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Blanc Check

As a summer wine--and a great value--California Sauvignon Blanc beats Chardonnay 10 times out of 10.

Summer is basically one long excuse: to slack off work, to read pulp, to loaf heroically. For me it's also the season to change my wine choice from relentlessly red to white-- specifically to California Sauvignon Blanc. It's a varietal I find myself turning to more and more, not because it's cheaper than the state's star white, Chardonnay (though that helps), but because it's better at slaking thirst, harmonizing with food and generally bringing a summer sort of immediacy to the pleasures of drinking wine.

I'm not alone in this belief. Sancerre, the famous Loire Valley white made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape, has long had admirers who've fallen for its flinty charms. And these days wine lovers have been raving about the Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, Washington State and South Africa. Meanwhile, in California, the map of distinguished Sauvignon Blanc producers continues to spread, from Napa Valley and the Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys in Sonoma County to as far north as Mendocino County.

California Sauvignon Blancs (sometimes called Fumé Blancs, a term invented by Robert Mondavi to distinguish his oak-aged Sauvignon Blancs from ones that were not) tend to be less rich and buttery than California Chardonnays, with a liberating lightness and lack of complication. They're also brighter and less mineral than Sancerres, yet with the same wonderfully refreshing acidity. Then there's the fragrance: distinctive and penetrating, more of an announcement than an aroma. Some describe it as grassy, but if so, it's grass freshly mown, the faint pull of the earth still lingering in all that green.

The following 10 Sauvignon Blancs are some of my favorites. Although they cross a wide range of styles, most are $8 to $15, but a few worth a splurge are about $20.

1998 Morgan Sauvignon Blanc ($14)
This wine is my absolute favorite in the price range. Like many French producers, Morgan adds a bit of Sémillon to its Sauvignon Blanc to lend the wine balance, then ages the wine in French barrels for eight months. The result is a sort of grapefruit meringue--simultaneously light and intense. It tastes like a wine twice its price.

1998 Chateau St. Jean La Petite Etoile Vineyard Fumé Blanc ($14)
Consistency, Emerson once said, is the hobgoblin of little wines (or something like that--no one ever challenged him, because no one really knew what a hobgoblin was). What's clear is that consistency remains the hallmark of Chateau St. Jean, and that this is a very, very good thing. Since its purchase by Beringer in 1996, St. Jean has produced reliably excellent wines, across varietal types and at reasonable prices. This Fumé Blanc, from the gorgeous 44-acre La Petite Etoile Vineyard, is delicious, almost Chardonnay-like, with unmistakable shadings of caramelized butter.

1999 Canyon Road Sauvignon Blanc ($8)
How could something this cheap (it costs less than a movie does in most cities!) be this good? Australian-born winemakers Daryl Groom and Mick Schroeter are masters at large-production wines (Groom is the guy behind the highly regarded Geyser Peak). The two of them produced this 1999 Sauvignon Blanc in an appealing, straightforward style--no barrels, no aging, but plenty of fruit, resulting in an especially bright wine. An homage, you might say, to the Cortland apple. My advice? Skip the movie.

1998 Raymond Reserve Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($11)
Raymond is better known for Cabernets and Chardonnays, but its Sauvignon Blancs (released in small quantities) are remarkably crisp and clean, with considerable complexity. There's a lot going on here, but it all ends in a peach-fest. Bring this food-loving wine to a picnic.

1999 Sterling Vineyards North Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($10)
Here is a Merlot specialist who does not neglect his Sauvignon Blanc. Winemaker Rob Hunter can pull from vineyards throughout Northern California (the grapes here hail from Mendocino as well as Napa). This Sauvignon Blanc is all about the finish, as an initial crispness gives way to strong flavors of vanilla. At just 10 bucks, a great bargain.

1998 Voss Vineyards Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($15)
Aussie Robert Hill Smith owns the highly praised Yalumba label in his native land as well as New Zealand's Nautilus winery. He also produces a full-bodied Shiraz in California, but curiously his American-style Sauvignon Blanc is what makes his winery truly shine. It has a beautiful aroma and a nice, rounded citrus feel in the mouth.

1999 Chateau Souverain Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($12)
Would it be taking a solid, versatile producer for granted to say, "Yet another nicely constructed wine from Souverain"? Maybe, but it's a compliment to steadfast winemaker Ed Killian, who balances fruit with a bit of French oak and comes up with something subtle. Even this Sauvignon Blanc's citrus flavors have a slight walnut edge.

1999 Merryvale Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($18)
You know the story: Winemaker shows up at uncelebrated vineyard, gives it a reason to be celebrated, then ditches it for someplace new. In this case, the man is Stephen Test; the old vineyard, Stonestreet; the new home, Merryvale. And if this apple-strong Sauvignon Blanc is any proof, Merryvale can start the celebration. It's a real crowd pleaser.

1999 Babcock Eleven Oaks Santa Barbara County Sauvignon Blanc ($22)
Bryan Babcock has his feet planted in California and his eyes trained on the world. He's experimented with Spanish varietals, Italian grapes and even a vampire wine (the Cuvée Lestat Syrah). Named one of the top-ten small producers in the world by the James Beard Foundation, Babcock makes a Sauvignon Blanc with a tart, racy edge that's more exotic than others.

1998 Cain Musqué Ventana Vineyard Monterey Sauvignon Blanc ($20)
If you want to splurge, this wine is worth it. Made from grapes grown on just seven acres of the Ventana Vineyard, in what its producers describe as "the gravel and sand of the Arroyo Seco," it's a wine with vibrant flavor and brilliant, mouth-watering acidity. It's the perfect white for a clambake, a beach party or just a lazy, air-conditioned day.

Jim Nelson, the assistant managing editor of GQ magazine, likes nothing more than a good glass of California Sauvignon Blanc.

Published August 2000
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