Why You Should Be Drinking California Sauvignon Blanc

These vibrant sippers are the real wines of the summer

Why You Should Be Drinking California Sauvignon Blanc
The Chalk Hill appellation, where Chalk Hill winery is located, is ideal for Sauvignon Blanc. (Courtesy of Chalk Hill)

This tip originally appeared in Wine Spectator's Sept. 30, 2019, issue, "Touring U.S. Cheese Country." Pick up a copy, on newsstands now!

Given the history of Sauvignon Blanc in the Golden State, it would have been difficult to predict its recent rise to stardom. When Robert Mondavi introduced a barrel-fermented version in the 1960s, naming it Fumé Blanc in a nod to its smoky profile (and invoking France’s Pouilly-Fumé), others adopted the style. But many versions were dull compared with the best wines from France, and Americans developed a taste for Chardonnay as their white wine of choice. Even 20 years ago, Sauvignon Blanc vines were routinely ripped out and replaced with Chardonnay.

It’s hard to overstate how far Sauvignon Blanc has come. Today it’s one of the state’s most refreshing, consistent and reasonably priced whites, offering an exciting array of styles, from direct, fruit-forward examples to versions with more complexity and nuance. There isn’t a signature California style, and only a handful of vintners use the “Fumé” moniker anymore.

“My attitude toward this varietal has changed dramatically over the years,” explains Sauvignon Blanc specialist Merry Edwards. In the 1970s, she thought it was a challenge to make a version she’d like. “Gradually I learned how to craft Sauvignon Blanc into a wine worthy of its place as one of the great wines of the world.”

A major turning point came in the 1990s, when New Zealand’s distinctive fruit-forward bottlings began to arrive en masse. Winemakers took notice. With global Sauvignon Blanc getting so much attention, why couldn’t California take part? The key was to treat the variety with more respect. Vintners focused more on vineyard practices, identifying sites that gave the grapes more intensity and less herbaceousness. They also began to experiment in the winery, straying away from oak.

These days, no matter what style a producer lands on, you can expect light- to medium-bodied Sauvignon Blancs from California, most of them fruit-forward in profile. There can be citrus elements, but more tangerine or Mandarin orange than lemon-lime. Expect stone fruit and melon notes, with some versions leaning toward tropical flavors such as mango or pineapple. Herbal, floral or mineral details are common, while subtle oak influences can suggest spice and tea notes.

Because Sauvignon Blanc grows relatively effortlessly and vigorously in many spots around the state, the wine can be easy to make. The grapes are picked early, and can be pressed, fermented in stainless steel and bottled a few months later as a varietally correct (if unexciting) wine.

The new thinking is that Sauvignon Blanc deserves a more thoughtful approach. Some winemakers report picking their grapes in multiple passes to get a mix of fresh green notes with more ripe flavors, blending them together. Others are employing custom or wild-yeast practices, along with additional lees contact. A number of producers are also experimenting with a variety of fermentation vessels, from traditional oak barrels to ones made from acacia, from stainless-steel tanks to concrete fermentors and even clay amphorae.

Winemaker David Galzignato of Napa’s Provenance Vineyards suggests there’s a special pride vintners take in the style of their Sauvignon Blanc. “I don’t think Sauvignon Blanc goes through the same back and forth as Chardonnay,” he says. “Houses stick to their version.”

Many house styles emphasize California Sauvignon Blanc’s strong suit—how its bright acidity pairs well with many types of food. “I think that the versatility of Sauvignon Blanc is now well-recognized,” explains Edwards. “We are fortunate enough to produce the two varietals that have the ability to dominate a menu—Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. That’s one reason we make half-bottles of each wine. A small bottle of each at your table, and that covers any menu selection.”

Top California Sauvignon Blancs have fallen into this food-friendly groove. The best examples have a succulent or fleshy texture—like biting into perfectly ripe fruit—while still showing plenty of bright acidity. “The dirty little secret is the alcohol,” Galzignato says. “You can push it and get viscosity, and with [Sauvignon Blanc’s] acidity you don’t notice it.” Galzignato’s strategy is to split his Sauvignon Blanc picks—some earlier with lower alcohol and others riper—and then blend them. 

The average alcohol level among the wines in this report clocks in at 13.7%. But even at these numbers, there’s still plenty of lip-smacking juiciness, with many versions that register at 13.5% and lower. Winemaker Steve Matthiasson says there is a lot of attention being paid to picking times. “Lately I’m seeing more California Sauvignon Blanc producers harvesting a bit earlier to capture more acidity and freshness, while still retaining the lush fruit and rich palate that is a California trademark.” He adds that improved focus in the vineyard means that the grapes can avoid herbaceous notes and focus on ripe fruit flavors. 

