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Awesome Sauvignon Blanc in Santa Ynez Valley

Sauvignon Blanc is not a variety widely associated with Santa Barbara County. Pinot Noir went “Sideways,” nuanced Rhone-variety wines have a 30-year history there and wine lovers in-the-know seek out Chardonnay. Nonetheless, Santa Barbara County—more specifically, Happy Canyon and Santa Ynez Valley—is easily one of California’s very best Sauvignon Blanc growing regions.

Soils and topography play roles in this, but the primary factor is climate. Daytime during growing season in Happy Canyon and Santa Ynez is very warm which eliminates pyrazines—a source of leafy and bell pepper flavors—but evening brings a massive temperature drop that preserves acidity and slows sugar production. This and the long, dry growing season allow wineries to produce many different styles of Sauvignon Blanc.

Early harvests deliver crisp, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc with some of the grassy flavors popularized by New Zealand, but without the green beans or aggressively pungent edge. Late harvests bring ripe tropical and stone fruits in full-bodied wines that still refresh. Some wineries create a broad spectrum of flavors by picking over the course of several weeks, using a mix of vessels—stainless steel, oak, acacia and concrete—and allowing only partial malolactic fermentation. Blends with Semillon are not uncommon.

This diversity in high-quality Sauvignon Blanc was borne out by a tasting conducted recently for me and Richard Jennings at Gainey Vineyard in Santa Ynez. We tasted six current releases with representatives from some of the area’s top producers: Grassini Family Vineyards, Margerum Wine Company, The Brander Vineyard, Jonata and Gainey. I present them below in the order in which we tasted them.

Six Delicious Sauvignon Blanc from Santa Ynez Valley and Happy Canyon

2012 Gainey Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Estate, Santa Ynez Valley - $11.24
This affordable Sauvignon Blanc is made solely from Gainey Home Ranch Vineyard fruit. Both free-run and press juice were cold fermented in stainless tanks, no malolactic fermentation was allowed. Winemaker Jeff Lebard says he looks to make "a multi-occasional wine with  bright, vibrant acidity and exuberant fruit" from their Sauvignon Blanc. In the 2012, tropical fruit and floral accents are the primary aromas and flavors. Lime pith and peppery spice add interest on the palate (medium+ body), as does a lightly grainy texture. An enjoyable, easy-going Sauvignon Blanc with the pricing and restraint to be a Spring/Summer house white. 13.0% alcohol. 2,300 cases produced. Drink now through 2014. Recommended

Gainey Vineyard winemaker Jeff Lebard in December, 2013.
Photo: Fred Swan

2012 Grassini Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Estate, Happy Canyon - $28
Grassini planted 15-acres Sauvignon Blanc at their Happy Canyon estate vineyard in 2002. It has rapidly become one of the most sought-after sources for that variety. For their own wine, Sauvignon Blanc Clone 1 grapes were whole-cluster pressed and the juice fermented mostly in stainless steel tanks but also some neutral oak puncheons. Aging was seven months in a combination of stainless and neutral oak as well. The wine's pretty and expressive nose shines with a core of white peach, Meyer lemon and lime accented by flint. It is reminiscent to me of some white Bordeaux though Grassiini isn't looking to be anything but true to their region. Katie Grassini told us they're "going for the Happy Canyon-style." Lightly grainy texture and lime-edged acidity frame the medium+ bodied palate. The finish is lengthy with a texture that moves to chalk. 13.5% alcohol. 530 cases produced. Drink now through 2015. Highly Recommended

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Katie Grassini is CEO, aka "Big Sis," at Grassini Family Vineyards.
Photo: Fred Swan

2012 Margerum “Sybarite” Sauvignon Blanc, Happy Canyon - $21
For this wine, Margerum took the approach of picking Clone 1 early, late and in-between from four different vineyards (50% McGinley, 20% Grassini, 15% Star Lane, 15% Curtis, the latter in Foxen Canyon) to produce a wine of charming contradictions. It’s high in both quality and volume, but low in alcohol and price. And it satisfies on the palate. The nose presents sweet lemon-lime and white flowers. They are joined in the mouth by chalky minerality. Bi-weekly batonage contributed medium+ body and light grip. 12.1% alcohol. 5,000 cases. Highly Recommended

