Although winemakers are sometimes reluctant to admit it, really good white wines are much rarer than really good reds. The reason is simple: White grapes have less intrinsic flavor than red varieties. After all, nearly all red wines are made by fermenting the juice with the skins, and the skins have most of the flavor. White wines, in comparison, see little or no skin contact during fermentation.
On the other hand, white grapes more readily reveal distinctions of soil and climate, which can make for more distinctive flavors. It's as simple--and complicated--as that.
As a result, winemakers are forever reaching into a not-quite-bottomless bag of tricks to amplify what flavor is available in white grapes. It helps enormously if the grape is grown at a site that imparts real character, but such sites are rare. Usually, the most you can hope for is to extract the grape's essential flavor and then add a few cosmetic grace notes, such as oak.
Take Sauvignon Blanc, for example. It's a white grape that endures every imaginable winemaking technique. Partly this is because it's grown in so many places--many inappropriate--that winemakers are forever wrestling with the sometimes bizarre flavors that can result. In fairness, this armada of techniques is often employed to quell the sharp, weedy flavors that afflict Sauvignon Blanc even when grown in sympathetic sites.
There's no "one true flavor" to really good Sauvignon Blanc. Some drinkers love the sharp, penetrating, almost acrid scent of Sauvignon Blanc grown in the chalky soils of the Loire Valley's Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume and Chavignol districts.
Others prefer Sauvignon Blanc's more weedy (some would say "herbaceous") flavor notes. Bordeaux's Entre-Deux-Mers district and Washington state are exemplary sources of that quality.
Yet another preference seeks Sauvignon Blanc that smells of figs. This characteristic can often be found in California and Australian bottlings, as well as in some white Bordeaux.
With Sauvignon Blanc, as with most white wines, when you find a wine that is informed more by its vineyard than by technique, the result is stimulating.
* 1994 Spring Mountain Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($14.95): This once much-honored Napa Valley winery, founded by Michael Robbins in 1968 as Spring Mountain Vineyards, lapsed in the '80s. (The Victorian mansion on the property became famous as the architectural centerpiece of the nighttime TV soap opera "Falcon Crest.") It has been resurrected under new owners. Thomas Ferrell, a winemaker formerly with Inglenook and Sterling, put together a group of investors (the big money is financier Jacob Safra) to purchase the old Spring Mountain Vineyards and other nearby vineyards.
It's worth noting that there's also a formal Napa Valley sub-appellation called Spring Mountain District. Situated in the Mayacamas Mountains west of St. Helena, it includes such wineries as Stony Hill, Robert Keenan, Philip Togni, Newton and Smith-Madrone as well as Spring Mountain Vineyard.
This first-release 1994 Sauvignon Blanc from Spring Mountain Vineyard does not, as it happens, mention the sub-appellation, even though the wine is estate-grown. Instead the label rather obliquely cites three names with no additional explication: Miravalle, Alba and Chevalier.
Just why the winery does this is a puzzle. Although the three adjacent vineyards are owned by Spring Mountain, the wine in this bottle comes strictly from a 4.53-acre parcel of the Miravalle vineyard, smack in the heart of the Spring Mountain District.
Although the winemaking is undeniably deft (half fermented in barrels, half in large tanks), the wine derives its flavor much more from the site itself than from any winemaking razzmatazz. This Sauvignon Blanc could not have come from just anywhere. Only 1,000 cases of wine were produced.
What makes you sit up and take notice of this Sauvignon Blanc is an herbal quality so singular that one is hard pressed to recall another Sauvignon Blanc quite like it. It also is redolent with the fig scent so characteristic of this varietal. Look for a street price as low as $12.95 a bottle.
* 1995 Jepson Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc ($9.95): For years, Jepson has issued one of California's best Sauvignon Blancs. The consistency comes from Jepson's vineyard in Mendocino County's tiny Sanel Valley just north of Hopland, hard against the Russian River. Something about this site makes for Sauvignon Blanc of great delicacy and flavor definition.
Yet when I walked through the vineyard with winemaker Kurt Lorenzi recently, he admitted bafflement. "We really don't know why this vineyard so consistently produces such a distinctive Sauvignon Blanc," he said. "All I know is that I try in my winemaking to get out of the way."
Lorenzi insists upon a clean, straightforward approach to Sauvignon Blanc. You won't find any notes of oak or toast in Jepson Sauvignon Blanc. Instead, the wine's taste is clean, fresh and pure, the better to amplify a signature anise or licorice scent that emerges every year.
The newly released 1995 vintage is no exception in an almost unbroken string of successes. The '95 edition is simply superb, with crisp, refreshing acidity and a purity of flavor that enhances food remarkably well. This is one Sauvignon Blanc that cossets the palate, rather than overwhelms it.
Experience reveals, by the way, that Jepson's Sauvignon Blancs age gracefully and well. I still have some '86 Jepson Sauvignon Blanc that's now deliciously figgy and succulent, yet still fresh-tasting. This '95 bottling probably will age equally well, should you be so inclined. That said, it's delicious drinking right now. Look for a street price as low as $7.95, which makes this wine a steal.