Great value in versatile California varietal Wine: Sauvignon blanc's workhorse image obscures the excellence it has achieved in the Golden State.

Vintage Point

June 03, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

Dollar for dollar, sauvignon blanc remains the best value in California wine.

The prices of first-class California chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon blanc and merlot left Earth for the stratosphere many years ago.

Zinfandel -- the honest-to-goodness red wine -- is no longer the value it was. It's getting tougher and tougher to find a truly excellent bottle for less than $15.

But sauvignon blanc remains the workhorse white grape varietal of the Golden State. For many top-notch wineries, it is their least expensive offering. With no other grape will $10 buy as much quality in a California wine as sauvignon blanc -- which sometimes goes by the alias fume blanc.

Sauvignon blanc's inexpensiveness has given it a workhorse image that obscures the excellence it has achieved in California. The state's winemakers have given it a wide variety of interpretations -- some that clearly pay homage to French styles and others that are quite original in their interpretation of this most versatile grape.

The summer is an especially auspicious time to uncork this varietal. The smoky flavors and relatively high acidity combine to make them especially congenial companions to grilled vegetables and seafoods. The herbal quality of the varietal lets it hold its own against spicy cuisines.

In a recent series of tastings, the 1996 California sauvignon blancs showed very well. That should come as no surprise because most of these wines peak at about 2 years of age. A few will improve after two years, but many more will decline. The strong performance of the 1997s tasted indicated that there need be little concern about drinking a sauvignon before its time.

At their biggest and boldest, California sauvignon blancs can approach the complexity of the finest chardonnays -- but generally at a considerable savings.

Three examples from the tastings especially come to mind. The 1996 Duckhorn Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($20), the 1996 Matanzas Creek Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc ($17) and the 1996 Murphy-Goode Reserve Fume from the Alexander Valley ($18) are all strapping wines with a definite touch of oak. All are serious wines worthy of special meals.

Close in style and quality -- and much gentler in price -- is the 1996 Beringer Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($11). Like its more expensive cousins, it offers intense flavors of sweet oak, figs, herbs, minerals and pears. Unlike them, it probably won't hold its quality beyond this year.

Showing even more signs of fragility is the 1996 Estancia Monterey County Fume Blanc ($10.59). While this attractively priced wine is packed with upfront flavor, the oak component comes close to going over the top. If you're not concerned with subtlety, it will be an enjoyable wine to drink for a few more months.

Occasionally, an attempt to make a big, rounded sauvignon blanc goes awry. That is what appears to have happened with the 1996 Morgan ($11), an unfiltered blend of Sonoma County and Monterey County fruit. Despite excellent ripeness, it came across as harsh and overblown.

Another style of California sauvignon blanc is clearly influenced by the crisp, smoky, herbal, flinty wines of the Loire Valley. These wines can seem a bit severe to novice wine drinkers, but their freshness and compatibility with food -- especially the crab dishes of the Chesapeake region -- quickly win converts.

One of those closest to the genuine Loire style -- though not necessarily the best wine -- is the 1996 Preston Cuvee de Fume Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($12). It's a somewhat delicate wine with pronounced mineral flavor. Give it high marks for verve if not for power.

This general style of sauvignon blanc shows best when given a less authentic and more Californian expression. An exceptional example is the 1996 Handley Dry Creek Sauvignon Blanc ($14), an intensely herbal wine with high-impact flavors of white pepper and mint. Something about this wine suggests it would be perfect with a chilled soup made with fresh asparagus.

Equally impressive and even more reasonably priced is the 1997 Murphy-Goode Sonoma County Fume Blanc ($11), a bone-dry wine with the freshness of newly harvested garden herbs and a laserlike penetration. It's an intensely minty, grassy wine with real muscle under the surface delicacy.

Another wine that seems to aspire to this style is the 1997 Markham Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($10.49). It's a stylish little wine with an appealing freshness, but it lacks the drama of the preceding wines.

Some other California sauvignon blancs are made in ZTC distinctively American style that emphasizes the fruit flavors of fig and pears, seasoned by herbs. These wines often show well with spicy food, which can use a touch of fruitiness.

One excellent example is the 1996 Sanford Central Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($15). This, from one of California's most reliable producers, is a beautifully delineated and intensely flavorful sauvignon blanc that would match up perfectly with shrimp or chicken in the creole style.

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