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Jason Barrette is winemaker for Margerum and also Penfolds' Magill Estate winery. Photo: Fred Swan

2012 Brander Cuvée Nicolas - $28
This strikingly unique wine offsets Sauvignon Blanc with a 35% share of Semillon, both own-rooted and planted in 1975. The Sauvignon Blanc juice—from Clone 1 vines that yield just 1.5 tons/acre—enjoyed a full day of skin contact. The Semillon, picked at 25 brix, is full of character. Fred Brander believes his "best vintages are those with at least 20% Semillon," but that's not possible every year as the grape is thin-skinned and vulnerable to pests and bunch rot. All of the 2012 fermentation was in barrel (two-thirds new). Malolactic fermentation was prevented but the wine was softened by three months on the lees in barrel. The aromas and flavors are very savory, meaty with smoke and flint, but there’s also grilled white peach and a hint of grapefruit. The palate is nearly full-bodied with a grippy, light-grained texture and prominent, persistent acidity. The mineral-laden finish is long. 14.0% alcohol. 200 cases produced. Drink now through 2016. Very Highly Recommended
(Note: The currently released wine is still 2011, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc. I have not tasted it.)

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Fred Brander is one of the pioneers of Santa Barbara County wine and produced its first gold medal winner. Photo: Fred Swan

2012 Margerum D Sauvignon Blanc - $36
The 2012 Margerum D, a “best two vineyards blend,” is a wine of citrus blossom, vanilla, delicate white peach and pretty spice. It’s lithe and juicy in the mouth and lightly grippy. Surprisingly low in alcohol (12.3%), the body is nonetheless medium+ due to nine months aging with batonage every two weeks in 265 liter French oak barrels (60% new). Filtration was light. The blend is 50% McGinley Vineyard (Point Block 2A), 48% Grassini Vineyard and 2% Semillon from Crown Point. 12.35 alcohol. 103 cases produced. Drink now through 2015. Highly Recommended+ 

2010 Jonata Flor White Wine Santa Ynez Valley - $59.99
The decadent 2010 Jonata Flor allures with aromas and flavors of straw, just-ripe white peach, yellow and green apples and perfumed wood. It is full-bodied in the mouth with a creamy attack, textured mid-palate and luxurious finish. This estate wine includes 69% Sauvignon Blanc (Musqué clone), 29% Semillon and 2% Viognier.

According to winemaker Matt Dees, the Sauvignon Blanc just doesn't taste sufficiently ripe at low brix on Jonata's Ballard Canyon property which is farther west and cooler than the others here. Most of the grapes are picked at 24 or 25. "We don't water back or anything along those lines so our wines wind up at 15%, 15.2, we've bottled 16.4" Despite that, measured acidity is very high. Complexity is built by picking some of the blocks at as many as ten different times, yielding everything from super-acidic grapes with green flavors to honeyed, tropical notes. The grapes were squeezed in 20 batches using a gentle one-ton press and then the varieties are co-fermented in various proportions. Fermentation vessels were one-third new oak, one-third used oak and the remaining third in stainless steel. Neither malolactic fermentation nor batonage took place. 15.2% alcohol. Less than 250 cases were produced. Drink now through 2015. Very Highly Recommended

Matt Dees, winemaker for Jonata and Goodland Wines.
Photo: Fred Swan

Star Lane Vineyard
Star Lane Vineyard didn’t participate in this tasting but, later in the day, Richard and I ambled through the expansive cellars of their winery, tasting from tanks and barrels with Tyler Thomas, Star Lane’s new winemaker, formerly with Donelan Family, HdV and Fiddlehead. The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc in both wood and stainless, tasted fabulous. I was particularly taken by the wine in barrel, lively and perfumed with a core of white peach. That, along with the crisp, green-fruited wine in tank, provides a broad spectrum of tasty options for the final blend.


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