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Distinctive, High-End Sauvignon Blanc from California
Within the last five years or so, a new descriptive term has entered the American wine vocabulary: gooseberry. What's a gooseberry? you may reasonably ask. Well, technically, it's small, green, acidic berry that grows on the prickly gooseberry bush, which when crushed gives off a distinctly green-vegetable smell, similar to that of bell pepper, cut grass or asparagus. If you are a fan of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, that wonderfully pungent, herbaceous aroma you find so appealing is the essence of "gooseberry."
The word nudged its way into the American wine discussion as the Kiwis sought to explain their flagship wine -- Sauvignon Blanc -- to consumers on this side of the Pacific. Gooseberries are common in the cooler parts of New Zealand, essentially the region on South Island in and around Blenheim, with Marlborough at its center, so it was sort of a hometown reference that tripped lightly off their tongues.
As New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc began to take off in popularity -- putting the country on the world's wine map -- gooseberry quickly became a shorthand term for the green herbaceousness that defines the wine's style. The French have their own equivalent of gooseberry, sometimes rendered as "pipi du chat" (chat being cat; the rest I'll leave to your imagination), and employed when the same green herbaceousness is found to an abundant degree in a Sancerre from the Loire Valley.
All this has significance for California Sauvignon Blanc production because, with consumers scrambling after Kiwi Sauvignons, many California wineries are now emulating that style -- or something close to it -- abandoning the practice of overoaking the wine in an effort to create a faux Chardonnay. Instead of too much oak, some of these producers blend in varying amounts of Semillon to achieve more complexity and richness, a technique also popular in New Zealand.
Among the wineries producing crisp, grassy, New Zealand-style examples are St. Supéry Vineyards (winemaker Michael Scholz is from Australia, where the Kiwi style of Sauvignon is quite popular), Voss Vineyards (owned by the Australian Voss family), Mason Cellars, all in Napa Valley, and Geyser Peak (more Australians involved in the winemaking here), Chateau Souverain and Dry Creek Vineyards in Sonoma County.
Of course, it isn't gooseberries that give Sauvignon Blanc its herbaceous character, but rather a group of flavor compounds found in the grape variety called "methoxypyrazines," a term that probably won't be entering the wine-description lexicon anytime soon. One of these compounds, in particular, develops higher concentrations in sauvignon grapes grown in cooler, as opposed to hotter, climates, imparting to the wine's aroma characteristics described as resembling capsicum (think of freshly chopped jalapeños) or bell pepper and those green gooseberries.
One of the reasons for the decline in popularity of California Sauvignon Blanc in the years prior to the Kiwi phenomenon, was that these wines were often distinctively vegetative in aroma -- more like cooked or canned asparagus. Diligent work by vineyardists over the last decade -- including, particularly, restrained canopy management to prevent exposing the grapes to too much heat and sunlight, but still enough to get them ripe -- eliminated that character and improved the acid balance in the grapes.
All this points to a bright future for Sauvignon Blanc, especially with consumers who seek out food-friendly wines, of which the varietal is at or near the top of the list. Not only does the wine pair perfectly with all kinds of fish, shellfish and seasoned poultry dishes, it succeeds wonderfully with lighter foods very much in vogue today -- salads and delicate, poached items, for example -- that heavier, oakier Chardonnay tends to smother. Its freshness is especially compatible with the seasonal cuisines of spring and summer, such as pasta primavera.
Best of all, most Sauvignon Blancs -- whether from New Zealand, Australia, California, Washington or France -- are bargains compared to pricier Chardonnays.
Recently, the Vintners Club panel brought together 12 examples of Sauvignon (or Fumé) Blanc made by wineries that take the varietal very seriously -- sort of an honor roll of Sauvignon producers, if you will. The rankings show a preference for the crisp, Kiwi style, with a tip of the hat to more complex renditions that relied on a judicious use of oak.
