I’ve been so wrong about Sauvignon Blanc for so long that it took me a little while to recalibrate. I blame New Zealand. The first nice examples I tried, some years back, originated there, and that flavor profile—aromatic and tropical-fruity, broadly stated—stayed in my mind. When I would taste other examples, my internal barometer was so at odds with what I was actually drinking that I would just sort of move on.
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My bad. And my loss. Over the past year or so, I have discovered the pleasures of domestic Sauv Blancs. Great examples from California are very clearly first cousins of their kiwi counterparts, but with a North American richness that, for my palate, makes them more versatile. With conch fritters? Of course. But also with a roasted chicken, or takeout Thai. They are their own thing, and it’s worth the effort to seek out the good ones.
Here’s a trio I really enjoyed in recent days.
2019 Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc
The big reds from this renowned producer will not leave my pantheon anytime soon. But I loved their Sauvignon Blanc so much that I wasn’t surprised to learn that, for one, the winery’s first release was a 1973 Chardonnay, and two, the first grape they’d planted was Sauvignon Blanc. Today the wine is a blend of northern and southern Napa grapes, the fruit harvested at night to capture acidity.
In a mixed approach that seems the norm out there, 89% of the juice rested in stainless steel tanks, 6% in neutral French oak barrels, and 5% in new concrete eggs. Following fermentation, 90% of the wine aged five months in neutral French oak barrels, while another 5% aged in tank and 5% in concrete egg.
“The cooler, windswept southern reaches of the valley give a Sauvignon Blanc with bright citrus characters, flinty minerality, and balanced acidity,” the tasting notes read, “while the warmer northern sites bring out tropical notes.” That’s spot-on. The prominent pink grapefruit notes are balanced with hay and minerality and melon in this very classy wine. ($30)
2019 Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc
This 42-acre organically farmed vineyard sits in Napa’s St. Helena AVA. Laura Díaz Muñoz took over as winemaker three summers ago, and she’s been rapidly putting their wines on more radars. Muñoz says that Sauv Blanc is a “passion” for her—and that commitment has lead her to experiment boldly, adding a concrete egg to her arsenal. This wine marks the first year that Muñoz used a combination of egg, new French oak, and stainless steel for fermentation and aging.
My tasting partner used the term “woody” when we had our first sips. She quickly changed that note, but I knew what she’d meant; instead of overdone acid and floral notes, the wine presents with a pleasing roundness. There’s a pear tart in there, or peach, maybe even some cinnamon spice—lemon cream pie? It’s a wonderfully complex wine, with long lasting citrus and vanilla bean notes, and a straight spine of acidity. With fried shrimp? Wow. ($32)
2020 Ram’s Gate Estate Sauvignon Blanc
The wines coming out of Sonoma’s Ram’s Gate—individualistic wonders like a pinot blanc that easily passes for Old World, elegant chardonnays, and exemplary pinot noir—are exciting to watch for and taste. Joe Nielsen, director of winemaking for the gorgeous estate, came aboard in 2018, and he’s following the terroir wherever it leads him. It leads to lovely places. “I feel like I’ve been given a pile of gold and silver and they’re asking me to make jewelry,” he says. “I have everything I need to make great wines that are complete, complex, and compelling.”
2020 was a tough vintage for this wine—a late spring frost, among other challenges, lead to half the yield of the (well-reviewed) prior year—but that created “a recipe for concentration,” as the winery notes. Aged sur lie for 5 months in (here comes the mix again) 10% new French oak, 10% stainless steel, and 80% neutral barrels, the wine was also part of the winery’s move to farming “under organic principles.” It’s a splendid result, spicy and fresh, with a flintiness that, for me, marks the best examples of Cali Sauv Blanc. ($38)