Sauvignon Blanc in the Wild: New World Trials & Triumphs

At the 2019 Sauvignon conference held in Blenheim, New Zealand, this past February, the keynote speaker said in his address, “The biggest challenge you have now is that there is no culture of Sauvignon Blanc.” Many in the audience rolled their eyes, and despite his praise of Marlborough’s unparalleled rapid-fire ascension and his subsequent addendum that a culture of Sauvignon Blanc was forming in New Zealand, for days attendees questioned the audacity of such a statement, especially at a . . . Sauvignon Blanc conference.

I, too, left the auditorium jolted. Of course there is a culture of Sauvignon Blanc, I thought, riding the bus deeper into the Wairau Valley, flanked on either side by a green sheath of the variety, extending far beyond the horizon line. Yet the more I reflected, and the angrier I became, I realized I was incensed because he was right. Perhaps “high-brow” or “collector’s culture” would have been worthy modifications, but the cult-like worship of Pinot Noir or Cabernet or Nebbiolo or Riesling doesn’t seem to exist for Sauvignon Blanc, at least en masse.

According to the Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation, Sauvignon Blanc is the eighth most planted grape variety globally, and third among whites. Its European triumphs can be found not only in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux, but also in Italy, Germany, and Austria. Further afield, Sauvignon Blanc has found a home in essentially every New World country—New Zealand, the United States, Chile, South Africa, Australia, among many others. Relatively easy to grow, and adaptable to many climates and winemaking styles, there’s no shortage of consumption of Sauvignon Blanc. But what about respect for Sauvignon Blanc?

Unlike most of the other classic grape varieties, Sauvignon Blanc is widely alleged to have a plateau for its complexity. Such an opinion is hardly new. In a 1995 edition of his New York Times column Wine Talk, Frank Prial wrote, “Most countries that produce chardonnay make sauvignon blanc, too, but there is no question that a very fine chardonnay will always surpass the best sauvignon blanc.” He continues, however, “At the same time, a good, lively sauvignon blanc is much more attractive than a mediocre chardonnay, and there are many, many mediocre chardonnays.”

As Prial suggests, where a bad Chardonnay might induce nausea, cheap Sauvignon Blanc is rarely unpalatable. At a wedding, on a plane, getting your hair cut—the Sauvignon Blanc is usually the safest unknown. Though always reliable, rarely transcendent is all too often the reputation ascribed to the grape. Perhaps its middling esteem has something to do with the virility of its varietal character. Pungent and pointy, Sauvignon Blanc’s Sauvignon Blanc-iness can pierce through any terroir or winemaking decision, making them more often wines of grape than wines of place. Or maybe it’s because of the deep sea of well-priced, well-made Sauvignon Blancs that the truly exceptional examples drown in people’s memory. And unlike Chardonnay or Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t quite have a Montrachet or a Scharzhofberg to call attention to the category.

This article will look at two New World regions whose top-flight Sauvignon Blancs face hurdles in proving their worth: New Zealand and the Napa Valley. The former seems so bound to the one expression of Sauvignon Blanc that made the country an overnight phenomenon that not only its other grapes but also its differently styled Sauvignons wait in the shadows. The latter, conversely, is hardly associated with being a master of the variety, even though it bottles the most expensive examples in the world.

New Zealand

Despite its ubiquity today, Sauvignon Blanc is a relatively recent arrival to New Zealand. The variety is documented at the Te Kauwhata Viticultural Research Station by the mid-20th century, an era when Müller-Thurgau reined supreme. Winemaker Ross Spence gave planting Te Kauwhata’s Sauvignon Blanc a go in 1968, after observing its success firsthand in California, but the resulting vineyard proved riddled with disease. In need of healthier material, Spence turned to UC Davis and its Clone 1, and after catching word, Wayne Thomas of Montana (now Brancott) asked for a few cuttings to propagate in Marlborough. After planting in 1975, Montana harvested its first Sauvignon Blanc four years later, and released it in 1980.

It only took a half-decade for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to command the attention of the global wine community. By the mid-1980s, the wines made their way to foreign shores and critics’ glasses. Cloudy Bay, whose first vintage was 1985, soon became the poster child for the new category on the international market. One journalist, Mark Shields for Melbourne’s Sun Herald, described Cloudy Bay as “like hearing Glen Gould playing the Goldberg Variations, or seeing Niki Lauda at full tilt.” Another equated the sensation to “having sex for the first time.” These emerging delicacies weren’t uniformly lauded, polarizing its audience with some leaning more toward fascination than euphoria. Hugh Johnson recounts his early skepticism. “I remember the surge of scent, the snap on the tongue, the hundred-amp shock through the system.” He continues, “Some tastes, I thought, are simply better at low volume.”

