California Sauvignon Blanc -Where it's at is where it's at!

California Sauvignon Blanc - Where it's at is where it's at

With at least 3 distinct styles of Sauvignon Blanc coming out of California it’s sometimes tough to figure out what you’re buying. There are many producers emulating the wildly successful, full throttle style popularized by most of New Zealand’s producers. Unfortunately not many regions in California are particularly well suited to this ripe, yet vibrantly green style.

California has been most successful with the rich, round style popular in Bordeaux that relies on a combination of barrel aging and additions of other grape varieties to complete the wine. Many producers have embraced the beauty of their rich, fruity wines and have chosen to age the wines in stainless steel and bottle them without any additional grapes, thus preserving the unique notes that their Sauvignon Blanc produces.

Getting to know the traits of the various regions in California can help you decipher the riddle that is California Sauvignon Blanc. Each region has its own special attributes that may translate into a distinct style. Winemakers may try to impose their will on the wines but Sauvignon Blanc is an assertive grape, whose distinctive traits are difficult to obscure.
 

A Brief History

Sauvignon Blanc has a long yet inglorious history in California. It was brought to the State by one of the first wineries in Sonoma, Cresta Blanca. The motivation behind the effort to grow Sauvignon Blanc in California was to duplicate some of the famous sweet wines of Bordeaux and, in fact, Charles Wetmore, Cresta Blanca’s owner, obtained those original clippings from the famous Sauternes producer, Chateau d’Yquem.

Most of that early production of Sauvignon Blanc was sweet wine but not on the level of the lush dessert wine from Sauternes. Most wine produced in California was on the sweeter side until well into the 1960’s so it’s no surprise that Sauvignon Blanc was relegated to this style of production, most frequently bottled ignominiously in gallon jugs behind labels that advertised Chablis, Rhine Wine or some other fantastic claim.

It was not until the 1960’s that Sauvignon Blanc began to be taken seriously in California, by none other than Robert Mondavi. In an effort to establish his Sauvignon Blanc as something different than what had come before it, and no doubt to add some cache by associating it with the French Sauvignon Blanc, Pouilly Fumé, Robert Mondavi labeled it as Fumé Blanc beginning in 1968.

While this was a shrewd marketing ploy it also served to begin to unravel the question in consumers’ minds; what exactly should California Sauvignon Blanc be?

Sauvignon Blanc is what now?

There are essentially 3 styles of Sauvignon Blanc produced in the world. The most common today is the style that established New Zealand as one of the world’s pre-eminent sources for the grape. This style highlights the herbaceous, gooseberry, citrus and jalapeno nature that the wine expresses in cooler climates. This style is ideally suited for New Zealand with the great differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures that preserve the wine’s green freshness while allowing for the fruit to fully ripen.

While many in California try to emulate this style there are few growing regions with the climate to support such a style. In general the wines produced in this style from California tend to have lower acidities and less overt herbal character than their Kiwi counterparts. One sees more ripe fruits, pineapple and grapefruit, with a grassy edge.

A second style of Sauvignon Blanc that one rarely encounters in California is the steely, mineral style that one is likely to find from both France’s Loire Valley and South Africa. This style relies on even cooler temperatures than New Zealand’s so it is even less likely to be successful in the Golden State.

The final style is ripe, yet balanced that may rely on additions of other grape varieties to help complete the package. This is the classic Bordeaux style that combines ripe fruits in the citrus register with grassy tones and may include winemaking techniques that range from a bit of barrel fermentation to extended wood aging on the lees. This has proven to be the most successful style in California, allowing producers to compensate for their warm growing season and produce complete, compelling wines.

So there is no one style of Sauvignon Blanc in California. thus it may be difficult to know what to expect out of any particular bottle. Mondavi’s use of Fumé Blanc was a deliberate effort to alert people to the fact that he was producing that third style, round and touched by a little smoky wood. The term has since garnered a considerable following in California but, sadly, is no guarantee of either quality or style.

While you should be ready for almost any style from California, it’s more than likely that you’ll encounter either the Bordelais model or one that loosely emulates the Kiwi style. Understanding where in California a wine comes from can help narrow down the range of possibilities.

California Count Your Blessings

California's amazing range of geologic and climatic influences is one of the keys to their success as a wine-producing region. There is a region ideal for almost every grape variety, not to mention fruit or vegetable. Yet unlike fruits and vegetables finding the right spot for each grape can be a lengthy process of trial and error. It has taken the relatively young California wine industry, arguably you can measure it’s age from the repeal of prohibition but, in reality it didn’t come of age until the mid 1970’s, every year of it’s existence just to begin to understand where the best grapes come from. It will take many more for there to be a complete understanding for each variety and region. Having said that there are some basic ideas worth taking a look at.

