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Sauvignon Blancs from California & Down Under

by Steve Pitcher

The amount of acreage devoted to sauvignon blanc in California vineyards has inched upwards from about 8,000 acres in 1989, to about 9800 in 1997, supplemented by another 1500 acres planted, but not yet bearing commercial quality fruit, for a total of about 11,300 acres.

Quite modest when compared to ubiquitous chardonnay, which has in the same time period jumped from about 41,000 acres to more than 88,000 acres today, making it the most widely planted white winegrape in California.

While there's an ocean of Chardonnay in the market, the little pond of Sauvignon Blanc offers some wonderful food and wine matches that should entice some of the fans of oaky, buttery Chardonnay to occasionally enjoy something different. Of course, members of the ABC Club, whose motto is either "Anything But Chardonnay" or "Alternatives Beyond Chardonnay," already know this.

Chardonnay is said to pair well with dishes such as: Fish sautéed in butter or with almonds. Fried oysters and clams. Fish, shellfish, chicken and veal with cream-based sauces. Roast pork (Riesling works especially well here, too). Anything, even grilled beef, with a fruit-based salsa like papaya or mango. Thai and other Asian dishes with coconut or peanuts.

Sauvignon (or Fumé) Blanc, on the other hand, does well in combination with the following foods, among others: Lemony flavored dishes like veal piccata. Chicken, fish and shellfish recipes that taste good with a squeeze of lemon. Pita sandwiches with sautéed beef and yogurt. Stir-fired beef with vegetables. Dishes flavored with lemon grass. Anything with peppers -- green bell to hot chiles.

Fortunately, Sauvignon Blanc's fans have over the last couple of years been blessed with increased imports from the southern hemisphere, especially New Zealand and Australia, where Sauvignon Blanc is highly prized and appreciated. New Zealand, especially, has an abundant supply of cold-water fish and shellfish, and Sauvignon Blanc is the natural accompaniment for this cuisine. The island country's vineyards are the most southerly in the world, and thus quite chilly, yielding fresh, crisp, intensely flavored Sauvignon Blancs that are characterized by aromas and flavors of grapefruit citrus, tropical fruit and varietal grassiness or herbaceousness, which the folks Down Under refer to as "gooseberry."

Cloudy Bay is perhaps the best known producer of New Zealand's Sauvignon Blancs, but its limited-production wines have achieved such cult status that they are snapped up almost as soon as they reach the US market. More plentiful now are the Sauvignon Blancs from Brancott Vineyards, the country's biggest winery (where it's known as Montana Wine Company), which arrived in US markets for the first time in 1998. Brancott/Montana has the distinction of being the first winery to plant sauvignon blanc in New Zealand. That was back in 1973. Cloudy Bay appeared on the scene five years later.

Brancott makes two separate Sauvignon Blancs, both of which are superb examples of the varietal. The "Reserve" bottling ($15) comes from the winery's best vineyard (called, appropriately, the Brancott Vineyard) in the Marlborough region of New Zealand's South Island, which is also home to Cloudy Bay. This wine sees no oak, and relies on the expressive fruit from this favored site for its intense, pure flavors and aromas.

Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($25) is made with grapes from the same vineyard as the Reserve, but has an oak influence, which softens the wine's intensity without covering up its flavors. Part of this wine is barrel fermented and barrel aged, mostly in seasoned oak (2 or 3-year-old barrels).

Situated on the south-eastern side of the sheltered Brancott Valley, the Brancott Estate Vineyard enjoys some of the highest number of sunshine hours in New Zealand. Its free-draining soils consist of glacial gravels mixed with loam, silt, sand and rocks. While the days are long and warm, the nights are cool. This slowly ripens the grapes, nurturing and intensifying the flavors until ready for harvest.

This focus on Brancott Vineyards comes about because of the impressive showing of its 1997 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc in a recent Vintners Club panel tasting of wines from California, New Zealand and Australia: Of the six highest ranked wines, the Sauvignon Blancs from the southern hemisphere took first, fourth and fifth place, led by Brancott in first place, followed by Lenswood and Rosemount from Australia.