Forty years after Montana fermented its first vintage of the grape, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has lost its newness. Instead, it’s a global powerhouse of a category. New Zealand grew 24,000 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc in 2019, 62% of the national winegrowing area and 73% of fruit harvested. The variety accounts for 86% of New Zealand’s exports, with 269 million liters shipped worldwide. One reason for its success? Consistency.

New Zealand, and specifically Marlborough, Sauvignon Blanc tends to adhere to a rather rigid blueprint, both in the vineyard and cellar. Already a vigorous variety, vines are cropped to allow for high yields, predominately VSP trained and with towering canopies. The vineyards are optimized for mechanical harvesting, leaving grapes to be picked at various levels of ripeness—some golden and mature, others greener. In one way, this can create complexity, in another, angularity.

Organoleptically, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc might be defined by the marriage of methoxypyrazines and thiols. Pyrazines—a compound found in high concentrations in Bordeaux grapes, white and red—account for a series of savory flavors, ranging from green bell pepper to mint. Their presence will soften with increased sunlight and ripeness, partly explaining the greener profile of the cooler-climate, higher-cropped Sauvignon Blancs of Marlborough, versus those from the hotter, lower-yielding areas. The other key component, thiols (also known as mercaptans), are a series of volatile sulfur-containing compounds. Some connote flaws, such as aromas of stewed cabbage or rotten eggs, and are often exaggerated in reductive environments. Others provide a palate of tastes—grapefruit, passionfruit, guava, gooseberry, boxwood, cat pee (not usually pejorative). New Zealand winemakers will regularly inoculate with specific cultured yeast strains selected for their production of these positive thiols.

It’s important to note that within the full scope of the wine market, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is not an inexpensive wine. According to the Gomberg-Fredrikson Report, New Zealand ranks the second highest average bottle price of all countries exporting wines into the United States, following only France. And that price has grown 10.7% from 2016 to 2017. Yet its perception is commonly as a value white. Next to white Burgundy, German Riesling, or even the best Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, it’s hard not to consider New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc a bargain—and an extraordinarily consistent one at that. Even omnipresent brands like Kim Crawford provide an acceptably correct expression of grape and place. Region, producer, or vintage—there’s little risk when buying kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. You know what you’re going to get. So why spend more than $15 or $20 when you don’t have to?

Because a minority contingent of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs buck the formula to illustrate the diversity of wines the variety can achieve in a country whose wine industry is oft mistaken for homogeneity. Any step in the recipe can be reworked in creating these upgraded New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. As is the case in California, oak aging, and possibly fermentation, is commonly a fundamental distinguishing factor between a regular and a top-shelf Sauvignon Blanc. Barrel-aged versions are nearly as old as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc itself. A 1985 Hunter’s oaked Sauvignon Blanc largely contributed to the category’s ascendency in the critical UK market after being showcased at the 1986 Sunday Times Vintage Festival in London. Sacred Hill of Hawke’s Bay bottled its first Sauvage in 1992, while Cloudy Bay’s first vintage of Te Koko, its oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc, came in 1996. Kevin Judd, founding winemaker of Cloudy Bay recalls proprietor David Hohnen’s prophetic fears that New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc bubble might one day burst. “We were sort of charged with the aim to investigate other styles,” he says. And thus Te Koko was born (Judd first made a premium bottling at Cloudy Bay in 1992, then simply called “Sauvignon”). The percentage of new wood will vary between wineries, as will frequency of bâtonnage and the degree to which a wine might be allowed to carry out malolactic fermentation.

But whereas oak is usually the clear answer in California for making the most cellar-worthy Sauvignon Blancs, the same can’t necessarily be said in New Zealand. MW Rebecca Gibb, who recently contributed the New Zealand edition to the Classic Wine Library series, writes, “New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t want for fruity exuberance and it’s a case of reining in that flamboyance when it comes to harmonious barrel fermented examples.” She notes, “Otherwise the fruit and the oak end up in a wrestling match.” Others simply argue that oak and intense pyrazine don’t pair well.

