Dried and/or fresh herbs mark the aroma of a well-made sauvignon blanc, which was precisely the reason the grape variety seemed to be so daunting to many people almost exactly 50 years ago when Robert Mondavi began selling his first such wine, from the 1966 harvest.
Sauvignon blanc long had been considered one of the world’s most notable wine grape varieties, and the wine it made was a noble addition to the dining table. But from his experience, Mondavi knew that selling a wine with that name wouldn’t be easy.
So he changed the name to Fumé Blanc, borrowing the name of a famous French (Loire Valley) district wine, Blanc Fumé, and set out to educate consumers about the exceptional qualities this grape could offer.
The Mondavi style, as well as the name, began to catch on. Dave Stare of Dry Creek Vineyards in Sonoma County adopted the Mondavi name in the early 1970s for its sauvignon blanc, and later so did Ferrari-Carano, Grgich Hills, Chateau St. Jean and others.
The herbal notes of the variety pervaded many such wines of that era. Some wine lovers, notably chardonnay fanciers, didn’t like or, more likely, understand the green, herbal aromas.
Still, St. Jean’s distinctive La Petite Etoile, from the cool Russian River Valley, long has displayed lemongrass and green tea aromas. In the early 1980s, the wine was even greener (and more olive-y) than it is today. It developed a loyal following, and it remains a part of the St. Jean portfolio.
The strongly herbal style of the variety once was considered a “love or hate” sort of thing and hearkens back to a time in the mid-1980s when cold-climate or windy California locales made such aberrant styles of sauvignon blanc that the wines were likened to having the aroma of canned green beans or asparagus.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Monterey County was considered the wrong place to grow sauvignon blanc because of its strong vegetal assertiveness, a trait that in the last decade has become a lot better understood by consumers.
Indeed, even wines like Cabernet Sauvignon grown in cooler climes were said to have “the veggies.” It was a disrespectful term, and even was applied (inappropriately) to some perfectly acceptable cabs that had a mere trace of the variety’s “wild sage” aroma.
The herbal charms of sauvignon blanc first gained acceptance here as a result of a truly challenging style first seen in this country in the late 1990s when the first sauvignon blancs from New Zealand arrived.
These were relatively herbaceous wines, but nevertheless showed a lot of charm. As with 50 years ago, the first New Zealand efforts seen here were initially considered to be aberrations — oddities that only adventuresome wine lovers could possibly understand.
Once the shock wore off, the New Zealand style of wine featuring the aromas of passion fruit, gooseberry, lime, and even a trace of kiwi became a fascination for those seeking alternative flavors.
Sauvignon blanc also is one of the components of White Bordeaux wines, and a few of these are entirely composed of that grape. But most have semillon as the primary component, so they have that grape’s main aromas — figs, lanolin and ripe melon.
The original classic sauvignon wines from France’s Loire Valley (such as Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre) usually display mere traces of the herbs, and usually have more minerality in both aroma and mid-palate.
Such wines are usually so dry that they cry out to be served with food. By contrast, most New Zealand sauvignon blancs being sold here are made with traces of residual sugar to ameliorate the acidity. As such they are fabulous for patio sipping and less likely dinner companions.
Napa Valley continues to grow exceptionally fine sauvignon blanc, but unlike the more classic versions, many of the more expensive sauvignon blancs don’t display much of the varietal’s endemic aromas or flavors.
Indeed, several of the most expensive Napa sauvignon blancs are aged in new barrels, which alters the wine in ways that do not seem particularly food friendly.
Sauvignon blanc today is one of the country’s most popular white wines and is extremely popular with restaurant servers. Because it is so engaging, people who order a glass of it before dinner often order a second, servers have told me.
More than a decade ago, I chatted with several wine service people in upscale restaurants and learned that this did not occur as often with chardonnay.
“Most Chardonnay buyers start out the evening with a glass, and they nurse it through the first course of the meal,” said one server, adding that diners who start out with sauvignon blanc finish their first glass, and many order a second.
“Think of what that does for the check total,” he said with a wink.
The major problem with sauvignon blanc is that it is so popular that hundreds if not thousands of acres of it are now planted in areas where it doesn’t yield a distinctive wine. Warm regions are notorious for making sauvignon blanc with little or no varietal character. Such wines are bland to the point of being boring and give the grape a bad name.
Wine of the Week: 2016 Dry Creek Fumé Blanc, Sonoma County ($15) — The classic “Dry Creek style” (hay and olive) is barely evident since not all of the fruit is from the same place where the first Dry Creek Fumé came from 45 years ago. The aroma shows lemon/lime, grapefruit and kiwi with a trace of grassy spice. Rather soft mid-palate, but works brilliantly with spicy Thai food. Excellent value.
Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.