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Sauvignon Blanc: The Comeback Grape

September 20, 2000|CHARLES E. OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If California's grape growers had had anything to do with it, by now Sauvignon Blanc probably would have followed Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner--almost everything but Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot--into near extinction.

But Sauvignon Blanc is one tough grape. It simply will not go quietly into that vinous good night.

Though it is true that growers have replanted heavily to the Big Three grapes, consumer demand for Sauvignon Blanc has not slowed down. Now, according to some winemakers, Sauvignon Blanc is in such short supply that its price has actually increased.

Even those of us who have been spared introductory economics classes understand that an increase in price will usually lead to an increase in supply. So with the wineries bidding up the price of the grape, we see vineyard owners putting Sauvignon Blanc back into their plans and plantings. The result is a 30% increase in acreage devoted to this sturdy workhorse.

Still, even at these slightly higher prices, Sauvignon Blanc is the single best buy you can get today. As these tasting notes indicate, you can find rich, complex Sauvignon Blancs for around $20 and incredibly tasty, direct, fruity wines for less than half that price. You can even buy reliable everyday drinking wines at prices in the single digits.

Try doing that with Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots.

** 1999 Babcock Vineyards "Eleven Oaks," Santa Barbara County, $20. I have always been a fan of this wine, with its bold construction and its weedy, grassy Sauvignon Blanc character balanced by more than generous oakiness. It is full in body and vitally brisk in acidity. And, despite its goodness today, it will only get better over the next couple of years as its brashness mellows into a richer, smoother character.

$ 1999 Buena Vista Winery, California, $7. This amiable wine offers a quiet but well-focused look at the grapefruity and grassy aspects of Sauvignon Blanc. Simple and a bit candied on the palate but nicely balanced throughout, this wine will make plenty of friends, especially at this inviting price.

$** 1999 Chateau St. Jean Fume Blanc "La Petite Etoile," Russian River Valley, $14. During its long relationship with this vineyard, Chateau St. Jean has changed the wine's personality from almost overpoweringly grassy to this more refined, fruity, melony, minerally and creamily oaked version. Balanced and tasty in flavor and long in aftertaste, this superb wine delivers top quality at an affordable price.

$* 1998 Flora Springs, Napa Valley, $10. Not many wines at this price offer fruit and complexity, but this medium-depth, wholly likable effort manages to combine an attractively juicy center with overlays of dried twigs and quiet herbaceousness.

*** 1998 The Gainey Vineyard "Limited Selection," Santa Ynez Valley, $20. Showing all the richness and range that have marked Gainey's past successes with the varietal, this version is filled with toasty oak spice and suggestions of butter, honey, melon and roasted lemons. It is slightly viscous in feel and wonderfully well-filled in flavor. Yet, for all of its intensity, it retains an admirable sense of polish. Although most Sauvignon Blancs do not encourage much cellar aging, this beautiful specimen can only get better and better over the next several years.

$** 1999 Kenwood Vineyards, Sonoma County, $11. Sauvignon Blancs come in a variety of styles, but only a handful made in the simple, juicy style ever go beyond "clean and pleasant." This one reaches all the way into "succulent," with its mouth-filling flavors of fresh melon and its quiet but varietally appropriate hints of grassiness. People who think they can like only simple sweet wines, such as white Zinfandel, should try this one.

$ 1998 Meridian Vineyards, California, $7. This engaging, medium-bodied wine will never threaten its higher-priced cousins when it comes to depth or complexity, but it delivers attractive fig-like fruitiness and an appropriate touch of grassiness at a price that will be as pleasing to your pocketbook as the wine is to your palate.

* 1999 Robert Pecota Winery "San Bernabe Vineyard," Monterey County, $12. Pushing the green, vegetal edge about as far we would ever want to see in Sauvignon Blanc, this wine relies on its ripe melon fruit and acid-crisped balance to make the grade. And though it is not a wine for every occasion, its mix of herbs and briskness would make it right at home with seafood.

$ 1998 Wente Vineyards, Central Coast, $7. Like its moderately priced brethren, this citrusy, somewhat crisp, noticeably weedy Sauvignon Blanc is not the biggest wine around. Yet it shows up plenty of its pricier competition because it is so patently varietal in character and firm in structure. And that is more than a fair deal for the money.

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This column is based on tastings conducted by Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine, a monthly newsletter devoted to the critical review of California and West Coast wines. Readers of the Times may obtain a sample copy by sending their name and address to: CGCW, P.O. Box V, Alameda, CA 94501, by calling or faxing, (510) 865-3150 or by e-mailing CGCW@aol.com.

*** A world-class wine, superb by any measure, the top 1% to 2% of all wines tasted.

** An exceptional wine, well worth the effort to find, 10% to 12% of wines tasted.

* An admirable wine, tasty, focused, attractive, about 25% of wines tasted.

No rating: The best are quite pleasant and can be good buys when moderately priced.

$ Good value for the money.

X Below average quality, to be avoided.

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