Chardonnays of future face an unlikely competitor Wine: California sauvignon blanc, once treated as merely a cash-flow product, has gotten worlds better over the last decade.

Vintage Point

June 12, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The notion that sauvignon blanc could someday rival chardonnay as California's most successful white-wine grape goes beyond stupid.

It's almost as dumb as predicting that lowly Northwestern could go to the Rose Bowl.

Nevertheless, this idiot is going on record as predicting that sauvignon blanc, assisted by its sidekick semillon, will at least draw even with the ubiquitous chardonnay in critical recognition within five years. The general wine-buying public might be a little quicker.

This judgment is based solely on the evidence presented to my palate in the last several years. With each vintage the gap between the best chardonnays and the best sauvignon blancs seems to narrow. The trend is clear.

The change from a decade ago is breathtaking. Then, most producers treated sauvignon blanc as a cash-flow wine -- one that you kicked out the winery door as quickly as possible to keep the bankers happy. The wines were often thin, tart, overly acidic and vegetal in character.

Sauvignon blanc, also known as fume blanc, was barely one step up from white zinfandel. When visiting East Coast writers, winemakers would leave their sauvignon blancs at home and pour chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons.

But even then, a handful of stubborn souls were determined to show that sauvignon blanc was more than the crazy aunt in the wine cellar. Folks such as Terry Leighton of Kalin Cellars and Bill and Sandra McIver of Matanzas Creek Winery treated their sauvignon blancs with just as much respect as their chardonnays, and the results were apparent to anyone who could taste them.

Fellow winemakers were obviously among the most enthusiastic tasters because their wines have spawned a host of capable imitators.

The technique of barrel fermentation on the residue of fermentation yeasts, once reserved for chardonnay, has become widespread as winemakers have found that it adds complexity and depth to sauvignon blancs as well.

The Bordeaux practice of blending sauvignon blanc with semillon also has become commonplace as many California winemakers have veered away from the pungently herbaceous Loire style of 100 percent sauvignon blanc.

Something is lost as well as gained in the process. California is capable of producing marvelous Loire-style wines similar to Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume. But this style of wine always will be controversial. You might adore it, as I do, but in any group of four wine drinkers, at least one person is almost certain to loathe it. That rather limits its appeal at dinner parties.

That doesn't mean California winemakers have settled into a pattern of copying Bordeaux styles. They seem to be taking the white Bordeaux model and building on it, creating something that in many ways surpasses the original in richness, fruitiness and depth.

TC A handful of white-wine-producing chateaux in the region known as Pessac-Leognan remain out of reach -- for now. But the top California sauvignon blancs or white Meritage blends (sauvignon blanc and semillon) are catching up, and it's unlikely to be long before we'll be tasting wines that rival Chateau Haut-Brion blanc or Chateau Laville-Haut-Brion.

Fortunately for consumers, sauvignon blanc remains a relative bargain in these days of soaring wine prices. It's not at all unusual for a $12 sauvignon blanc to be equal, if not superior, to an $18 chardonnay. In addition, sauvignon blanc works well with a broader array of foods than chardonnay -- from spicy Cajun cuisine to grilled seafood to vegetable dishes.

Best bets

With a few regrettable exceptions, the sauvignon blancs tasted in recent weeks have shown both high quality and considerable individuality.

At the top of my list ranks the 1994 Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc ($22) from Sonoma County. The smoky, rich flavors of melon, pear, minerals and dry honey linger on the palate long after you swallow, and the wine has the balance and concentration to improve in the bottle.

Right behind them, I would rank the toasty, yeasty 1994 Sanford Sauvignon Blanc from Santa Barbara County ($15). It's a stylish, complex wine with a definite twist of fig flavor.

For sheer concentration, it's hard to beat the 1994 Murphy-Goode Reserve Fume ($17). This barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc is overstuffed with flavors of melon, peach, pear and fresh herbs. The 1994 Caymus ($15) from the Napa Valley, though about to give way to the 1995, is likewise a monument to how satisfying a rich, smoky sauvignon blanc can be.

Devotees of the overtly herbaceous style of sauvignon blanc should try the 1994 Grgich Hills Napa Valley Fume Blanc ($18) or the 1992 Philip Togni Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc ($20). Both are excellent examples of this love-it-or-loathe-it style.

Also bound to be controversial is the powerfully herbal, but also decadently fruity 1993 Adler Fels Sonoma County Organically Grown Fume Blanc ($13).

Other options

There is a broad middle ground of high-quality, fruity sauvignon blancs at reasonable prices.

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