On a recent Friday afternoon, I committed the wine critic's cardinal sin.
A good acquaintance stopped by for recommendations on wines for a dinner party the following evening. The menu was both varied and spicy, with a good deal of fresh herb seasonings and grilled dishes, mostly seafood and light meat. It sounded delightful, and I quickly reeled off a list of five white wines that I was sure would harmonize well.
California sauvignon blanc seemed perfect, and I listed four of the best along with one crisply styled chardonnay for my friend to choose among. I also jotted down brief tasting notes for each wine. In return, I asked only for a report on which wines were bought and how they went the meal.
Monday morning, the report came in. The chardonnay was superb he said, a real hit with his guests. And the sauvignon blancs, I asked? Well, he explained, he hadn't bought all of them. In fact, he admitted, he hadn't bought any. He had come home with five bottles of the chardonnay instead.
I was dumbfounded. But then I thought about my tasting notes. The chardonnay was described as "fruity," "appley," and "spicy." The sauvignon blancs were "grassy," "herbaceous," and "flinty," and in one case, I'm ashamed to say, "weedy." To a sauvignon blanc aficionado, steeped in the private language of wine critics, such words would surely have provided a strong "buy" recommendation. To my friend, they must have sounded like a prescription to call Lawn Doctor.
To appreciate sauvignon blanc, one has to get past the words and try the wines. Regardless of the adjectives, these are fine wines, which beg to be considered along with the currently more popular chardonnays.
And please note the following:
Sauvignon blanc and fume' blanc are different names for the same wine. Both are made from the sauvignon blanc grape, often blended with some se'millon to round out the taste.
Wineries that claim to be aiming at a loire-style wine (e.g., a sancerre) will tend to use the term fume' blanc. Those claiming to make a bordeaux style will usually use the name sauvignon blanc. Ignore the names.
Dollar for dollar, it's hard to beat sauvignon blanc in the present market. Two years ago chardonnay was king. Steady increases in costs per ton of good chardonnay fruit have taken their toll. The hardest hit have been the ne'gociant labels (e.g. Glen Ellen, Domaine St. George, among others), which relied on a temporary wine surplus for their quality. It is in the $5-$8 range of the "miracle chardonnays" that the sauvignon blancs shine, delivering much more flavor per ounce than the increasingly bland chardonnays.
Sauvignon blanc's range of matching with foods overlaps about 80 percent of chardonnay's range. At the rich, cream-sauce end of the matching scale, the buttery elements of chardonnay do tend to work better. Elsewhere, feel free to substitute. Sauvignon blanc tends to be crisper, with more cut and lift than chardonnay. That adds versatility, because the crispness allows you to use the wine for pre-dinner quaffing, and then carry the bottle to the table to complement the meal.
The following California sauvignon blancs rank among the best of the current crop. District retailers may order from the wholesaler in brackets. Maryland and Virginia wholesale distribution may differ. Prices are approximate. Listed in order of quality within groups.
Lower-Priced Sauvignon/Fume' Blanc Mariposa 1986 Sauvignon Blanc (Lake County; $5-$6): Show me a chardonnay that delivers anything near the excitement of this wine for $6 or less. Tremendous fruit, big appley, floral bouquet, and loads of exuberant flavor. Much clever winemaking here. (DOPS/Quality Beverage in D.C.)
Parducci 1986 Sauvignon Blanc (Mendocino; $6): Another fine Parducci bottling, lively, fresh fruit, lush and stylish. Perfect aperitif style, but with the intensity to hold up to the main course. (Kronheim)
Mountain View 1986 Sauvignon Blanc (Mendocino; $5): Am I the suspicious type, or is the extraordinary similarity between this wine and its fellow Mendocino-ite Parducci, above, more than a coincidence. In any event, this one has all the sauvignon fruit one could want, plus, it sports a pretty picture on the label. (DOPS/Quality Beverage in D.C.)
R.H. Phillips 1984 Sauvignon Blanc (Yolo; $4.50-$5): If you've enjoyed this winery's excellent Night Harvest white, this premium bottling will impress you even more with its opulent, forward fruit and admirable richness. (Beitzell)
Canterbury 1986 Sauvignon Blanc ($4.50-$5): Pleasing, light quaffing style of sauvignon blanc, quite well-made. This is a second label of the excellent Stratford Winery sauvignon blanc line. (International)
Fetzer 1986 "Valley Oaks" Fume' Blanc ($6): Smooth, easy drinking sauvignon blanc. (Kronheim) Medium And Higher-Priced Sauvignon/Fume' Blanc Hanna 1986 Sauvignon Blanc (Sonoma County $9): Gobs of opulent fruit on the palate, sweet, spicy bouquet, open, friendly style of wine seasoned with a touch of oak. A relatively undiscovered winery, but this example delivers much pleasure. (DOPS/Quality Beverage in D.C.)