The most successful barrel-aged Sauvignon Blancs, however, are the ones that are farmed accordingly from the get-go. Seeking out New Zealand’s older Sauvignon Blanc vines or cropping vines for lower yields and riper, more concentrated fruit will largely allow for better oak integration. Many producers will also forgo the aforementioned high-thiol cultured yeasts and allow for native fermentations. Kevin Judd does so for his Wild Sauvignon at Greywacke, his project since leaving Cloudy Bay. Such a decision isn’t suitable to every winery, he cautions. “You have to have a production program that allows for you to be patient. . . . Sometimes the fermentations take the whole year.” For winemakers who need to bottle their wines and send them to market by spring, or those without the storage capacity, reliance upon ambient yeasts for spontaneous fermentation may prove challenging. 

While this all might seem obvious, some producers simply slather wood on juice that could just as easily go into their entry-level programs. Upon tasting a suite of aged New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, it was remarkable to observe just how many of these styles of Sauvignon Blancs did in fact come around and integrate after several years. When young, however, it’s not always evident that these producers’ cheaper Sauvignon Blancs aren’t the better wines. (And it’s hard to imagine all too many consumers taking the time to further age their Sauvignon Blancs for such a discovery.)

Interestingly, some of New Zealand’s best Sauvignon Blancs made in an oaked style come from outside of the motherland Marlborough. Warmer regions like Hawke’s Bay will more readily ripen their fruit to levels best suited for oak aging. “They still have that New Zealand Sauvignon intensity . . . but they have a weight and a richness and a length that is not all that common in New Zealand Sauvignon,” says Nick Buck, CEO of Te Mata. He points to the nature of Hawke’s Bay as the key factor allowing his family to cultivate fruit for its Cape Crest Sauvignon Blanc that can hold up to barrel fermentation in one-third new oak. (Theirs is the first winery in New Zealand to barrel-ferment Sauvignon Blanc.) “If you have a very austere style of Sauvignon to begin with, then oak can easily overpower those wines,” Buck continues.

Secondarily, Buck also attributes some of Cape Crest’s longevity to small percentages of Sémillon and Sauvignon Gris. Sémillon is rarely utilized as a blending component with Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand but plays a pivotal role at the Waipara Valley winery Pegasus Bay. Its Sauvignon-Sémillon—roughly portioned 70% and 30%—is New Zealand’s most prestigious example of the classic combo. Winemaker Matthew Donaldson enjoys Sémillon for its texture and aging capacity, but also acknowledges lower crop levels, later pick dates, and even some positive botrytis as major contributing factors to his wine’s distinctiveness.

None of these wines preclude these other areas, however, from making Sauvignon Blancs in the typical New Zealand fashion. It’s actually quite astounding how a Marlborough-style wine can so convincingly be made outside its bounds when obeying the same principles.

Within Marlborough, some producers will take similar or even more dramatic tactics. Winemaker Sam Weaver of biodynamic winery Churton notes, “Marlborough is a fantastic place for growing Sauvignon. You can produce Sauvignon of good commercial quality on the aromatic spectrum easily here. . . . The manipulation that people do has largely driven the Marlborough style.” He’s more interested, though, in alternative, more concentrated expressions. “We’re not growing big veg,” he says of his smaller canopies, and his yields at 54 hectoliters per hectare are less than half what is typical in Marlborough.

But ultimately, it’s his hillside vineyard that is most foundational to Churton’s success. For some producers, the more important distinction of premium Sauvignon Blanc is specificity of site. In terms of viticulture, “In a lot of circumstances, there aren’t necessarily big differences,” admits Helen Morrison, the winemaker at Villa Maria, whose portfolio of Sauvignon Blancs ranges from the wonderfully dependable entry Private Bin to two single vineyards, Southern Clays and Taylors Pass. While it might take some age, “Seeing those wines evolve over time, you can see the impetus from each of those single-vineyard sites,” Morrison explains. While treatment may be similar, both vineyards develop grapes with thicker skins, which Morrison partly credits for the wines’ power.

For atypical New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, the approach may vary, but the hurdles often remain the same. “When we take it to market, we have to challenge the perception of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, [which] in some markets has become a bit tarnished,” shares Weaver. Though traditional Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc may remain a global force, producers speculate when that bubble might burst. Perhaps its big siblings can add fuel and intrigue to keep the flame burning.

