For the last 20 years, California sauvignon blanc has been mostly stuck in a rut. No matter how many sauvignon lovers prayed for a leap in quality, none came. Until now. The emergence of “Super Sauvignons” (as I call them), is one of the most dynamic trends happening in California (mostly Napa) wine country.
I think the movement to radically better sauvignon blanc started around 2016. By 2017, there were more than 25 sauvignon blancs that cost more than $50 a bottle in Napa Valley alone. Today, that number is even higher.
Of course, price doesn’t always track perfectly with quality, but I think this situation is a bit different. Sauvignon blanc (more than chardonnay) is made in the vineyard. And because it’s a high vigor variety, it’s also expensive and time consuming to farm. When the supposed “top” sauvignon blancs cost $19 a bottle, you can bet the farming was something along the lines of benign neglect. And those sauvignons weren’t exactly grown in top sites, either.
But higher prices have meant a revolution in where sauvignon blanc is planted, how the variety is cared for in the vineyard, and how the wines are made. The result is a whole new class of sauvignon blancs—wines that are bright, minerally, sophisticated, and complex, often with a ravishing raciness and richness. They aren’t “green,” vegetal, or simple; in fact, from grape growing through winemaking, they have almost nothing in common with the sauvignon blancs of yesterday.
In Napa County, where sauvignon blanc is the second most planted white grape after chardonnay, plantings are up 40% since 2000. These grapes go into some of the most exciting white wines in California. (See my list of top wines below).
Besides being planted in better sites (sometimes in sites that historically would have been reserved for cabernet sauvignon) and being farmed meticulously, the Super Sauvignons are also made in a more sophisticated manner and aged far longer. Most are the result of multiple individual lots fermented and/or aged in many types of vessels—concrete eggs, used oak barrels, small stainless-steel drums, and new oak barrels—and then back blended and aged. These sauvignons also undergo a lot of lees stirring, adding richness to their textures.
Furthering their complexity, many Super Sauvignons incorporate small amounts of other varieties (notably semillon), or other color mutations (sauvignon gris), or other clonal selections. One of the best of the latter is an especially aromatic version of sauvignon blanc called sauvignon musqué, which is also now known as sauvignon blanc clone 27. (See my history of sauvignon musqué in an upcoming WineSpeed).
Why these new sauvignons are happening in Napa Valley now is a case study in the evolution of American wine culture. Maybe the speed of contemporary culture has infused us all with a passion for things vital and alive—and what is sauvignon blanc if not energetic? Or maybe, we’ve come to realize that a great sauvignon blanc’s fresh, citrusy, botanical flavors and crisp acidity are wildly flexible when it comes to pairing wine with food. Undoubtedly, of course, threads of many reasons intertwine.
In the end, I believe that all great wines are precise. Their flavors are not muddled or diffuse. Their flavors are exact and vivid—like the sound of a church bell in the mountains. For me, no domestic white wines are more precise or more inspiring than the new Super Sauvignons.
The Top Super Sauvignons
Now’s the time to give these fantastic wines a try. You can buy most of them on Vivino.com.
ADAMVS Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Napa Valley, California) $75
Creamy, rich, and dynamic with a languorous texture and vibrant pinpoints of minerality. 95 points
LAIL VINEYARDS “Georgia” Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Yountville, California) $145
Rich and luscious. A nod to the great white Bordeaux. Very long and hedonistic on the palate. 95 points
EISELE VINEYARD Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Calistoga, California) $100
Long, supple, spicy, and wildly lush with bay laurel and dry forest aromas. 95 points
RUDD “Oakville Estate” Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Mount Veeder, California) $80
Soaring with freshness, richness, and minerality. Very vivid and precise. 95 points
TURNBULL WINE CELLARS “Josephine” Sauvignon Blanc 2018 (Oakville, California) $47
See the “Wine to Know” in today’s edition of WineSpeed.
ACCENDO CELLARS Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Napa Valley, California) $52
Beautiful long swaths of creamy green notes. Fresh and pure. Gooseberry and boxwood notes. 93 points
ANIMO “Heritage” Sauvignon Blanc 2017 (Atlas Peak, California) $65
Edgy and alive with crisp sage and forest notes. Super refreshing. 93 points
ARKENSTONE VINEYARDS Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Howell Mountain, California) $95
Creamy and long with pure foresty notes. 92 points