Sauvignon Blanc Showdown

It was 100 degrees in DC today. Add on the heat index and it was…hot. Like many, I’m ready to turn to a cold glass of sauvignon blanc to put out the fire. Interestingly, there’s been some argument, it seems, in the wine industry over what the United States’ – California in particular – sauvignon blanc is made of. Not literally of course. The argument is over what gives California sauvignon blanc its distinctiveness.

Photo credit: Flickr, heidi schempp fournier

Eric Asimov, the NY Times’ preeminent  wine writer, recently released an article entitled “A Stepchild Lacks Identity” (article here). In it, Asimov (Who, by the way is speaking tomorrow at the Annual Wine Bloggers’ Conference in my hometown of Charlottesville, VA. I cannot tell you how much it pains me to miss the weekend there.) argues that sauvignon blancs made throughout other parts of the world have their own niche to uphold. California has…nothing. Asimov continues,

“At least, your wine has to have some sort of identity. You want cheap yet refreshing? Try Chile. Brash and pungent? New Zealand. Old World terroir? Sancerre. And for California, that leaves … what, exactly?”

While he argues that some wines in his recent tasting of offerings from the region were “correct” and not improperly made or overly manipulated, perhaps wineries find that, “…it’s nice to have a white to serve to guests in the tasting room or at the beginning of a fancy dinner before they haul out the big boys.” So perhaps wineries are cranking out some juice to fill their portfolio.

He does point out that some wines he tasted were well made and good, but for the price they were still fairly lackluster. I was happy to see that one of my favorites, Cakebread (the 2009 vintage), received a good review.

On the flipside, I opened the Aug. 21, 2011 edition of Wine Spectator today. Page 43 gives an articles on “California’s go-to value white.” Hmmm. Wine Spectator has always been, in my opinion, more of a cheerleader for all wine, insouciantly posting happy articles to make the reader smile and buy more. Plus there’s pictures. And it’s in color.

But right in the first paragraph, the author MaryAnn Worobiec  states that California has “…built a consistent track record with a core of solid producers and perennial values…” In contrast, Asimov points out that the Spotteswood’s (who makes some phenomenal cabernet) sauvignon blanc was “a decent bottle and that the field [of wines tasted] was pretty weak.” And on top of that, Spotteswood will put a decent dent in your wallet.

Worobiec says California sauvignon blancs have “a common thread of acidity.” Asimov that, “Some of the wines seemed manipulated. Quite a few seemed to have had tartaric acid added, which is a legal method for making up for acid deficiencies but one that sometimes results in harsh or disjointed wines.”

So which is it? Consistent and reliable with good acidity? Or soulless, manipulated second-fiddles? I tend to think Asimov has a point. California has been pretty busy over the years with their cabernets, and they may have forgotten about their old standby.

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