Napa Valley

Which grapes first come to mind when you consider California wine? It’ll likely take two hands before you list Sauvignon Blanc. In terms of vineyard share, that’s probably fair; it’s eighth in the state at just over 15,000 acres, trailing Chardonnay (over 93,000 acres), French Colombard, and Pinot Gris among white varieties. Yet, in terms of quality, Sauvignon Blanc far surpasses the latter two, and in terms of its very highest price, it sprints past them all. So why don’t we think of Sauvignon Blanc when we think of California?

Charles Wetmore first planted Sauvignon Blanc in Livermore in 1882, using cuttings from Château d’Yquem. He had acquired an introductory letter from French native and fellow Livermore winegrower Louis Mel to the Marquis de Lur Saluces, owner of the pedigreed Sauternes estate. Agoston Haraszthy similarly returned to California with French Sauvignon Blanc cuttings two decades earlier, though his hardly took root, never leaving Buena Vista. Wetmore’s, on the other hand, found swift success, his 1884 vintage at Cresta Blanca winning the grand prize at the Paris Exhibition in 1889. Louis Mel also used the vine material at his El Mocho Vineyard, a property purchased by the Wente family in 1925. From El Mocho, redubbed by Wente as the Louis Mel Vineyard, Dr. Harold Olmo in 1958 isolated what would become UC Davis Clone 1, the dominant clone of Sauvignon Blanc not only in the United States, but in New Zealand as well.

Upon its California arrival, Sauvignon Blanc quickly made its way to the Napa Valley by the late 1880s, cultivated by Gustave Niebaum at his fabled Rutherford estate, Inglenook. Georges de Latour first planted Sauvignon Blanc in 1902, with Beaulieu winning a gold medal for the resulting wine at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. Many of California’s early Sauvignon Blancs, whether sweet or dry, were labeled “Sauterne,” sans the final s of its Bordelais namesake. By 1890, Sauvignon Blanc was growing at To Kalon, and in 1945 from these vines were cut the material for I-Block—a gnarly, head-trained parcel today vinified into the Robert Mondavi To Kalon I-Block Fumé Blanc and believed to be the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vines in the Americas. At the time of I-Block’s planting, To Kalon was owned by Martin Stelling, who died in 1950.

The Mondavi family acquired its first stakes in To Kalon later that same decade when Cesare Mondavi and his sons, Robert and Peter, bought 235 acres for Charles Krug in 1958. Following his departure from the family enterprise, Robert Mondavi bought an unsold 12-acre chunk of To Kalon for himself, where he built the mission-style winery still in operation (owned by Constellation since 2004). Eventually, through a legal settlement in 1978, Robert acquired the rest of his family’s To Kalon holdings, becoming the largest landowner of the historic property. Following the repeal of Prohibition, Sauvignon Blanc plantings exceeded those of Chardonnay in California, but Robert Mondavi believed the full potential of Sauvignon Blanc in the Golden State remained unrealized. “I really believe the person who showed that Sauvignon Blanc is growing extremely well in the Napa Valley is Mr. Mondavi,” remarks Geneviève Janssens, the longtime director of winemaking for Robert Mondavi. To avoid association with more saccharine examples bottled at the time, as well as confusion with Cabernet Sauvignon, Mondavi titled his 1968 rendition “Fumé Blanc,” borrowing from the Loire appellation Pouilly-Fumé. He left the name un-trademarked, hoping to create a category for quality-minded dry Sauvignon Blancs, potentially oak-aged like his, that would be utilized by other producers on their labels. Several old school California producers, such as Grgich and Dry Creek Vineyard, continue to bottle Fumé Blanc today.

The first Mondavi wine to bear the name To Kalon was not Cabernet, but his 1986 Fumé Blanc Reserve, while the first vintage of To Kalon I-Block Reserve Fumé Blanc followed in 1995. In the late decades of the 20th century, Napa amassed a number of well-received Sauvignon Blancs—Honig, Spottswoode, Araujo. But the waning years of Napa’s cult boom saw efforts to elevate Sauvignon Blanc’s status not only to that of Chardonnay, but of Cabernet Sauvignon too. Robin Lail, whose great-grand-uncle Gustave Niebaum introduced Sauvignon Blanc to the Napa Valley more than a century prior, recalls needing a white addition to her eponymous portfolio. She entrusted the task to her winemaker, the high-profile Philippe Melka, who’d coincidentally staged at Château Haut-Brion, the Pessac-Léognan first growth and perhaps the makers of the apex of Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc blends. Though Lail initially hesitated with the idea of an oaked Sauvignon Blanc (fearing an overblown, “cumbersome” wine along the lines of many California Chardonnays of the era), Melka went forward to model the wine, Lail’s 2002 Georgia Sauvignon Blanc, in the image of top white Bordeaux—barrel fermented and aged. The wine was priced for prestige, too, at $70 a bottle in its inaugural vintage and $155 for the present release.