Tasting Notes

FIRST PLACE

1997 Brancott Vineyards Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand
($15)
Fragrant, exuberant nose of bell pepper-green olive herbaceousness, white melon and tropical fruit. Crisp, yet still luscious, with generous, delicious flavors of herbs, grapefruit citrus and passionfruit. Excellent balance and structure.

SECOND PLACE

1997 Mason Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley
($14)
Attractive, slightly flinty scents of citrus and mild grassiness, enhanced by a touch of oak. Classy and elegant in the mouth, offering grassy, moderately rich citrus flavors and good acidity. The finish is long and grassy.

THIRD PLACE

1997 Sanford Sauvignon Blanc, Central Coast
($14)
An expressive, fruit-driven wine that departs from Sanford's very grassy style of past bottlings, this wine exhibits a deep, fruity nose of lemon-drop citrus, orange blossom, honeysuckle and a touch of toasty oak. The jazzy flavors replicate the nose and are nicely tart, buoyed by crisp acidity.

FOURTH PLACE

1997 Lenswood Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Knappstein Vineyard, South Australia
($19)
This wine is even more herbaceous than the Brancott, a fact that pleased those of us who can't get enough of this character in Sauvignon Blanc. Moderately rich and luscious in the mouth with prominent grassy flavors mingled with ripe melon and citrus. Very stylish and impressive.

FIFTH PLACE

1997 Rosemount Estate Sauvignon Blanc, South Eastern Australia
($10)
Fresh, fruity nose of citrus and mild garden herbs. Smooth and moderately rich, although crisp, the Rosemount offers delicious, complex flavors of citrus and ripe figs tinged with anise and fennel notes. GOOD VALUE.

SIXTH PLACE

1996 Rodney Strong Sauvignon Blanc, Charlotte's Home Vineyard, Northern Sonoma
($10)
Pleasant melon-pear scents accented by oak spice and fig. Round and fleshy with adequate acidity, the wine's peachy-citrus flavors are easy to like without being complex.

SEVENTH PLACE

1996 Draxton Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley
($13)
Forward, fresh, fruity scents of lemon citrus, shy herbaceousness and a hint of oak. Complex and delicious with good acidity, the wine's flavors focus on melon and lots of ripe citrus, plus shy oak and a hint of black pepper in the finish.

EIGHTH PLACE

1996 Chateau St. Jean Fumé Blanc, La Petite Étoile, Russian River Valley
($12)
This wine has a reputation for unabashed herbaceousness and prominent oak influence, which shows here in a nose of moderately forward oak char with a wisp of smoke, freshly mowed grass, melon and citrus. Rich and generous in the mouth with deep, concentrated flavors of citrus, white melon and herbs. A big, bold wine that is distinctive and quite stylish.

NINTH PLACE

1996 Kendall-Jackson "Vintner's Reserve" Sauvignon Blanc, California
($10)
Hints of grass plus mint and melon define the nose, which has a mineral component as well. Round and fruity with ripe citrus flavors tinged with honey. Easy to like for those who shy away from grassy Sauvignon Blanc. GOOD VALUE.

TENTH PLACE

1996 Sacred Hill Sauvignon Blanc, Reserve-Barrel Fermented, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
($22)
Pleasant nose of honeydew melon, lemon-lime citrus and a hint of green herbs. Smooth and moderately rich with good acidity and tasty flavors that replicate the nose. The slightly unripe finish bothered some tasters.

ELEVENTH PLACE

1996 Simi Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County
($14)
In the nose, notes of toasty oak, melon and fig. Moderately rich and luscious with adequate acidity, the wine offers deep flavors of melon and citrus. Short finish.

TWELFTH PLACE

This wine was corked, and thus not representative of the winery's production. It would serve no purpose to identify the brand.

Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.



Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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