Leaning White: Santa Barbara Sauvignon Blanc Making a Splash

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on September 13, 2012) 

I blame the heat of summer.  Or rather, I credit it. Because it turns out that we’ve enjoyed more white wine in the last few months than any other summer season, and it had all to do with how warm it’s been.

Truth be told, we enjoy white wine regularly at home.  But there’s no denying we buy red most often. It’s what my wife prefers, and since I am an equally opportunity imbiber, I follow her lead.  Red wine does, in fact, get more points from serious wine drinkers for its depth, complexity and uncanny ability to age well.  Although it’s interesting to note that chardonnay remains the most popular wine in the U.S.

But as the mercury soared this summer, depth and complexity and age seemed to matter less.  Not to underestimate the intricacy of many white wines in the marketplace, but we were now looking for wines that quenched our thirst, that we could quaff with a bit less thought and that better matched the lighter, fresher, outdoors-inspired foods on our plates.  And whites fit the bill deliciously.

And, in particular, sauvignon blanc.  I’ve always been a fan of Santa Barbara County sauv blanc, of course; hard not to be when one of the first local winemakers I met and befriended, some 15 years ago, was Fred Brander.  An undisputed pioneer of this green-skinned Bordeaux white wine, he’s been crafting it in his Los Olivos winery for decades.  “My first one was in 1977,” he told me at this past weekend’s Taste of the Town event in Santa Barbara, which raised thousands for the Arthritis Foundation.  The afternoon rays, which kicked temperatures into the 80s along the foothills, had him and assistant winemaker Fabian Bravo pouring from bottle after chilled bottle of sauvignon blanc for hours. 

But this summer, it’s become clear that Brander is in good company.  There is a plethora of really good sauvignon blanc being produced in Santa Barbara County these days – some 600 acres of it are planted throughout the county and more than a third of the 107 members of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association make it.  This grape likes heat, so it thrives in areas like Los Olivos, Santa Ynez and Happy Canyon.  And most of all of it is crisp, clean, fresh, bright and delicious, making any of them a quintessential sipper and a fine match for a wide range of foods, from fruits and cheeses to sushi and chicken off the grill. 
Here are six sauvignon blanc wines from our region that our household discovered – or rediscovered – with rampant delight this summer.

Brander Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2011
Again, not a new wine for us, but the wine we bought more than any other this summer.  The 2011 offering marks Brander’s 35th sauvignon blanc vintage.  Outstanding.  It features fruit from Brander’s own estate off Refugio Road combined with grapes from neighboring Los Olivos vineyards. Classically clean, deliciously dry, and a generous floral aroma.  This wine leads the pack of some seven distinct sauvignon blancs that Brander is now making every vintage, and it’s a wonderful value.  $15.

Star Lane Sauvignon Blanc 2010
What a great find!  This is a beautiful wine, elegantly crafted to offer a fair share of complexity – it’s got a subtly creamy mouth feel and an intricate, concentrated flavor profile replete with citrus and green apple notes – balanced with lip smacking minerality.  Sourced in the heat-friendly Happy Canyon area, it was fermented mostly in small stainless steel containers, with about 10% of it aged in French oak barrels.  Kudos to winemaker Andy Alba and label proprietor Jim Dierberg.  $22.

Gainey Sauvignon Blanc 2011
This delicious wine was just released into the marketplace by John Falcone, the new director of winemaking at Gainey (after about a decade of award-winning winemaking at Rusack Vineyards).  Its fruit comes mostly from the Gaineys’ home ranch in Santa Ynez, off Highway 246, and it delivers fantastic acidity.  There’s a wonderful hint of creamy vanilla on the palate, but what really stand out are the delectable, refreshing notes of grapefruit, lime and even honeydew.  $14.

Presqu’ile Santa Maria Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2011
This current release by winemaker Dieter Cronje marks the first sauvignon blanc made with the brand new estate fruit from the Presqu’ile Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, making it one of the” youngest” sauv blancs out there.  The 50-50 fruit combo also features grapes from nearby Riverbench Vineyard.  Here, vine youth tastes great, with bright grapefruit, clean grassiness and a soft suppleness in the mouth; there’s also a restrained herbal character that’s nicely tamed by vivid acidity.  $22.

Margerum Sybarite Sauvignon Blanc 2011
We enjoyed a couple glasses of this wine at dinner a few nights ago, at the about-to-be-revamped Coast Restaurant inside the Canary Hotel; word is, it’s one of the best performing wines-by-the-glass on their list.   Winemaker Doug Margerum has achieved something great here, with a wine that is quenching and a wine that offers a clean texture, balanced flavors and a lengthy finish.  This wine represents four celebrated vineyards: McGinley, Grassini, Curtis and Three Creek.  $21.

Deep Sea Sauvignon Blanc 2008
This may be the most unique sauvignon blanc of this roundup, both for the fact that it’s held up remarkable well for its age, and for its special flavor profile.  It exhibits some classic sauv blanc crispness, but a unique herbal, if not jalapeno, quality is almost impossible to miss here.  It makes it an interesting rendition of this wine, and it may lend the wine a unique food-friendliness.  I’ve been told the winery’s Stearns Wharf tasting room is nearly sold out of this one.  $22.

I should also mention Ernst Storm, the winemaker at Curtis Winery.  With his own eponymous label, Storm Wines, he’s easily a rising star in the production of local sauvignon blanc, with a very limited yearly production that focuses on lower alcohols and focused representation of its source fruit.  The 2011 sauvignon blanc on the Storm Wines label (priced at $22) is just out – it’s a blend of four Santa Ynez Valley Vineyards – and it’s now at the very top of my own wine shopping list.

Gabe Saglie enjoys sauvignon blanc out of a fancy glass, but on especially hot days, he has enjoyed a few just as well out of a Dixie cup.  He’s also senior editor for www.travelzoo.com.  You can reach him at gabesaglie@yahoo.com.

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