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The other white wine pulls ahead

Special to The Times

In California, Sauvignon Blanc seems destined to be the perpetual runner-up in the white wine category. It’s always been less expensive, less acclaimed, less oohed-and-aahed-over than its glamorous rival Chardonnay. Heck, some people don’t even call it by its actual name, opting instead for Fume Blanc, the moniker Robert Mondavi concocted to market it in the late 1960s.

But after years of languishing in second place, Sauvignon Blanc has turned a corner. Because demand exceeded supply, the price per ton of Sauvignon Blanc grapes in California for the first time surpassed that of Chardonnay in 2002, according to Wine Institute, a trade association. And although it took 10 years (1993 to 2002) for the size of the Sauvignon Blanc crush in California to grow by 5,000 tons, the crush leapt in volume by that same amount from 2002 to 2003.

Long thought of as simply a “cash-flow” grape because it could be grown cheaply and sold quickly, Sauvignon Blanc is now a priority for a number of wineries, where it’s being grown on land previously considered too valuable for anything but Chardonnay and Cabernet.

When it comes to quality, California Sauvignon Blanc has never been better. Producers from Santa Barbara to Mendocino are putting out bottlings of delicious, refreshing, vibrant wines that deserve respect -- and an ongoing place on our menus and dinner tables.

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Two wineries focusing primarily on Sauvignon Blanc have been founded in recent years.

Origin Napa, established in 2000 to concentrate on -- in founder Bill Davies’ words -- “Napa’s forgotten variety,” makes three distinct Sauvignon Blancs. And the new Sauvignon Republic Cellars has the ambitious plan of producing the varietal grown in every country where it does well. So far, it has released Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River Valley and from New Zealand, and it has a French (Sancerre) release coming this year. Italian (Friuli) and South African examples are planned.

“I’ve definitely seen it [Sauvignon Blanc] gain in popularity,” says Spago sommelier Kevin O’Connor, who also makes wine on the side, including a Sauvignon Blanc. “People are open to it. They ask about it.”

That’s no surprise, considering how easily it pairs with so many kinds of food, especially California cuisine. It’s brilliant with seafood -- simply grilled sand dabs or Petrale sole, just-boiled Dungeness crab, oysters on the half shell, even sushi.

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Sauvignon Blanc has enough acid to work wonderfully with salads; it has the perfect herbaceousness to complement field greens or just about any vegetable. It’s lovely with goat cheese, a natural with grilled chicken. In fact, there may be no wine better suited to what we love to eat in California.

“At Spago,” says O’Connor, “we do a lot of cold fish, and the first thing I always say to a customer looking at the appetizers is, ‘Let’s not do Chardonnay.’ ”

Though Sauvignon Blanc has been planted here since the late 19th century, it has long been seen by many wine lovers as Chardonnay’s poor cousin. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, most Sauvignon made in California was a sweet jug wine.

To distinguish his new, dry version in the late ‘60s, Robert Mondavi coined the term Fume Blanc, a twist on a name sometimes used for Sauvignon Blanc in France’s Loire Valley: Blanc-Fume-de-Pouilly.

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Sauvignon Blanc comes to us from France, where its two primary regions are the Loire and Bordeaux. In the former, the classic style of famous villages such as Sancerre and Pouilly is bright and racy, with no oak flavors and a sharp, tangy green-apple acidity.

In Bordeaux, a warmer climate, the dry Sauvignon is typically blended with Semillon and made in the barrel, for a richer, mellower, rounder wine.

Although Mondavi’s Fume Blanc -- a nice, slightly oaky version of the Bordeaux style -- was indeed successful, the ‘70s, ‘80s and much of the ‘90s belonged to Chardonnay. California Sauvignon Blanc plantings decreased every year from 1990 to 1998.

Because of the careless way in which Sauvignon Blanc was often treated, vintners began calling it the “poor man’s Chardonnay.” It was much “easier and more profitable to crop the vineyards at eight to 10 tons to the acre and slap some oak on it than it was to crop it at four to six tons and let it stand on its own,” says Origin Napa winemaker David DeSante, a Sauvignon specialist. “That’s how you got a lot of weedy, thin and watery wines that tasted oaky and herbaceous,” a combination about as enticing as chocolate and garlic.