The following years observed an uptick in ultra-luxe Napa Sauvignon Blancs, a trend that seems to continually accelerate. Screaming Eagle makes the most expensive and elusive, frequently selling in the mid- to high four figures on the secondary market. DANA harvested its first Sauvignon Blanc in 2011, and the present vintage was priced at $175 for the mailing list. Even DANA’s entry-level brand VASO charges $50 for its Sauvignon Blanc. These are the extreme examples, though nonetheless they eclipse California’s most expensive Chardonnays pricewise. Karen MacNeil counted more than 25 Sauvignon Blancs in the Napa Valley that cost more than $50 in 2017, a roster that would be even larger now. She calls them “Super Sauvignons”—but what exactly makes this tier stand out, beyond sticker shock?

Napa’s highest-end Sauvignon Blancs employ a diverse, but somewhat narrow set of viticultural and vinification practices, all essentially variations on a theme. In essence, they all take instruction from white Bordeaux, a fitting decision for a Cabernet country largely viewed as the New World’s answer to the French appellation. But, Napa inverts the typical varietal breakdown. Whereas Bordeaux Blanc most commonly emphasizes Sémillon over Sauvignon Blanc, Napa does the opposite, if including the former at all. As such, Napa may now well house the world’s highest concentration of hyper-premium Sauvignon Blanc-based wines.

While Sauvignon Blanc might be a less expensive wine to make or cheaper fruit to purchase, just growing Sauvignon Blanc in Napa requires the sacrifice of the region’s most valuable commodity: land that could be Cabernet. “I think one of the ways to elevate any variety is to plant it in soil that is appropriately rocky,” explains Annie Favia, who together with her husband Andy Erickson has created many of Napa’s most admired examples of Sauvignon Blanc, including Linea from their own Coombsville label Favia. “What happens a lot with Sauvignon Blanc, especially in California, is it gets kind of stuffed in the areas where the dirt isn’t good enough for Cab.” Instead, Favia and Erickson grow theirs in “red wine dirt.”

In comparison to many cheaper California Sauvignon Blancs, as well as many high-end New Zealand examples, Napa’s top Sauvignon Blanc wines are harvested from older vineyards. At 74 years, Mondavi’s I-Block holds the oldest, but other producers likewise attribute the character of their Sauvignon Blanc wines to their mature vines. Beyond mere age, Napa producers typically farm their top Sauvignon Blancs for greater ripeness than their New Zealand counterparts. “Date of harvest for Sauvignon Blanc is super important,” notes Janssens. “We don’t want to be on the early side, on the green side.” While not wanting to veer too far into tropical territory either, later pick dates help eliminate many of Sauvignon Blanc’s pyrazinic flavors, leaving the wines potentially better adapted to oak maturation. Canopy management is also essential in achieving that goal. Janssens works with Mondavi’s viticulturalist to thin the canopy and increase sun exposure to further diminish greenness.

While Clone 1 monopolizes a large portion of California’s Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, several winemakers rely on Sauvignon Musqué as a critical component in their blends. The clone first came to California in 1962, with UC Davis’s Foundation Plant Services importing material under the name Savagnin Musqué from the Bordeaux research station Viticoles d’Arboriculture Fruitière. The grape found an early champion in Doug Meador of Ventana Vineyards in Monterey’s Arroyo Seco, today an AVA where Sauvignon Musqué covers approximately 5% of all vineyard space. In 1999, Dr. Carole Meredith identified Savagnin Musqué to be genetically identical to Sauvignon Blanc, and was subsequently relabeled Clone 27. A second Sauvignon Musqué clone, or rather an Arroyo Seco field selection donated by Carneros’s Larry Hyde, was registered as Clone 30. As of 2018, 116 acres of Sauvignon Musqué are planted in the Napa Valley.

