Berger on wine: The diverse charms of sauvignon blanc

One of the most popular white wines in America these days is sauvignon blanc, made from a grape variety that had such little support in the 1960s that Robert Mondavi changed its name.

Shortly after founding his winery in 1966, Mondavi realized that there was resistance to sauvignon blanc, which he so adored. So he changed the name of his wine to fumé blanc, a sort of homage to Blanc Fumé de Pouilly, a term now used by one of the finest producers of sauvignon blanc in France’s Loire Valley.

In fact, it was the Loire to which Mondavi was referring when he renamed his sauvignon blanc, and his wine did in fact pay respect to the style of wine that gave that French region its greatest image.

Sauvignon blanc’s history is filled with many such side roads, mistakes, and odd notes, enough to fill a book. And bringing in modern-day tales would add much to its persona.

Space prohibits me from going into the varietal’s checkered history in California, but after a long period during which sauvignon blanc languished on store shelves with extremely poor sales results, the variety made a startling splash in the market as a result of a completely unlikely wine.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that sauvignon blanc saw renewed interest by consumers as a result of an aberrational style of wine that gained traction with sophisticated buyers. Credit New Zealand with the explosion of sauvignon blanc interest, along with the curiosity of many restaurant wine buyers and adventurous retail clerks.

The “cat pee” and gooseberry aromas that were seen in most New Zealand sauvignon blancs were so exotic that they piqued the interest of people who had never before experienced such a thing.

By the early 1990s, sauvignon blanc’s fortunes were on an upward trajectory, and those who could emulate the New Zealand style, because they were situated in regions cool enough, suddenly found they had a wine intriguing enough to sell.

Sauvignon blanc continues to grow well in many areas of the world and make a classic wine, based upon new and creative models that increasingly appeal to adventurous millennial wine buyers.

When the variety grows in a warmer climate, it can be far too bland and uninteresting for lovers of this grape. But from cooler areas, the natural herbal/olive/green tea aroma notes can either stand on their own, or combine with more tropical fruit scents to make for a fascinating accompaniment to delicate seafood dishes.

Curiously enough, cabernet-rich Napa Valley has one of the state’s best climates for sauvignon blanc even though it is relatively warm. But when sauvignon blanc is harvested early enough, it can make a surprisingly complete wine, one that can even be aged briefly in oak barrels.

That is not, however, the tactic taken for the last several years by Michael Lancaster, winemaker for Voss Vineyards, whose 2016 Sauvignon Blanc ($20) is about as stylish a wine as you can find. Exotic in its aroma and low in alcohol (11.5 percent), the wine is lean and tart and a dramatic wine to serve with halibut or sturgeon.

More effusive and tropical is the 2016 Hanna Sauvignon Blanc from Russian River Valley ($19), about as perfect an evocation of cooler climate sauvignon blanc wine-growing as you can find. Winemaker Jeff Hinchiffe also doesn’t use any oak for his wildly appealing sauvignon blanc, a perennial winner on the wine competition circuit.

Similar to the Hanna but even more classic is Dan Barwick’s 2016 Paradise Ridge Sauvignon Blanc ($26), which has even more Russian River character and is totally dry, so slightly more Loire-ish.

There are literally dozens more superb sauvignon blancs available in the marketplace, including those from Dry Creek Vineyard (a classic evocation of the varietal from Sonoma County); Tangent (Edna Valley); St. Supery Napa Valley; and even a handful from Monterey County.

Wine of the Week: 2015 Cadaretta SBS, Columbia Valley ($23): Here the sauvignon blanc is enhanced by 20 percent semillon, which broadens the mid-palate and gives the wine a trace of lanolin in the aroma. A gorgeous dry wine that seeks savory seafoods.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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