199 9 Voss Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($16)
Forward, intense, uncompromisingly varietal nose ofgrapefruit, honeydew melon, lime, freshly chopped green chiles and bell pepper (GOOSEBERRY!), white flowers and minerals. Mouthfilling with a smooth texture and rich entry, this New Zealand-inspired effort delivers lots of grassy flavors backed by melon and citrus fruit; excellent acidity; lean, crisp finish. (3,400 cases)
1999 The Ojai Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Barbara County ($15)
One hundred percent Sauvignon Blanc that was entirely fermented in neutral oak barrels, with no secondary malolactic fermentation, but 10 months lees contact. Very forward, herbaceous, pipi du chat aromas that blend nicely with freshly squeezed grapefruit citrus. Mouthfilling with excellent acidity, offering intense, moderately rich, very expressive flavors. Very reminiscent of the Loire Valley style of Sauvignon Blanc. (510 cases)
1999 Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County ($22)
Blended with 11% Semillon, this partially (63%) barrel fermented effort exhibits toasty, mildly herbaceous aromas of ripe honeydew melon and lemon, plus a hint of vanilla. Vibrant and fruity on the palate, showing layers citrus, white melon and pear fruit, hints of dried hay and basil and a hint of French oak. (9,800 cases)
1998 Sanford Sauvignon Blanc, Central Coast ($14.50)
Pleasant scents of vanilla cream and mild straw mix with key lime and wildflowers. On the palate, vanilla shows up, enhancing bright fruit flavors of pink grapefruit, lemon and garden herbs. Smooth and flavorful with good acidity. (6,000 cases)
1998 Chateau St. Jean Fumé Blanc, La Petite Etoile Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($14)
Vigorous leaf-pulling and greater sun exposure has given this wine richer melon, citrus and mild lemongrass aromas and flavors, while shying away from more varietally grassy, herbaceous notes. Vanilla shows up on the palate, and nectarine enters the complex, elegant flavors that take the wine more toward Chardonnay than Sauvignon Blanc.
1999 Babcock Sauvignon Blanc, Eleven Oaks, Santa Barbara County ($22.50)
Very grassy -- almost extreme -- aromas suggesting pink grapefruit, gooseberries, green apples, honeydew melon and jalapeño peppers. Much like an intense Sancerre, exhibiting minerals on entry, a rich middle of melon and citrus with grassy tones, a touch of oak and excellent acidity. (1,211 cases)
1998 Robert Mandavi Fumé Blanc, Reserve, To-Kalon Vineyard "I Block," Napa Valley ($50)
A very complex and excellently structured wine that took more time than the others to open up, eventually showing a pretty perfume of white flowers and mild garden herbs, honey and citrus accented by smoky, flinty notes. Opulent flavors replicate the aromas, enhanced by hints of vanilla and toasted almonds, plus very subtle grassy notes; creamy finish. (455 cases)
1999 Rodney Strong Sauvignon Blanc, Charlotte's Home Vineyard, Northern Sonoma ($12)
Shy, slightly grassy scents with hints of toast and tropical fruit. Citrus and tropical fruit on the palate, along with crisp acidity and a subtle grassy note in the finish.
1998 Brander Sauvignon Blanc, Au Naturel, Santa Ynez Valley ($30)
This wine never saw any oak. Forward, pungent aromas of pineapple, green bean and chopped cilantro. A big wine with attitude, the palate is huge, dense and layered, offering basil, mint, grapefruit citrus and anise flavors, crisp acidity and a long finish. Too intense for many, but what a Sauvignon statement. (290 cases)
1998 Meador Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Block 3, Monterey ($25)
Fruity, pear-melon scents plus a hint of lees and honey,along with citrus highlights. Round, juicy and fleshy with
similar fruit flavors enhanced by subtle grassy notes and a hintof honey in the finish. (313 cases)
1999 Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc, Reserve, Sonoma County ($18)
Probably evaluated too early, this reserve Fumé needs moretime to tame the intense green olive and pickling spice aspectsof the wine. Like opening a jar of olives, with just a hint ofcitrus, honey and spice swirling underneath. Should be betterwith a few months more in the bottle. (3,500 cases)
1999 Davis Bynum Fumé Blanc, Shone Farm, Russian River Valley ($15)
Very vegetal nose, almost skunky or chemical. Thin, wateryand unpleasant on the palate with adequate acidity, but too muchvegetal character and a raw-potato-like finish. (857 cases)
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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.