Sauvignon Musqué by nature accomplishes many of the attributes most sought after by producers of high-end California Sauvignon Blanc. Namely, its pyrazines are naturally more subdued, and its terpenic, perfumed qualities heightened. Clone 1 might require ripening out some of those more vegetal flavors, while with Sauvignon Musqué they’re less perceptible to begin with. “It gives it a really nice floral element and roundness to the wine. The straight-up Sauvignon Blanc can maybe be overly steely, especially when it’s planted on these lean soils,” explains Andy Erickson. “You want to add a little more richness to the wine, and the Musqué will do that.”

Barrel fermentation and aging, lees stirring, maybe partial or full malolactic conversion—all the decisions that might be applied to create weight, texture, and longevity in a California Chardonnay can be similarly adopted by Sauvignon Blanc. There are, nevertheless, winemakers experimenting with alternative tactics to commendable results. Quintessa utilizes a whole fleet of fermentation vessels to craft Illumination, its Sauvignon Blanc sister label: new and used French oak barrels, concrete eggs, acacia barrels, and stainless steel. “The concrete really highlights richness and minerality, the acacia giving that floral character to it,” explains the brand's winemaker, Rebekah Wineburg. “Neutral oak is the neutral—we’re having body because we have some breathing through the barrel, but we’re not getting any flavor components.” She’ll use stainless to preserve linearity and crispness, and new oak only in the occasions where she believes the juice has the concentration to match it. Ultimately, each parcel is fermented in whichever medium she believes best suited to that site in that year.

Despite these successes, Sauvignon Blanc’s luxury apotheosis doesn’t come without its detractors. Robin Lail recounts of her first release, “Some people were outraged—outraged!—and talked about the amazing arrogance of the project.” Many speculate the high Sauvignon Blanc pricing is tethered to that of its child Cabernet. They surmise that when a producer charges $100 or $200 (or $300 or $400) for their red, it might appear a disconnect for their white to only be $20 or $30—despite the likely wide disparity in fruit or production costs. And when you already have a built-in, high-spending direct-to-consumer list, why not widen your margin?

For one, such a pricing model relies on the continued ability to sell Napa Valley Cabernet at sky-high prices, which many already predict to be unsustainable. Furthermore, criticism of expensive Sauvignon isn’t alleviated by the existence of a number of Napa producers who do only charge $20 or $30 for their examples, and deliver a similar experience. Cliff Lede’s Sauvignon Blanc checks all the major boxes—older vines, Sauvignon Musqué, partial barrel fermentation, partial concrete egg—all for $28. “It’s usually our first foot forward,” says Cliff Lede’s COO Remi Cohen. “Often people will have it at a restaurant by the glass. It might their first opportunity to try Cliff Lede. . . . It’s a wine that we’ve intentionally wanted to make extra delicious and also accessible.” With costs of barrels and Sauvignon Blanc fruit sources rising, Cohen admits that the margins have narrowed, but keeping the wine well-priced remains paramount in leaving that brand gateway open. Similarly, while I-Block and To Kalon Reserve Fumé Blanc are both singular wines, Robert Mondavi’s $23 Napa Valley Fumé Blanc still enjoys To Kalon and Wappo Hill fruit, along with 90% barrel fermentation.

But money aside, some still find a greater barrier to the aesthetic value of Sauvignon Blanc in California. In a 2012 post, Steve Heimoff, former critic at both Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, shared his inner dialogue as to why he’ll rarely score a California Sauvignon Blanc above 93 points—even when he prefers their versatility and acknowledges their well-craftedness. “Chardonnay is sexy. Sauvignon Blanc is the person at the party who’s intellectual, not hot,” he laments, mimicking Frank Prial’s sentiments from 17 years earlier. At the end of the day, he argues, Chardonnay is just a more pleasurable grape. The wine world has changed a lot in the last seven years—but Sauvignon Blanc still seems to be knocking on the door to join the pantheon of grapes that are taken most seriously.

And yet, Sauvignon Blanc is one of the grapes that made me fall in love with wine. Brash and maybe a bit obvious at times, the grape is rarely lacking in flavor—and in certain situations, especially formative, early wine experiences, flavor will trump nuance. Not that Sauvignon Blanc can’t do both. New Zealand and California (and France, and so many other locales) demonstrate that Sauvignon Blanc is fully capable of making excellent top-tier wines. But perhaps a grape’s merit shouldn’t be judged exclusively on the height of its highs, but also of its mediums and lows. If using that barometer, I’d give top prize to Sauvignon Blanc every time.

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