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Navigating California Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is an integral part of any wine list or independent retail shelf; it is an undisputable fact. For many, its one of their first forays into the wine world, with its zippy, yet approachable acidity and vibrant fruit. For others, its gorgeous notes of rosemary, eucalyptus and pyrazines. And for all those notes combined, it is a fantastic companion for a summer’s meal. This is its time to shine! While many may argue (rightfully so) that Sauvignon Blanc should be enjoyed year-round, the summer months are quite the perfect companion for it. So why am I worried about Sauvignon Blanc these days?

We find ourselves in a bit of a uniquely difficult position with Sauvignon Blanc at the moment, as it is probably the only major varietal where we rely heavily on regions that just can’t get the wine to us. Cab, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive out West, and Pinot Grigio never stopped sending wine across the Atlantic, having been spared the tariff wars. For Sauvignon Blanc, we relied on New Zealand to supply our everyday wines or BTG options. The Loire Valley of France will always be there, yes, but increasing price has pushed their wines out to something more aligned with special occasions. And now with significantly decreased yields and a freak weather accident in New Zealand seriously diminishing access to our favorite Sauvignon Blancs, and shipping delays hurting the ability to source from Chile, we must now look domestically.

Sauvignon Blanc in the United States has an interesting history. While it is the fourth most-planted varietal in California, it’s always played second fiddle to Chardonnay or the more refined examples found in France. But in that obscurity lies the advantages of California Sauvignon Blanc: if it cannot replicate either the richness of Chardonnay or the sharpness of imported options, the wine must develop into something entirely its own. It may never be Sancerre or Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, but California Sauvignon Blanc can be a beautiful expression in and of itself.

One option is, of course, to throw caution to the wind and to embrace the rich and decadent Sauvignon Blanc as it comes off the vine in California. This is the approach taken by the esteemed Michael Weiss, formerly of Groth. Enjoying “retirement” after nearly three decades at Groth, Michael has recently taken the mantle as the Director of Winemaking at this vastly underrated Napa project. Using 100% Napa Valley fruit, Hindsight creates a lovely, bold Sauvignon Blanc, full of ripe stone fruit and green apple. It will certainly be far fuller-bodied than something from New Zealand, but it will still have that nice grassiness that draws many to Marlborough. Farmer and winemaker John Anthony Truchard does something along the same lines with his “AVA Series” Napa Sauvignon Blanc, though with a bit of a twist. Pulling all of his fruit from the chilly Church Vineyard in Carneros, he blends together a bit of Musque clone Sauvignon Blanc with the tradition Western clone. “Sauvignon Blanc-Musque,” originally form the Gironde region of France, was imported to the US by Dr. William Hewitt, of UC-Davis, back in the early 1960’s. It adds just a touch more fragrance to the wine, and along with a small amount of barrel aging, John Anthony is able to develop a wonderful Sauvignon Blanc full of spicy ginger, lemongrass, and key lime. This is the perfect style to pair with fresh fish, grilled chicken, or any green for that matter. It will only further augment those flavors.

Another of the many, many ways that this might be achieved is through the art of blending. Taking a page from the Entre Deux Mers or Graves, winemakers masterfully blend Sauvignon Blanc, full of ripe peach and white blossom, together with Semillon, adding a rich touch of honey. One of my favorite examples of this is done by famed winemaker Shane Finley, formerly of Kosta Browne. With his Constant Disruptions line, Mr. Finley takes cold climate Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc and melds in just 5% Semillon before aging in stainless and foudre, helping to create wine that reminds one of a tropical vacation (mango, papaya, pineapple, and just a touch of passionfruit dance in the glass here). A similar approach is taken by the new winemaking team of Groth Vineyards. Out in Napa, they are increasing not only the Semillon by threefold, but the wine is also fermented almost entirely in neutral oak. That added oxidation, along with three months on lees, brings a richness to the wine that evokes lemon meringue on the palate. If I may be so bold here, I’d recommend this with a seared pork chop. Personally, I add a bit of cumin and cinnamon to the spice rub and often-times top the dish with a peach salsa.

Then, of course, there is the third option, which is to emulate what California does so well and bring the richness of oak to bear with the acidity of Sauvignon Blanc. This was the original blueprint that Robert Mondavi took when introducing “Fume Blanc” to the United States in the 1960’s. Back in the 60’s, like so many other beverage trends, consumers were looking to discard tradition in favor of bolder flavor. Sauvignon Blanc was on the way out and Mr. Mondavi, seeking to revitalize the varietal, not only adjusted the style by utilizing American oak, but also tried to evoke a bit of French nostalgia by using the term “Fume,” referencing the famous appellation of Pouilly Fume (which is also famously, not oaked, but that’s a whole other story). The application of oak here truly rounded out those peach and tropical notes in the wine and allowed for a rich and creamy palate. Now while Mondavi has changed up their approach to Fume Blanc in the most recent vintages (now going for that same Semillon blend used by Groth and Constant Disruptions), others have taken the torch and run with it.

A personal favorite of mine would be that of Melka Estate’s Mekkera “Proprietary White.” Using Sauvignon Blanc all sourced from high-elevation Knight’s Valley, this wine goes through barrel fermentation along with a full 20 months in mostly new French oak. The resulting wine not only maintains a vibrant minerality that all Sauvignon Blanc should, but this gorgeous creaminess and complexity that I’ve not encountered outside of the very best of Bordeaux Blancs. For a bit of a more unique and extracted take, Dave Phinney of Orin Swift does a fun expression with his Blank Stare. Juxtaposing cool climate fruit from Russian River Valley with a healthy dose of new French oak, this wine presents lively kiwi, Meyer lemon and lavender. Quite the unique experience!

All in all, while the current shortage of imported Sauvignon Blanc is certainly a difficult obstacle to overcome, it also presents an amazing opportunity for you and your guests to sample what California can bring to the table. And it brings quite a bit.