Silverado 1986 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa; $9-$10): As good as the Hanna, but so different in style. Much more structured, excellent length, and abundant, well knit fruit poised to burst out. Great drinking now, promises to improve. (Forman)
Matanzas Creek 1985 Sauvignon Blanc (Sonoma County; $12): Fresh bouquet redolent of apples and spring flowers. Lush, plentiful fruit with plenty of zip. Enjoy by itself, and keep some around for the main course. (Exclusive at MacArthur Liquors in D.C.; Virginia and Maryland availability may differ.)
Frog's Leap 1986 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa; $10): If you're not sure why the fruit of this wine seems to jump out of the glass, look at the label. Refreshingly delicate aperitif style sauvignon blanc with clean, well defined fruit. To show at its best, don't overchill. (International)
Caymus 1986 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa; $8): Better known for its stunning cabernets, Caymus has produced this juicy flavored sauvignon blanc, with a healthy (perhaps a bit too healthy for some) dose of oak. (Vintage)
Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc 1985 (Napa; $13): Understated style that aims at refinement and achieves it. Very well-made, don't serve too cold or you'll risk masking the subtle flavors. Perfect with light, delicate fish. (Forman)
Preston 1986 Cuve'e de Fume' (Dry Creek; $7): Appealing, straightforward apple and pear fruit; fresh, herbal bouquet. I prefer this to Preston's pricier reserve bottling. Excellent value. (DOPS/Quality Beverage in D.C.)
Sterling 1985 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa; $9): Sterling is one of the most consistent producers of sauvignon blanc, and its 1985 is another success. Very clean, fresh herb and garden bouquet, and smooth, clean well-concentrated fruit. (Washington Wholesale)
Lyeth 1984 White Table Wine (Alexander Valley; $12): Very bordeaux-like owing to a high percentage of se'millon, a rich, soft refined wine, at its peak. (Beitzell)
The following wines were also tasted. Those marked by an asterisk (*) were above average quality in their price range. Listed alphabetically:
*Altimira 1985 Sauvignon Blanc ($5); Amador Foothill 1986 Fume' Blanc ($8); *Arbor Crest 1986 (Washington state, $8.50); Barnard Griffen 1985 (Washington state, $10); *Beaulieu 1985 Sauvignon Blanc ($7); Beringer 1985 Fume' Blanc ($6.50); Carmenet 1984 ($9); Cha~teau St. Jean "Le Petit Etoile" 1985 ($12); Clos du Bois Proprietor's Reserve 1985 ($12); *Clos du Val 1985 ($8); Clos Pegase 1984 ($7.50); *Dry Creek 1986 Fume' Blanc ($9); De Loach 1984 ($8.50); Fall Creek 1986 (Texas, $9); *Flora Springs 1985 ($10); *Grand Cru 1985 ($9); Grgich 1985 Fume' Blanc ($10); *Groth 1985 Napa Valley ($7.50); Hogue Cellars 1986 Fume' Blanc (Washington State, $7.50); Louis Honig 1985 Napa Valley ($8.49); *Kalin Cellars 1984 "Potter Valley" ($12); *Kendall-Jackson 1985 "Clear Lake" ($7.50); Lakespring 1985 ($8); *Liberty School 1986 ($7.50); *Long Vineyards 1984 ($10-$12); Meridian 1985 ($7); *Robert Mondavi 1985 Fume' Blanc ($9); Murphy-Goode 1986 Fume' Blanc ($7.50); *Mayacamas 1985 ($12-13); Pedroncelli 1986 Fume' Blanc ($5.50); Robert Pepi 1984 Napa Valley ($7.50; note: wait for the excellent '85 Pepi); *Joseph Phelps 1986 "Napa Valley" Sauvignon Blanc ($10); *Preston 1985 Reserve ($9); *Simi 1984 ($11); Souverain 1985 Reserve ($9); Stonegate 1985 ($9); Ivan Tamas 1985 ($7).
Wine Briefs We may soon have to vacuum our wines. A new product called VacuVin ($14), consisting of a rubber stopper and a pump that creates a vacuum inside the bottle, is claimed to keep open bottles of wine fresh for longer by keeping the wine away from its deadliest enemy, air.
As a test, the manufacturer suggests putting apple slices in a bottle, sealing it up, and seeing if the apple slices turn brown at the edges. I did just that, and the device passed with flying colors. As for wines, so far I'm very pleased with what I've seen. I'm now running a long term trial, and if the good results continue, I may discard my cherished rubber band and Saran wrap for a VacuVin. And no matter what the result, I already know I've found a great way to store sliced apples.