Your Guide to Napa Valley’s Best Sauvignon Blancs

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

I have a thing for Napa’s Sauvignon Blancs.  So I was thrilled to be a part of a group of wine writers that had the opportunity to explore the best of Napa’s golden grape. The tasting was held at the historic Charles Krug Winery with the winemakers present, giving us a real understanding of the rise of this exceptional grape varietal in Napa Valley.

Everyone knows that Cabernet is King in Napa, but what most don’t realize is that Sauvignon Blanc is the second most planted white grape varietal.  In recent years Napa has seen a new wave of world class Sauvignon Blancs.  Sauvignon Blanc is a royal grape as many French will tell you, but you don’t have to take my word for it or the French for that matter.  Robert Mondavi was the original Napa pioneer who saw the potential of this varietal in the late 1960’s.  He put Sauvignon Blanc on the map in Napa Valley.

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

In the late 1960’s, Sauvignon Blanc was out of favor and suffered from a bad reputation.  It was too sweet, too grassy and too mundane.  Robert Mondavi on the other hand had an affinity towards French style Sauvignon Blanc and wanted to bring it to Napa.  After visiting Pouilly Fumé and Bordeaux, he returned to the United States and rebranded the grape and called it Fumé Blanc.  His aspirations were to make a Sauvignon Blanc that was dry fermented and barrel aged.  His marketing skills were so creative, that it put Sauvignon Blanc on the map in Napa Valley.

Robert Mondavi is credited for the rise of Sauvignon Blanc in the United States.  He had a soft spot for Fumè Blanc, and he planted more of it amongst his best vines in To Kalon; which already had some of the oldest Sauvignon Blanc plantings going back to 1945. Robert Mondavi’s passion for the grape combined with creative marketing spurred plantings of the varietal throughout the valley. In recent years we have seen a new wave of exceptional Sauvignon Blancs on the rise.

Napa Valley’s Sauvignon Blancs have reached a new level of sophistication and complexity.  Karen McNeil has recently written, “There is an emergence of a whole new class of Sauvignon Blancs—wines that are bright, mineraly, 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 10 to 15 years ago.”

This new wave of Sauvignon Blancs are thoughtfully produced on premium sites, with great care and attention given to grape growing and the winemaking process.  This has all added to the complexity, texture and sophistication of Napa’s Sauvignon Blancs.  Some of the best Sauvignon Blancs are lush and aromatic with racy acidity.  These are  perfect summer wines.  Below are seven Sauvignon Blancs you must try this season.

Rombauer Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($24)

This is the fourth vintage of Rombauer’s Sauvignon Blanc and it is outstanding. Winemaker Luke Clayton explained how it was a wine that was a long time in the making.  Rombauer had made only one other white grape varietal(Chardonnay) for the last 38 years.  They went through painstaking research to find the right location, clones and method to produce this remarkable wine. It is fermented in 90% stainless steel with 10% neutral French oak barrels.  It is that touch of neutral French oak that give the wine depth and texture.  This  Sauvignon Blanc has tropical notes of mango and keylime with nice acidity and freshness.  It pairs well with summer salads and pastas. It is a screw cap, so it is a perfect wine to grab and go for a summer picnic.

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Charles Krug  St. Helena-Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($18)

This Sauvignon Blanc comes from the historic vineyard of Charles Krug Winery, which was founded in the 1800’s and later run by Peter Mondavi and his family.  The grapes for this wine are handpicked from their very special St. Helena Vineyards in the cool of the night.  The grapes are then fermented in stainless steel tanks which add to the aromatics of the wine.  This lovely Sauvignon Blanc is medium body with notes of lime, mango and grapefruit.  The tropical and citrus notes are pronounced.  At $18 this is an excellent wine for backyard summer soirees and pool parties.  It pairs perfectly with flatbreads and pizza.

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Girard  Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($18)

The Girard Sauvignon Blanc also comes from grapes harvested in St. Helena.  The 2016 is bright with nice aromatics.  The wine is zippy on the palate with kiwi, lime and honeydew.  It is beautifully crisp and fresh.  A wine that is sure to be a crowd pleaser.  At $18 this is another great Sauvignon Blanc for entertaining. It would be perfect to serve with cheese, dips, salads, summer vegetables, and grilled white meats.

