Sauvignon blanc is a middle sibling among California's grape varieties -- a wallflower caught between her homecoming queen sister Chardonnay and her football hero brother Cabernet.
Like many in that position, sauvignon blanc is starved for attention and often demeaned. The British writer Jancis Robinson, in her excellent book "Vines, Grapes and Wine," includes sauvignon blanc in her list of the world's nine top grape varieties, but in terms that sound as if her mother told her she must.
"Of the nine grapes included in this Classic Varieties' section," she writes, "sauvignon blanc's claim to classic status is perhaps the weakest." Her overall evaluation: "Only moderate quality. Too fashionable."
Maybe so, but in California at least, sauvignon blanc has largely shed its awkwardness. No, it doesn't garner the attention or fetch the prices of chardonnay, but when value is considered as part of the equation, sauvignon blanc is far more successful.
For the novice wine drinker, sauvignon blanc can be a bit off-putting. Usually it's a distinctively herbal wine, with an edgy acidity.
Bring food to the table, however, and sauvignon blanc starts to shine. More than virtually any other wine variety, it needs interplay with food to make it truly attractive. Delicate fish, vegetables, grilled foods and spicy foods -- all of which can confound even fine chardonnays -- just seem to bring out the best in sauvignon blanc.
It must be admitted that when sauvignon blanc is bad, it can be downright grotesque. The late 1970s and early 1980s brought dozens of sauvignon blancs that might have passed for asparagus juice.
With improvements in cultivation and winemaking, such excesses are rare today. What you have instead are plenty of middling sauvignon blancs that middle along in just about the same pleasant but boring way. That's a real bummer for the critic who's trying to taste a dozen at a sitting, but for the consumer who drinks just one bottle at a time, it's not really a problem.
Still, consumers can do better. A recent tasting blitz of 22 California sauvignon blancs turned up more than a dozen wines with real merit and individuality. That's pretty good for any class of wines, and one would be hard-pressed to equal that performance in a selection of California chardonnays. (See box.)
No, the finest California sauvignon blancs don't quite equal the best Golden State chardonnays, but once you get past that elite few, quality evens out quickly. And while chardonnay prices keep soaring into the upper teens and 20s, the many sauvignon blancs from excellent producers can be bought for about $10.
That's when a wallflower starts to bloom.
It might help to clear up one confusing point. Some sauvignon blancs are labeled as fume (foo-may) blanc, a name introduced by Robert Mondavi at a time when the name sauvignon blanc was generating little interest in the marketplace.
Sometimes that signals that the winemaker is aiming for a style akin to that of Sancerre in the Loire Valley, as opposed to that of Bordeaux, sauvignon blanc's other native soil. But just as often, it's a distinction without a difference. The grapes are identical.
The fume blanc device made sense when Mr. Mondavi launched it, but now that the name sauvignon blanc is more familiar, its importance has faded. Besides, it's likely that half the people who read the labels fail to note the accented "e" in fume, yielding a word with noxious connotations. (French accent marks are also beyond the typesetting capabilities of this newspaper, an acute problem with sometimes grave implications.)
In any case, please count this as one vote for fumigating the
"fumes" and calling them all sauvignon blancs.
Sauvignon blanc tasting notes
These are just 23 of scores of sauvignon blancs available in the Maryland market. They include some of the state's finest producers of this varietal, but absent are some of the best, including Matanzas Creek, Mayacamas, Kalin and Hidden Cellars. They are listed in rough order of preference, but those in the "very good" range are a virtual tie.
1990 Caymus Vineyards Barrel-Fermented Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($10.49). This is an atypical sauvignon blanc but a great wine. It comes closer to a blockbuster chardonnay style than any sauvignon blanc I've ever encountered, perhaps because of the addition of 9 percent chardonnay.
Still, it's not quite chardonnay flavor. It carries hints of many other wine styles -- French white Burgundy, Alsace pinot gris, white Hermitage -- but it's truly unique. Toasty oak, vanilla, honey, pear, lemon, smoke and flint all combine for an amazing tasting experience.
What a mouthful of flavor for only $10.49! A comparabl $l chardonnay could cost $25.
1989 Preston Estate Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valle($9). A full, rich, smoky, yeasty, lightly oaky wine that resembles a top-notch white Bordeaux. Serve this with grilled salmon, swordfish or tuna.