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SAUVIGNON BLANC : The Poor Man's Chardonnay Finally Earns Across-the-Board Acceptance

May 19, 1991|Robert Lawrence Balzer

Once considered "the poor man's Chardonnay," Sauvignon Blanc has made more reputational headway in recent years than any other white-wine vine cultivated in California. After years of less than widespread popularity, this table wine has come into its own and now rivals its snootier, ubiquitous cousin.

The first cuttings of Sauvignon Blanc came to California more than 100 years ago from the world's most celebrated white-wine vineyard, Chateau d'Yquem in the Sauternes region of France. Charles A. Wetmore went to d'Yquem to get cuttings for his Cresta Blanca vineyard. The cuttings were promptly shared with the adjacent Wente vineyards in the stony soil of the Livermore Valley.

Sauvignon Blanc survived Prohibition, as did other California wines. Instead of curtailing production, the producers continued growing grapes and making wines for medicinal or sacramental purposes. When Repeal occurred, Sauvignon Blanc emerged as the Bay Area's leading white-wine variety; it began to accompany crab, lobster and seafood dishes in restaurants from San Francisco to Manhattan.

But soon, less sophisticated growers began to cultivate this "Wente clone" of the Bordelais vine in cooler climates. Particularly in regions such as Monterey County, the vine's vigorous growth, producing massive leaf canopies, yielded wines with taste and bouquet attributes described generally as "grassy." Although one of these wines won a double-gold medal at a California competition, the market reaction was telling: By 1986, consumers were not buying Sauvignon Blanc.

So changes began. Growers started listening to viticulturists. "Canopy management" became standard vineyard practice, and "leaf pulling" became the vine-manicuring technique for reducing that grassy taste. One student of the vine was Doug Meador, who started growing grapes at his Ventana Vineyards because he missed the green landscape of his native state of Washington. He engaged in extensive etymological research for more than a decade. He grafted increasingly more vines until he could count 14 acres of new "Ventana clone," which began winning gold medals at wine competitions. In 1989, Ventana Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc won golds at the Orange County Fair, Best of Class at Pomona's Los Angeles County Fair, and Best of Nation in the New York Grand Harvest competition.

Beyond clonal variation, viticultural practices and even soil composition (this famed Bordeaux varietal grape is planted on 14,000 acres ranging from northern Lake County to Temecula in the south), producers of Sauvignon Blanc/ Fume (winemaker Robert Mondavi started calling his wine Fume Blanc in a marketing move that worked) have a number of options. Methods vary: There's hand harvesting, machine harvesting and field crushing; there's fermentation in stainless-steel tanks, upright oak tanks and French or American oak barrels.

There may be partial malolactic fermentation or none; time on the yeast lees or none; blending with Semillon, or even Chardonnay. Layers of complexity may come from separate lots or from different regions, giving new prestige to a "California" appellation. In Kendall-Jackson's exemplary "The Proprietor's Sauvignon Blanc," there were grapes from Lake County home vineyards plus tonnage from Tepusquet near Santa Maria. Chateau St. Jean's 1989 Russian River Fume Blanc is wine made from a single vineyard, La Petite Etoile. Contradictions abound.

Through the courtesy of the Society of Blancs, an informal group of Sauvignon Blanc/ Fume Blanc wine producers who organized in 1989 to exchange information on the cultivation of this wine, we lined up a tasting of 80 wines, some from as far north as Washington State's Columbia Valley.

In addition, we sampled some extraordinary Late Harvest editions made from grape clusters involved with what the French call "noble rot," which for centuries has given the best vintages of Chateau d'Yquem their incomparable elegance and golden perfection. The Renaissance 1983 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, redolent of honeyed apricot savors, amber-gold in color and syrupy rich, has brought this Sierra Nevada foothills winery a harvest of gold medals from international competitions.

And now, a listing of the 20 top winners from my personal tasting safari. Each wine is rated on a 20-point scale, with 20 being the best.


CHATEAU ST. JEAN 1989 Russian River Fume Blanc La Petite Etoile. $10.50. Lovely fruitiness, grapefruit and herbal aromas; a subtle, stunning wine. 19.5 points.

BENZIGER OF GLEN ELLEN 1989 Sonoma County Fume Blanc. $9. An estate-grown wine of open canopy, with intense flavors. 19.0

MERRYVALE 1989 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc--Meritage. $14. New French oak-barrel-fermented, with added fruit richness from Semillon. 19.0

KENDALL-JACKSON 1989 California Sauvignon Blanc The Proprietors. $12. Multilayered complexity, with grapes from Lake County and Santa Maria. 18.5

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