The Blanding of Sauvignon Blanc


He stuck his nose into the glass and said it with a shudder: "Ehh, Sauvignon Blanc." Then he upended the glass into the dump bucket and walked on, no doubt seeking Chardonnay.

That was at a walk-around tasting I attended in 1978. Since then Sauvignon Blanc has changed--thanks to that fellow and others like him. Not changed for good, mind you, but changed.

Sauvignon Blanc, the white variety related to Cabernet Sauvignon that grows in the Loire Valley, as well as a lot of other places, has a natural varietal character that is herbal. In the late 1960s and 1970s, that herbality often came out as fresh-cut grass. If stronger, it was like the aroma of bell peppers, or--stronger still--cooked asparagus. At its most concentrated, it is like, as the late Myron Nightingale once indelicately put it, cat urine (phrase sanitized).

These are not aromas you find in the Chanel line. Some Sauvignon Blancs did, indeed, smell more like rotting cabbage than wine, and I can understand why some people reacted negatively. This was clearly not the "varietal character" that we were looking for in our Sauvignon Blancs.

When the varietal character is balanced by good fruit, though, Sauvignon Blanc can be a lovely wine. By the early 1980s, California Sauvignon Blancs had become in many ways more agreeable than a lot of their cousins in the Loire or Graves. The Californias simply had more richness and more fruit.

Yet many consumers still complained of weediness, even when it was really just the mildest aroma of new mown hay. So the winery people and the viticulture people got together and agreed to get rid of the grassy, bell peppery aromas in this variety.

They discovered that Sauvignon Blanc displays less varietal character in warmer regions, and the vines can also be trained in ways to reduce that green-grass character. Moreover, if leaves are pulled off the canopy late in the growing season, even less of that grassy intensity is achieved.

The result? Thin, weak, watery wines that don't display enough character to be identified as Sauvignon Blanc.

The prototype grassy-style Sauvignon Blanc has always been Dry Creek Vineyards's Fume Blanc. Yet in the last few years, as wine maker Larry Levine has used more and more fruit from the warmer Alexander Valley, the wine has become less grassy and more neutral. It's still an excellent wine, but not as distinctive as it once was.

Perhaps it's more broadly appealing today. "We've toned it down somewhat," Levine says. "You can make 7,000 cases of real grassy-styled wine, but you can't make 35,000 cases because you won't find a huge group of people who want that grassy style."

The result is that even Dry Creek's Sauvignon Blanc, still one of the best around, is milder in that herbal component. But now even Levine is concerned about losing too much of the character of the variety, and he says, "We've decided not to leaf-thin any more in one of our vineyards because you lose too much character."

(For lovers of the more herbaceous style, look for 1986 Dry Creek Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, which was a trace more grassy. It's the last wine of that type in the Dry Creek line.)

Two of the more stylish Sauvignon Blancs I've had in the last year were 1989s from Martini and Raymond, wineries with a greater reputation for red wines than white.

"What I hear is that people don't like those really grassy Sauvignon Blancs, so what I did was split the wine," said Martini. "I got half the fruit from the Oak Knoll area, which is grassy but not as grassy as some of the central coast areas, and the other half from Pope Valley (east of St. Helena), which is hot, so it has that citrusy/lemony quality."

Walter Raymond said of his 1989, "We're getting a little better at it. We used to age the wine in oak for six months; now we do just three months, so you can still pick out the oak in the background, which adds a little complexity, but it doesn't take away the varietal character."

Also, Raymond--seeking a bit more natural variety flavor--is using cooler climate fruit plus 15% Semillon for complexity. "We don't need another Chardonnay by another name, so we're trying to get a little more of that character. Sometimes in the past we didn't have enough of it. We want people to be able to smell it and tell it's Sauvignon Blanc." Both wines are relatively crisp and not overly oaked.

To get a richer yet still not excessively oaky element in his wines, Ken Deis at Flora Springs used a slightly different approach. And it's an idea I feel has a great future.

Deis put some of his Sauvignon Blanc into a 1,200-gallon cask on the lees (the dead yeast cells) and aged the wine that way for six months. This sur lie process, used in Muscadet to give breadth to an otherwise angular and austere wine, gave the wine not only a creamier texture on the tongue, but turned the otherwise lightly herbal aroma into one that hints at mint and offers an almost like chamomile tea/dried flower aroma, most fascinating.

Flora Springs released this 1989 wine under the proprietary name Soliloquy and is charging a hefty $20 a bottle for it. A lot of dough for a white table wine, but I'd drink it over a slew of Chardonnays any day. It's a superb idea, well executed.

Another nicely designed Sauvignon Blanc is the 1989 Merryvale Meritage ($12), which was made from Pope Valley fruit with a smaller amount of grapes from Yountville and on Howell Mountain.

"It was the first time we embarked on this program for Merryvale, so we barrel-fermented some of the wine in new (French oak) barrels, some in older barrels, some in middle-aged puncheons, and some in stainless steel, not knowing which would highlight the vineyards best," said wine maker Bob Levy.

The best of the lots--from the new barrels--spent five months in oak on the lees before bottling. "I like the character you get from Sauvignon Blanc from Pope Valley," Levy said. "It's kind of like sweet hay, almost the same smell you get when you're driving out there." I got spice and citrus notes from the wine, with a softness from the aging.

About 1,000 cases of the Merryvale were made and, like the others mentioned here, it has ample Sauvignon Blanc character.

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