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New Zealand emerges

But if California Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were turnoffs to a growing segment of the wine-savvy population, where were they to turn?

France? For whatever reason, French Sauvignon Blanc never caught on in any significant way with American consumers. Although some may have known the name Sancerre, its wine never became a big seller, let alone that of the few other Loire villages such as Quincy and Pouilly that make Sauvignon. And white Bordeaux? It’s barely even a blip on the radar of most American wine lovers.

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No, the thrilling wine headline of the last decade was the emergent Sauvignon Blanc of New Zealand, where it was discovered that the cool maritime temperatures and bright sun of the Marlborough region created the perfect climate to make rip-roaring wines, tropical and herbaceous at the same time, with a neon line of acidity coursing throughout.

Steel-tank fermented and without malolactic fermentation, the New Zealand Sauvignons were more than just the anti-Chardonnay: They were unabashedly, unapologetically Sauvignon Blanc. It was the Loire style -- clean and bracing -- but with a thousand volts of New World electricity coursing through it. American vintners, who had thought Sauvignon’s innate flavors too extreme for the American market, took note.

Because Sauvignon Blanc is a grape that now performs well across a broad range of climates and responds to a variety of winemaking techniques, we find several styles coming from a number of California wine regions.

Charles Thomas of Rudd Winery and Vineyards makes his wines in the style of white Bordeaux. “Really good Sauvignon Blanc can have a good deal of complexity and have some intensity without being heavy,” he says. That’s certainly a good way to describe his wines, which deftly express varietal character, showing grassy intensity and bright, tart fruit.

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But the Rudd wine is a model of restraint and balance. Fermentation in mostly old barrels with lees-stirring and no malolactic fermentation are techniques that restrain fruitiness while smoothing texture and retaining acidity. It’s a style that seems right for the ripe, melony fruit from the warm Napa soils. The winemaking is Bordeaux-inspired, but the results are uniquely Californian.

Spring Mountain Vineyards also makes wine in this style, with subtle oaky notes that marry seamlessly with the clean melon and pear flavors of the wine.

Spottswoode Vineyard and Winery ferments its Sauvignon Blanc partially in wooden barrels and partially in stainless steel to create a smoothly textured wine still bursting with citrus zip.

Ruston Vineyards, another small winery in Napa, makes a wonderfully complex wine that emphasizes Sauvignon Blanc’s more strident, grassy flavors without going over the top.

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The Bordeaux style may reach its apogee, however, with Peter Michael Winery’s L’Apres-Midi. Known mostly as a Cabernet and Chardonnay producer, Peter Michael makes a profound and minerally Sauvignon that is 100% barrel-fermented in mostly old barrels. Vineyards are picked in four or five passes with only perfectly ripe grapes selected each time. Fermentation is done with indigenous yeasts to create a wine of shimmering complexity.

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A range of styles

But for every wine made in the Bordeaux style, there’s another made in the Loire or New Zealand style -- sometimes by the same winemaker.

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David DeSante’s wines alone display the range. The tank-fermented, bright DeSante Sauvignon he makes under his own label is Loire-like, skillfully straddling the line between fruity and herbaceous.

Origin Napa’s richer Gamble Vineyard wine is fermented like a Bordeaux with natural yeast in mostly older barrels. Origin’s Heart Block, fermented in 30% new wood, is even more so: lush, full-bodied, complex and oaky.

Napa’s Honig winery makes two Sauvignons: Its Napa bottling is Loire-ishly mouthwatering and bright, with tropical and citrus flavors, while its Rutherford wine is Bordeaux-styled with new oak and even some malolactic fermentation for richness.

For the bright, grassy style, Ventana Vineyards in Monterey County offers classic examples: spicy and refreshing and whisper clean. Down the coast in the Santa Barbara area, Westerly, Margerum and Beckmen advance the clean Loire style with wines of crisp texture and sharp acidity.