Napa Valley

Napa Valley is the big dog in California and is most famous for the Cabernet Sauvignon based wines that thrive in this warm region. The Napa Valley stretches from Carneros in the south to Calistoga in the north. The cooling affects of the San Pablo Bay keeps the more southern reaches of the valley relatively cool but that effect lessens as one moves north, and in all honesty one would be hard pressed to label any part of Napa Valley as truly a cool climate. Exceptions can be made for some of the hillsides and mountain AVA’s but the costs involved with farming there limit these regions to predominantly more valuable varieties, such as Cabernet.

Napa Valley is blessed with a warm climate and the wines reflect this. They tend to be rich and round with many emulating the slightly oaky style that one encounters in Bordeaux. No surprise since so many of the wineries in Napa Valley base themselves on the Bordeaux model.

Lake County

To the north of Napa lies Lake County, a relatively little known yet increasing important player in the California wine scene. The dominant feature of Lake County is, not surprisingly, a lake, Clear Lake to be precise. Most vineyards in the country ring the Southern reaches of Clear Lake, benefiting from the moderating influences of this deep body of water, while enjoying the additional cooling influences of being at relatively high elevations. The climate here is similar to that found in southern Napa Valley so expect similarly large scaled, fruity wines.

Sonoma County

Moving west from Napa, one comes to Sonoma County with its significantly more complex geography. In Southern Sonoma the climate and topography are fairly similar to that of Napa. Rolling hills and more direct access to the cooling influences of the San Pablo Bay do keep things a bit fresher here, and the airflow almost guarantees that Sonoma is rarely the scene of the oppressively hot days that one encounters each summer in the Napa Valley.

The upper reaches of Sonoma County are home to a number of valleys. Among them the Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys have both proven themselves to be suitable for the cultivation of Sauvignon Blanc.

The Russian River Valley lies smack in the middle of Sonoma County. With myriad valleys breaking through the hills that form the western limits of the Russian River AVA, cooling fog from the Pacific Ocean regularly makes it’s way into the inner reaches of the valley. The cooling affects of this intrusion are profound, often lowering evening temperatures some 40 degrees below the daytime highs. This diurnal shift closely mimics that found in New Zealand so it’s no surprise that the Russian River Valley is frequently a source for rather tropical fruited and chili-scented wines.

Just to the north of the Russian River valley one finds the Dry Creek Valley, with its cooling fog and moderate temperatures it’s often been considered the Bordeaux of California when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc. The soils here, particularly on the valley floor, are a mix of alluvial deposits of gravel and sandy loams that are ideal for Sauvignon Blanc. Like the Napa Valley, temperatures rise as one moves north through the Dry Creek Valley, though the alluvial plains are widest in the southern reaches, thus concentrating much of the Sauvignon Blanc in this virtually ideal location.

With such ideal growing conditions, many consider the Dry Creek Valley to be the best AVA for Sauvignon Blanc in the state. It is no surprise that many producers here prefer not to use wood barrels during their production for their Sauvignon Blanc and bottle without the addiction of other varieties allowing the wines to express the purity and depth of the fruit.

Mendocino County

Abutting Sonoma County to the North sits Mendocino County, home to the giant Redwoods. A very large county marked by long, narrow valleys that slice through the county from north to south and high hills, Mendocino offers a wide variety of growing regions. The climate in general is significantly cooler than that found in the neighboring counties, though the higher elevations allow for plenty of sunshine and a slow ripening of the grapes. The results are very promising though admittedly the region is more of an upstart than most. Early signs point to this being the home of some ripe, yet racy Sauvignon Blanc that delivers the crisp minerality that can be missing from so much California Sauvignon Blanc.

Vintages

2006 A difficult vintage in much of Northern California that saw a cool and damp spring followed by a July heat wave that made rot an early issue. Cooler temperatures returned for the end of the season, accompanied by more rains and more rot. None-the–less It was a solid vintage for the cool loving, early harvested varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc.

2007 – A smaller vintage that was almost ideal for white varieties. The spring was warm and dry and led to a temperate summer with few truly hot days, and cool evenings. The weather warmed right as the harvest began but this hot spell was short lived. White varieties were brought in during this period but were followed by several weeks of cooler weather allowing wineries to enjoy a leisurely harvest and letting winemakers devote more attention to the vinification of the already harvest white wines.

2008 - A small crop that went through virtually all the challenges a viticulturalist can imagine yielded complex, balanced wines. Spring started out cool and dry but was marred by a hard frost in April that many consider the worst in over 3 decades. The frost severely reduced production in many vineyards and the particularly cool sites were basically wiped out. May saw a heat wave during bloom, further reducing the crop size. The remainder of the summer was moderate but very dry with temperatures peaking during a heat wave that lasted through late August and September. The heat accelerated the ripening of the grapes and caused some problems with desiccation. The small bunches of grapes that were eventually harvested yielded rich, ripe wines.

 

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