The white wine with the world’s greatest visibility is chardonnay; all other white grapes take a distant back seat. That’s unfortunate for grapes as exalted as Riesling and pinot blanc. But, fortunately, one of the best seems to be on the rise.
Sauvignon blanc (sometimes called fumé blanc) has been in such demand over the past decade that it is now regularly seen in restaurant by-the-glass programs, is sold to wine lovers with much enthusiasm and even has captured the hearts of a few wine collectors who love to age it.
It’s widely accepted that the best chardonnays in Europe come from Burgundy, that Napa and Sonoma produce sensational — and expensive — chardonnays, and that exotic versions are being produced in cooler regions around the world.
But where do the best sauvignon blancs grow? What are the regions to seek out for excellence?
When the wine’s appellation is listed as California, buyers have no real information about where the grapes were grown, and wine lovers know that the region listed on the label gives a clue about the style of wine inside. With sauvignon blanc, that’s truer than with most grapes.
I adore sauvignon blanc in almost all forms and pay strict attention to the regions from which all wines emanate. Never is it more important than with sauvignon blanc.
My personal list of the Top 10 regions where sauvignon blanc grows best comes with a number of exceptions. Remember that even in unknown areas, producers can still make exceptional wine.
For instance, Mendocino County isn’t listed here, but I have tasted some sensational sauvignon blancs from that region over the years.
1. New Zealand: Whether it is made in that most distinctive herbal style from Marlborough, the slightly more tropical Martinborough version or various other styles from around this two-island nation, the exotic nature continues to please me, as do the occasionally odd versions, such as barrel-fermented.
The best usually are fairly priced but rarely are very long-lived, and thus may not be at the top of others’ similar lists. But there’s no denying the worldwide acceptance of this regional superstar.
2. Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé: These two associated districts in the eastern Loire Valley offer classic versions that can be most minerally, austere and potentially age-worthy. The sensational Pouilly from Baron de Ladoucette, called simply Baron de L, costs $100 or so and is considered a cellar-worthy prize. It is an astounding wine when aged.
3. Napa Valley: It’s hard to deny the quality of Napa Valley’s top sauvignon blancs, although a few do remind me more of barrels than of wine. Over-oaking cabernet has proven to be a success, and it’s sad that so many phenomenal Napa SBs are treated the same way.
Even so, Napa’s top Sauvignon Blancs can often be so impressive that the oak is a mere distraction.
4. Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley of Sonoma County: Slightly more herbal, perhaps a tad more rustic and wild, these two neighboring regions’ SBs reliably deliver varietal distinctiveness and usually at fair prices. Russian River SBs tend to be slightly more exotic.
5. Graves (Bordeaux): I adore many White Bordeaux wines, especially when well-aged, and realize that most are blended with Semillon. When SB is dominant, the wines can be sublime. (Chateau Smith Haut Lafite is 100 percent SB.)
6. Lake County: This is often the secret weapon in sauvignon blancs with the California appellation because of the exotic tropical fruit nature of the grape in the county just north of Napa. Occasionally they’re not as complex as some, but the wines can be instantly tasty and fairly priced.
7. South Africa: We don’t see as many of these New Zealand-style wines from South Africa as we might, but Mulderbosch and Neil Ellis have pioneered exports to the U.S., and their wines are exemplary.
8. Chile: With a generally warm climate, this southern hemisphere nation has worked diligently to plant SB in more moderate climates. In the past several years, Chile’s sauvignon blancs have become exciting values. I prefer the wines from Casablanca Valley.
9. Sierra Foothills: Many of this area’s best sauvignon blanc vineyards have been converted to red wines. But sauvignon blanc here develops along the lines of Graves, and it makes a striking version.
10. Santa Ynez Valley: Pioneered for sauvignon blanc by Fred Brander, this region of Santa Barbara County has recently produced some exemplary sauvignon blancs made by nearly a dozen different wineries. Less well known then it should be.
Wine of the Week: 2015 Kunde Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma Valley, “Magnolia Lane” ($13): Fresh and slightly leafy, the aroma is delicately varietal.
It has a soft entry and good acidity for pairing with food, especially Asian cuisine. It is proof that Sonoma Valley is another superb sauvignon blanc region.
Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.