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc To Kalon Reserve 2015 ($52)

We had the pleasure to taste this wine with Genevieve Janssens, the rockstar winemaker for Mondavi Wines.  It was wonderful to hear the story of Robert Mondavi and his dedication to Fumé Blanc from Genevieve, as she is just as passionate about Fumé Blanc.  This 2015 To Kalon Reserve is luxurious, rich, and elegant.  Genevieve said Robert Mondavi had just come back from France and he wanted to create a wine that had a sense of origin, this concept was revolutionary in Napa in 1966.  Robert Mondavi wanted to create a Fumé Blanc that was meant to be shared with family, friends and food.  He wanted to make a Fumé Blanc that had finesse and elegance.  It is a Bordeaux blend made with 94% Sauvignon Blanc and 6% Sémillon. It is 100% barrel fermented with 25% new French oak.  It is made with vines that were planted in 1960, some very old vines indeed.  It is a luxurious wine meant to be paired with food.  It pairs well with chicken, grilled shrimp, fish and rich creamy pastas.  It also complements deliciously with spicy Asian cuisine.

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Stewart Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($25)

Caroline Stewart graciously poured the wine for us.  I was particularly drawn to this Sauvignon Blanc due to it’s minerality.  The wine is fermented 50% in barrel 50% in stainless steel.  The barrel ferment adds to the wines’ acidity, texture and complexity.  A little fun fact is that Paul Hobbs is the consulting winemaker for Stewart Cellars. The wine is a great pairing with truffle pizza and summer salads.

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Gamble Heart Block Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($90)

We were introduced to this wine by Jim Close, winemaker for Gamble Family Wines.  We first had the Gamble Sauvignon Blanc 2017 which was fantastic, but the Heart Block Sauvignon Blanc stole the show.  It is unlike any other Sauvignon Blanc I have had before.  The wine swept me off my feet.  It is fermented in 45% new oak and spends 18 months in barrel.   This is a Bordeaux style wine with two different clones of Sauvignon Blanc, one from Bordeaux and one from Loire, this adds to the complexity of the wines.

The wine is exceptional on the palate with sweet notes of caramel, vanilla and marmalade, yet the wine is completely bone dry.  It is called Heart Block because it is grown in the center of the vineyard in Yountville. It also happens that the vines are absolutely in the center of Napa Valley, hence the fun name, “Heart Block”.  It has layers of flavor with a creamy mouthfeel.  This is a real collectors wine with tremendous structure.  The wine will age very well since it is barrel aged and will take on a creamy nutty characteristic over time. This Gamble Family wine is truly exceptional and a very special Sauvignon Blanc.  Heart Block must find a place in your cellar.

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($25)

Remi Cohen, General Manager and Director of Winemaking at Cliff Lede poured this wonderful Sauvignon Blanc.  This Cliff Lede wine is a leading example of this new wave of Napa Sauvignon Blancs.

Cliff Lede was in love with Bordeaux wines and in 2002 he pursued his dream to open a Bordeaux style winery in Napa Valley.  This Sauvignon Blanc is the only white wine Cliff Lede produces and is a homage to white Bordeaux wines.

The wine is blended with Semillon and old vine Muscadelle(Sauvignon Vert) from Calistoga, that add weight and minerality to the wines.  There is a small percentage of Sauvignon Verts from the cooler eastern part of Napa, in Chiles Valley.  The vines are one of the oldest vineyards in the area, planted in 1947.  The rest of the grapes are Sauvignon Blancs planted in the 1970’s and 1980’s, imparting flavors of white flower, green flower, lemon curd, honeydew and pineapple.

The wine is made primarily from a blend of grapes from old vines and then fermented in a combination of  concrete eggs, neutral french oak and stainless steel.  This blend of vessels delivers a Sauvignon Blanc that is complex and thoughtful in its approach.  This is a real special Sauvignon Blanc made in a Bordeaux style with some exceptionally old vines. It is a wine that over delivers on all fronts. At Cliff Lede, a lot of love, thought and attention is put into creating a Sauvignon Blanc that is unique and exceptional.

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

These seven Sauvignon Blancs are gamechangers and they offer a fresh unique perspective on how far the quality has come for Sauvignon Blancs in Napa Valley.  The above wines are not your typical porch pounders.  They are wines that are exceptional, well made, with a lot of thought and attention.  These are some of the best of the best of Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs.  They are fresh, vibrant, citrusy, tropical and full of racy acidity and wonderful minerality.  These are ideal wines for a hot summer night.

All of these wines are versatile and food friendly.  Some of the seasons best foods pair deliciously with these wines.  Pair it with summer salads, light pastas, flatbreads, grilled fish, white meats, shellfish, or sushi.  With a broad spectrum of style and price, there is Napa Sauvignon Blanc that is sure to please your palate.

Thank you to Fred Swan for  heading up the Wine Writers Educational Tour.  We had a tremendous opportunity to taste and explore Napa Valley in a way that I did not know, expect or realize. It was incredible four days of learning and exploring in a way that was fun and entertaining.

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