Sauvignon blanc, a varietal with roots in both the Loire Valley and Bordeaux regions of France, had an auspicious beginning in California compared to the more-established chardonnay.
It then received a boost after Robert Mondavi changed the name of his sauvignon blanc to Fume’Blanc, a marketing ploy with obvious references to Pouilly Fume’ in the Loire Valley.
Sauvignon Blanc has also adapted well to the expanded “New World” wine regions like New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, and Washington State.
During a recent visit to the Pouilly Fume’ region, I enjoyed a special release with local winemaker, Clement Marchand, whose family has been making wine at their village site since 1650. The Clement Marchand “Kimmeridgian” Pouilly Fume’ 2016 ($35), named after a local fossil-laden soil, had a round texture and creamy mouthfeel with nice stone fruits on the palate.
All wines from Pouilly Fume’ are exclusively sauvignon blanc and, along with nearby Sancerre, located on a promontory to the other side of the river, are identified by region, not varietal. The local terroir, with moderate temperatures and soils abundant in limestone, produces a dry, crisp, palate-cleansing wine with citrus flavors and their trademark “smoky, gun- flint” aromas.
Sauvignon blanc is still a major Bordeaux grape, whether it is blended with semillon, infected with the Botrytis cinerea fungus in the southern regions of Barsac and Sauternes or sitting on its laurels as the mother of cabernet sauvignon. Few people know that cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc parented one of the
most popular and abundantly planted varietals on the planet.
Sauternes and Barsac are known, by name, for producing the world’s finest and most expensive dessert wines. Arguably, the best Sauternes wine available today is the Chateau d’Yquem 2005 ($550), a Premier Cru Superieur blend of semillon (75 percent) and sauvignon blanc (25 percent) that is a sensory treat with fresh vanilla aromas and rich flavors of creme brûlée and gingerbread.
Ironically, the first sauvignon blanc cuttings that arrived in California, during the late 1800s, came from the Sauternes vineyards of Chateau d’Yquem. They have flourished here, adapting to both warm and cooler climates.
The two best examples of California sauvignon blanc, in my mind, are both produced by women, one from the cool Russian River Valley and the other from the warm Santa Ynez Valley in north Santa Barbara County.
Merry Edwards is an icon in the wine industry, producing fine pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc from vineyards near Sebastopol. As with previous vintages, the 2017 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley ($36), with added Sauvignon Musque from Sancerre, exhibits spirited floral aromas, a creamy mouthfeel with herbal flavors and some zest on the finish.
Ms. Edwards recently semi-retired and sold Merry Edwards Cellars to respected Anderson Valley sparkling wine producer, Roederer Estate. Heidi von der Mehden, the new winemaker and staff will be retained and Edwards will consult for a year so, I anticipate being able to enjoy her sauvignon blanc in the future.
Winemaker Kathy Joseph of Fiddlehead Cellars in Lompoc speaks passionately of pushing pinot noir and sauvignon
blanc toward their potential, either paired with food or not. Of her five sauvignon blanc releases, my favorite, as with other vintages, is the 2018 Fiddlehead Sauvignon Blanc “Goosebury” Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara ($38), sourced from warmer climate and described by Joseph as “zingy like a New Zealand wine, juxtaposed with the elegance of a Sancerre.” I find it to be a perfect pair with fresh scallops or chèvre.
Sauvignon blanc has become so prominent in the southern hemisphere that the term “New Zealand-style” is synonymous with aromatic wines and flavors of fresh cut grass and grapefruit.
Each vintage, one of the most popular sauvignon blanc wines from New Zealand is the 2018 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough ($30) that maintains the “green characteristics” while adding a touch of tropical fruit flavors.
Boasting recent high ratings, the 2016 Greywacke “Wild Sauvignon” Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough ($30) has an austere savory character that doesn’t sacrifice complexity in the flavor profile.
Sauvignon blanc, no longer an alternative white wine, is charging into the future with a global presence that highlights expressive bouquets, intricate flavors and the textures in a wine that belongs at the dinner table.
Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a guest columnist.