Since my previous report on the category (“Style and Substance,” June 15, 2018), I have reviewed nearly 225 wines in blind tastings at our Napa office, with impressive results. The vast majority scored 85 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale, and a third of them received outstanding scores of 90-plus. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

The high-scorers showcase the many regions in which Sauvignon Blanc grapes shine, yielding a range of expressions. Favia’s Coombsville Línea 2017 (94 points, $85) is fragrant and mouthwatering, while Dragonette’s Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Vogelzang Vineyard 2015 (93, $45) is lush and tropical, and Lail’s Napa Valley Blueprint 2017 (93, $40) has hints of honeycomb and lanolin. Other top wines hail from Sonoma and Santa Barbara and show an even broader range of flavors.

Sauvignon Blanc also works well in blends. Matthiasson’s refreshing White Napa Valley 2017 (89, $40) combines Sauvignon Blanc with Ribolla Gialla, Sémillon and Tocai Friulano, with the grapes blended together after a whole-cluster press and aged on the lees before bottling. Another successful blend, Flora Springs’ floral, spicy Soliloquy Napa Valley 2017 (90, $50) is a freshened-up version of the winery’s flagship white, blending its proprietary Soliloquy clone of Sauvignon Blanc with Chardonnay and Malvasia, with just a touch of oak. General manager Nat Komes admits that in the past Flora Springs tried to turn its Sauvignon Blanc into Chardonnay in response to the heavy-handed oak craze of the 1980s. But while working to resurrect Soliloquy, the team saw a newfound freedom to imagine a more modern version of the grape. 

These kinds of experiments aren’t limited to blends. Other vintners are attempting to pinpoint Sauvignon Blanc’s distinctive characteristics and focus on those in their wines. Heading up one of the most exciting programs is winemaker Vailia From of Desperada, who bottled six different Sauvignon Blancs from 2018, demonstrating various single-vineyard expressions, single-clone versions and examples made in amphorae. 

The entire lineup is a stunning survey of the grape at its best, with five of the wines scoring between 91 and 93 points. Among my favorites are the creamy Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara 1 McGinley 2018 (93, $38) and the supple Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Amphora McGinley Vineyard 2018 (93, $38).

It’s easy to think of Sauvignon Blanc as free from harvest drama, particularly the fear of late-season rains, since the grape is typically among the first to be picked. But Sauvignon Blanc is definitely affected by growing conditions. At Peter Michael, for example, the warm season in 2017 required cold settling in order to retain a fragrant profile in its Sauvignon Blanc. Winemaker Nicolas Morlet calls the resulting Knights Valley L’Après-Midi 2017 (92, $64) the most exotic vintage he’s ever done. “Instead of finishing crisp, my goal is to have texture,” he says.

Other winemakers have found success with leaf-pulling to give their Sauvignon Blanc grapes more exposure to the sun, but not Morlet. “It’s easier to leave the grapes on later than it is to glue a leaf back on,” he quips. Morlet uses concrete fermentors and bâtonnage for the texture he desires. “What’s fascinating about Sauvignon Blanc is that it expresses terroir very well,” he adds.

All of these advances are making this a very exciting category. “Sauvignon Blanc is on fire,” reports Matthiasson. “The nurseries are sold out of vines, and there are waiting lists for vineyard fruit sales.”

“California Sauvignon Blanc has been searching for an audience,” suggests Komes as he discusses the attention the wines have been getting. Turns out that winemakers were part of that audience.

Wines to try

Nearly 225 wines were reviewed for this report. A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available at WineSpectator.com. WineSpectator.com members can access complete reviews using the online Wine Ratings search.

HALL

Sauvignon Blanc Knights Valley 2017

Score: 93 | $35

WS Review: A terrific, fragrant mix of litsea, lemongrass and mango aromas gives way to succulent peach, pear and melon flavors.

QUIVIRA

Sauvignon Blanc Dry Creek Valley Alder Grove Vineyard 2017

Score: 93 | $24

WS Review: A complex note of dried honeysuckle and a whiff of smoke add intrigue and depth to the succulent peach, melon and mango flavors.

BELTANE RANCH

Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma Valley Drummond Block 2018

Score: 92 | $29

WS Review: Supple and elegant, with notes of lanolin, candied ginger, pomelo and pear, revealing a thread of sea salt. Complex and harmonious.

CHALK HILL

Sauvignon Blanc Chalk Hill 2017

Score: 92 | $33

WS Review: Lush and rich, with spicy mandarin orange, mango and dried pine-apple flavors set on a sleek, juicy frame. Shows a sense of richness.

GRASSINI

Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara 2017

Score: 92 | $28

WS Review: The lime, passion fruit and green apple flavors are vibrant and expressive, with a tangy edge and details of lemongrass and green tea.

HONIG

Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2018

Score: 91 | $19

WS Review: Succulent peach, nectarine and dried mango flavors are intense and vibrant, showcasing plenty of style, with a note of honeysuckle.

White Wines Sauvignon Blanc California United States

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