Unlike their French cousins, most American Sauvignon Blancs lack subtlety and elegance, but some can be delightful—if you know where to look
More often than not when ordering a white wine I go for a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume, made from the sauvignon blanc grape in France's Loire Valley. I find it as versatile as an aperitif as I do with a wide variety of foods to follow, and the price is usually right.
What I almost never do is order a sauvignon blanc from America, where it is sometimes called fume blanc. All the virtues I find in French sauvignon blancs — their aromatic bouquet, herbaceous, slightly grassy flavor, and lightness of structure — are often squandered in California and Pacific Northwest wineries, which tend to overemphasize herbal notes, making most taste like a newly mown lawn with plenty of dandelions and a little fertilizer thrown in.
Many deliberately imitate the fruit-punch flavors of the enormously successful Cloudy Bay and other sauvignon blancs from New Zealand. Wine Spectator's MaryAnn Worobiec writing about Cloudy Bay found "Tangerine, mango and citrus flavors are pure and focused, smooth, round and wonderfully refreshing, with peach, Key lime pie, mineral and floral elements that really take off on the finish." As I said, fruit punch.
America's sauvignon blancs tend not to be quite that aggressive, but their styles differ radically. Some are very light, others hefty, with up to 14.5 percent alcohol. The big grassy ones are a mouthful, but their charms fade very fast after a few sips.
The varietal's prodigious growth and vigor can lead to an under ripeness that adds to those herby demerits. The grape had a surge in popularity after the late Robert Mondavi re-named it fume blanc in 1968, to avoid confusion with cabernet sauvignon, giving it a sexy French nuance.
Steel and Oak
Many California wineries don't allow much if any skin contact with the grape juice; others do. Some age the wine only in stainless steel; others use oak barrels. In some instances, semillon or other grapes are added.
It's difficult, then, to pin down the American sauvignon blanc style. But with summer and outdoor grilling upon us, a reasonable case can be made for the American varietal as a good choice for big, smoky-flavored meats or fish. With that in mind, I collected a slew of western-state sauvignon blancs of different styles and vintages and tasted them with and without such foods.
Sineann 2007 ($30)
This is a small Yamhill County, Oregon, producer, best known for its pinot noirs. Unfortunately, although the bottle I sampled had a very tight glass closure, the smell was slightly chemical and the wine itself, obvious from its color, starting to oxidize.
Carica Kick Ranch 2007 ($25)
Sonoma Valley's Carica has only been making wine since 2005 but already has a considerable following. The owners insist their sauvignon blancs follow "classic French style" with "crisp acidity." They add 25 percent sauvignon musque and age 10 percent of the first blend in new French oak.
It is indeed a very Sancerre-like sauvignon blanc, with a lovely fresh bouquet, excellent body and clean acids. This was clearly the best of my tasting, perfect with grilled fish.
Windsor Sonoma 2007 ($15)
With vineyards in the warm Russian River Valley, Windsor Sonoma takes advantage of cool summer nights to keep acidity levels high, achieving a judicious 13.9 percent alcohol. The color is very, very pale, the aroma herbaceous, but the overall taste flabby, without those promised acids evident. It's a one-dimensional wine.
Groth 2007 ($26)
Located in Napa's Oakville appellation, Groth has been highly regarded for its sauvignon blancs since the 1980s. The grapes are grown in microclimates that Groth's website says give the wine "a lush, full melon/citrus character in the aroma and in the flavor." Leaving the juice on the skins gives it more body, but you get a high alcohol level of 14.5 percent.
It's big, it's floral, it's pleasantly grassy but not overdone. This is a very fine example of the bold, California style of ripe fruit and balance of acidity.
Turnbull 2008 ($23)
Napa-based Turnbull makes a wide range of wines, sourcing grapes from four Oakville and Calistoga vineyards, and the juice spends an unusually long time on the lees. Very pale in color, with a modest apple-like nose, it begins brightly on the palate but fades fast without any real finish. It would be fine with grilled chicken or even hot dogs.
Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery 2009 ($35-$40)
Napa's Spottswoode specializes in two cabernets and its sauvignon blanc, the latter fermented in small stainless steel barrels, then French oak to add toast and spice.
This is another fine example in the Loire Valley style, a very creamy wine but with tantalizing acid and freshness that would make an excellent aperitif or a wine to go with summer salads and tomatoes with goat's cheese.