, though the Kiwi spirit is apparent in many of the most appealing efforts. The most crisp, pure results we tasted were from wines fermented in stainless steel tanks between 45 and 55 degrees, with minimal use of old oak barrels. (That said, both Morgan and Mason have produced excellent wines using oak, and some winemakers insist the oak is needed to lend the wine a fullness in the mouth.)

These are wines to buy by taste, not by label, as names reveal little about a specific wine’s style.  Though Dry Creek Vineyard still labels its wine as a fumé blanc, a throwback to its first sauvignon blanc vintages some 33 years ago, you won’t find even a hint of oak in the all-stainless wine.

I have a feeling the split-personality issues will linger. While several California efforts left our tasting panel thirsty for more, others had us craving a glass of Sancerre or a reliable New Zealand producer like Kim Crawford, which we tried for comparison.

Nor is fumé blanc going to vanish anytime soon.  “If it doesn’t have oak in it, I think there’s a whole segment of the population that doesn’t think it’s a good wine,” Mason says.

That’s a shame, because sauvignon blanc’s clean, unadorned flavors make it a wine tailor-made for the flavors of spring.

TASTING NOTES

Geyser Peak 2004 California ($11)
Candied grapefruit and a grassy, slightly herbal tone. Really channels New Zealand, with a perfect balance of sweet and tart, and lingering hints of flowers and citrus.

Honig 2004 Napa Valley ($15)
Grassy, with mango and a lime hint. It’s big and generous, with a tangy finish that resonates. “Lip-smacking good,” said one taster.

Two Angels 2004 Shannon Ridge Vineyard ($15)
Generous and balanced, this new contender shows off what Lake County can offer. Grassy and citrusy on the open, followed by tropical notes and a lingering finish. One taster picked up “melon-citrus-verbena salad.”

Morgan 2003 Monterey ($14)
Big bright citrus, kiwi and peach, and slightly herbaceous. The flavors almost leap out of the glass, and they’re full and juicy in the mouth.  You’ll never detect the 18 percent semillon.

St. Supéry 2003 Napa Valley ($18)
This perennial winner offers classic grass and grapefruit notes, with a sweetish taste in the mouth. A balanced, reliable choice with an ample finish.

Three other wines deserve mention as good compromises between new and old styles.  These may be too round and soft for New Zealand fans, but they’re a good transition for fumé blanc drinkers wary of losing the oak.

Mason 2003 Napa Valley ($15)
The ’03 is warmer and less angular than Mason usually provides, with a curious pineapple note on the nose. We preferred the steelier ’02, but both will have their fans.

Gary Farrell 2003 Sonoma County Redwood Ranch ($20)
A full range of fruit: Tangy and citrusy on the nose; lush and tropical in the mouth. There’s oak in play here, but a bright note balances it. A sauvignon blanc for big-chard drinkers.

Brander 2004 Santa Ynez Valley ($12)
From another veteran sauvignon blanc producer, this style is more Bordeaux than Loire — with semillon and some time in barrels. Yet there’s crisp mandarin orange and grapefruit notes.  Terrific for expanding the palates of fumé partisans.

Also worth trying: Dry Creek’s 2003 Sonoma fumé blanc ($13). A rich note balances out the unoaked wine’s steely, minerally core. And we enjoyed the Tin Barn 2003 Sonoma County Bennett Valley ($18) and the Coppola Diamond Collection 2004 Yellow Label ($16).

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