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Of the state’s larger producers, Geyser Peak offers a lovely, minerally version with grapefruit, melon, grass and guava for an astonishing $9 a bottle. Its sister winery Canyon Road also specializes in the Loire style, with a zesty, fruity little number you can often find for $6 or $7. Try these with oysters for good effect.

Taste this new generation of California Sauvignon Blancs and you will experience wines with intense flavors, gushing acidity and plenty of attitude -- wines that couldn’t be considered also-rans in any lineup.

Chardonnay, watch your back.

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Picking California Sauvignon Blancs

Sauvignon Blanc is a grape blessed with natural complexity, simultaneously expressing characteristics of fresh fruit and “green” vegetation. Great wines pair those essences with the mouthwatering acidity that gives the wine structure. I like both the Bordeaux-style and the Loire/New Zealand-style Sauvignons when they’re well done. Here are recommended wines in alphabetical order.

Beckmen Vineyards 2002 Estate Sauvignon Blanc. This Loire-style wine from Santa Ynez Valley boasts aromas of pineapple, guava, melon and pear. Clean and spicy, it pairs well with salads. About $12. Wine House in Los Angeles; Wine Exchange in Orange.

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Canyon Road 2003 Sauvignon Blanc. A light, friendly wine with a fruit cocktail nose of grapefruit, pear, citrus and mango. About $7. Wine House; Beverages & More.

Cliff Lede 2003 Sauvignon Blanc. Lime, orange peel, melon and fresh grass dominate the nose of this silky and harmonious wine. Smooth and soft on the palate with an impressive mineral note. About $18. John & Pete’s in West Hollywood; Fireside Cellars in Santa Monica.

DeSante 2003 Sauvignon Blanc. This bright and tangy wine straddles the line between tropical and herbaceous. Lemon, lime, freshly cut grass and ripe fig flavors. About $18. Gelson’s; John & Pete’s.

Geyser Peak 2003 Sauvignon Blanc. A great value, this wine is perfectly proportioned with a medium body and ripe, fresh acidity. Light and refreshing with a long mineral finish. About $8. Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa; Wine House.

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Honig 2003 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley). Rich, yet full of spunk, the wine has the Sauvignon hallmarks of citrus and gooseberry with some softer pear and melon notes as well. Bright and zingy on the tongue. About $12. Wine House; Beverages & More.

Origin Napa 2003 Gamble Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. With orange, floral and melon notes, the nose is complex and inviting. The palate, all apples and pears, is succulent. A beautiful wine. About $27. Vendome; Wally’s Wine and Spirits in West Los Angeles.

Origin Napa 2002 Heart Block Sauvignon Blanc. Big and complex with exotic flavors of orange peel, nuts, pears and mangos, but it has more new oak than it needs. About $50 at Vendome and at Wally’s.

Peter Michael L’Apres-Midi 2003 Sauvignon Blanc. A complex wine in the Bordeaux style. Intriguing notes of lime leaf, mushroom, pear and gooseberry. Balanced acidity and wonderful minerality. Worth seeking out. $50. John & Pete’s.

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Rudd 2002 Sauvignon Blanc. Scents of lemon, lime, kiwi and guava, an immensely smooth palate. Ample citrus and apple flavors in the back of the mouth, a long and pleasing finish. About $30. John & Pete’s.

Ruston 2002 Sauvignon Blanc. An intense wine, redolent of honey, fresh flowers and citrus. Creamy and smooth, with good acidity and a sharp finish. Not for the faint of heart. About $16. Bristol Farms; Red Carpet Wine and Spirits in Glendale.

Spring Mountain Vineyard 2002 Sauvignon Blanc. An exotic concoction of spice, citrus and melon flavors with rich, toasty overtones. Pair with more complex chicken or grilled fish dishes. About $28. Wally’s; Beverages & More.

Ventana 2002 Sauvignon Blanc. One of the first and best Sauvignons to emerge from Monterey. With hay and flowers on the nose and sharp, pungent gooseberry and lime flavors. About $14. John & Pete’s.

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Westerly 2003 Sauvignon Blanc. Bright gooseberry, lime and preserved lemon on the nose. Well balanced through the long, lingering finish. About $20. Hi-Time Wine Cellars; Red Carpet Wine.

-- Jordan Mackay


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