California sauvignon blancs

I make no secret of my dislike of California chardonnay, or at least the oaky butter bombs that have come to represent that term. Perhaps because of that, it took me a while to warm to the state’s sauvignon blancs, which could not be more different — in a good way.

I have long been a fan of New Zealand’s sauvignon blancs — the grassy/vegetal/mineral character they tend to show really works for me. But in the past year or so, I’ve noticed that the winemakers of Marlborough are, for lack of a better phrase, trying too hard. You know how some makers of bargain California chardonnay will soak their wine in oak chips in lieu of using more expensive new oak barrels? I’m not sure what the sauvignon blanc equivalent is, but to me it feels like many Marlborough winemakers — particularly in the under-$20 category — are doing it. Popularity has done their wine, like California chardonnay, few favors. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large I’m ready to move on.

I’ve enjoyed sauvignon blancs from Chile (Veramonte’s is a reliable favorite), Argentina and France; still, it seemed a shame to live in the heart of California wine country and not give the local juice another chance. And for the most part, I’m happy to report, I was pleasantly surprised. Here are a few of the wines I tried. All retail for under $20, many for less than $10. Happy sipping!

VinTJs Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($6, Trader Joe’s): Tropical fruits dominate the nose, with a dose of candied lemon, mandarin orange, and the slightest whiff of grass. Intense citrus flavor fills the mouth and persists through the finish, complemented by orange blossom and kiwi notes. It’s hardly complex, but this one is a great buy.

Geyser Peak California Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($9-$12, widely available; cheapest at Trader Joe’s): I keep coming back to this one. Sharp citrus nose with grass and wet stone. Tangy on the tongue with racy citrus flavors and a subtle mineral backbone; nicely dry. Not a hint of oak — stainless steel all the way. Almost austere.

Murphy-Goode North Coast Sauvignon Blanc “The Fumé” 2007 ($10, Safeway): Ah, the power of social media marketing. I had never heard of this winery, but their brilliant “A Really Goode Job” promotion put them on my radar, and I got curious. Glad I did; I’ve bought this one three times now. Its aromas are intensely tropical, with mango, pineapple and maybe a hint of kiwi, and notes of lime. In the mouth, it’s lean and racy; teasing tropical fruits are underscored by citrus, with minerals lingering in the background.

Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards “Charlotte’s Home” Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County (on sale for $11.50, Safeway): Aromatic doesn’t begin to describe it — tropical fruits leap out of the glass even as you’re pouring, marked by mango, pineapple, even a touch of honey. Lime emerges at second sniff. Zesty and playful citrus flavors right up front, then gives way to creamy lemon, cantaloupe, minerals and grapefruit with a touch of vanilla. Nicely balanced acidity.

Beaulieu Vineyard Coastal Estates California Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (on sale for $6.98, Safeway): Bright citrus character emerges on the nose at once, backed by faint grassy notes. Zing! Sharp lemon and lime up front with a fair amount of heat (13.5% ABV). A bit vegetal; I don’t get the melon/tropical fruit flavors the label boasts about, but the citrus character is backed by a touch of minerals. Not very complex, but a decent summer sipper for the price. Serve closer to room temperature for better flavor.

Dry Creek Vineyards Sonoma County Fumé Blanc 2007 (on sale for $11, Safeway): Wet stones leap off the nose, hinting at rich minerality to come; aromas of lemon zest and lime. Sleek citrus up front with notes of mandarin orange and grapefruit, plus bracing minerality and a hint of white pepper. A bit more acidic than I like — a little too harsh. I prefer the reserve, which (if I recall correctly) takes a smoother, more subtle approach.

Clos du Bois Sauvignon Blanc North Coast 2008 (on sale for $6.98, Safeway): This one was the only true disappointment in the bunch (and for $6.98, it wasn’t a huge letdown; still, I won’t buy it again). Nose boasts lemongrass, melon, mango, lime, wet stone. Mouth-filling citrus and grass give way to sweet melon and kiwi; slightly sweet finish. Acidity is vibrant up front but fades too quickly.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to, uh, check on that Geyser Peak. Just to make sure it’s still good.

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