Sauvignon blanc may be too popular for its own good


November 07, 1993|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Sauvignon blanc is not a grape variety for winemakers who lack the courage of their convictions.

Good sauvignon blanc can taste like fresh herbs and wood smoke. Good sauvignon blanc can taste like ripe melons. Good sauvignon blanc can taste of honey and vanilla. It is a noble variety, capable of producing wonderful wines in a variety of styles from the Loire Valley to New Zealand.

But the one thing sauvignon blanc cannot do and still be good is straddle the issue. A winemaker who is afraid of offending anybody's palate should stick with chardonnay.

Unfortunately, the popularity of this food-friendly white varietal has attracted a large number of winemakers who value it more for its cash-flow potential than its intrinsic merits. Many sauvignon blancs are so compromised they have no style at all.

This is especially true in California, where far too many winemakers are often so obsessed with avoiding the "wrong" flavors that they avoid flavor altogether.

The result is a proliferation of wines like the 1992 Raymond Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley -- a crashing bore of a wine.

How boring is the Raymond? So boring you could use it to clean your palate between rounds in a distilled water taste-off. So boring that its national spokesman could be Merv Griffin.

Perhaps it's unfair to pick on the poor Raymond wine. It is technically flawless, clean and crisp, and nobody would ever complain that it's excessively anything. It's hardly the worst $10 wine on the market.

But the Raymond is a perfect example of a dead armadillo wine.

That probably requires some explanation. In Texas political circles, there's a populist named Jim Hightower who is fond of joking that the only things you find in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos.

And boring sauvignon blancs.

For now, the obsession in California seems to be avoidance of herbal flavors.

It's an understandable overreaction. The early 1980s saw a proliferation of sauvignon blancs (often called fume blancs) that carried the natural herbaceousness of the sauvignon blanc to absurd levels. Consumers made their displeasure clear.

But the herbal, "grassy" character that sauvignon blanc displays when grown in a cool climate can be a virtue -- and not necessarily in moderation only. Great Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume from the Loire is boldly flavored wine, delicate in body but emphatic in flavor. These wines are not for everybody, but their devotees swear by them.

Some New World sauvignon blancs also show that grassy can be good.

In California, Babcock Vineyards in California's Santa Barbara County made a delicious, racy, gripping 1992 sauvignon blanc ($11.49) with uncompromising herbal and smoky flavors.

Similarly fine results were achieved by New Zealand's Stoneleigh Vineyards, which produced a 1992 sauvignon blanc ($9) that's a dead ringer for Sancerre.

But sauvignon blanc can be quite the opposite of these two wines and be just as good -- if not better.

The 1991 sauvignon blanc from Cloudy Bay in New Zealand ($16) keeps the smoky qualities of the varietal while adding lush flavors of melony fruit. The effect is exceptional.

In California, Murphy-Goode Vineyards has produced a great reserve sauvignon blanc with a similar flavor profile, but a much different structure. The 1992 Murphy-Goode Reserve Fume Blanc, barrel-fermented ($15), is a wine of immense proportions in which lush melon flavors and sweet oak offset a high alcohol level. My only complaint is that the regular bottling of 1992 Murphy-Goode ($9) is unusually bland, perhaps indicating that the reserve was made at its expense.

In the Napa Valley, Caymus Vineyards has produced a great sauvignon blanc in yet another style. Its Barrel-Fermented 1992 ($11) is a rounded, lush wine that has derived intense vanilla and honey flavors from the oak. It has the richness of a fine chardonnay (which makes up 9 percent of the blend) but has a distinctly different flavor profile, with hints of lemon, peach, pear and spice.

Known mostly for its exquisite cabernet sauvignons, Caymus has quietly emerged as one of California's best producers of white wines.

In my recent tasting of 1992 California sauvignon blancs, which made me optimistic about the quality of the vintage in general, four other wines stood out.

Two were the 1992 DeLoach Fume Blanc from the Russian River Valley ($12), and the 1992 Lakespringfrom the Napa Valley ($10), which combined delicate structure with penetrating herbal flavors.

Others were the 1992 Robert Pecota Sauvignon Blanc ($9), an intensely fruity, lightly sweet wine that is perfect for palates that haven't become accustomed to the peculiarities of sauvignon blanc; and the 1992 Meridian, which offered bold, smoky flavors and plenty of fruit.

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