PENNILESS EPICURE: The Disappointing Trend of California Sauvignon Blanc Continues

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I walked in to the first of many upcoming portfolio tastings for fall 2011 with some excitement and a good bit of trepidation. These are daunting tasks that, while they may sound amazing from an outsider's point of view, in reality are challenges of endurance.

Those who follow my column may have read my coverage of the annual (and in some cases semiannual) portfolio tastings for Penniless Epicure before. If you haven't, basically what happens is that every major distributor in New York City rents a large space, invites wine industry professionals, sets up several hundred tables and opens a couple of bottles of every single wine they sell. You're given a book with a list of the wines and a pat on the back for good luck.

I'll focus several columns on the tastings I have been to (and continue to go to) and let you know some of the trends I'm observing along the way. This week, I am weary to report, finds us discussing a wine trend I couldn't escape no matter where I turned: California Sauvignon blanc.

It's not like Cali Sauv blanc is some new, up-and-coming idea; it just seems like there is so much more of it this year than any other year I've attended these tastings-and that's really saying something.

Unfortunately, I have little positive to say about the offerings, by and large. It seems odd to me that this grape from this area is still so popular. While there are a handful of really well-made Sauvignon blancs from California, I've come across few with the focus and intensity of the Marlborough-area wines and almost none with the restraint and grace of the Loire Valley wines.

More often than not, the Sauvignon blancs I've tasted from the Napa Valley area have been very much like the Elizabeth Rose Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($16 at Yorkshire Wines and Spirits, 1646 1st Ave. at 85th St., 212-717-5100). The promising scents of honey-dipped peach and smoky orange wafted out of the glass. Unfortunately, none of those interesting characteristics carried over onto the palate. The acidity was nowhere to be found. Flat, cardboard cut-out fruit up front with a disjointed, white pepper mid-palate and a strange, acrid finish. A surprisingly unpleasant experience.

At least the Elizabeth Rose had something going on in the olfactory department. The Ghost Block Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley 2009 ($29 at Le Dû's Wines, 600 Washington St., betw. Leroy and Morton Sts., 212-924-6999) had literally no scent. After one sip, I could begin to divine what they were attempting. A vague stab at a bad carbon copy of a New Zealand-style Sauv blanc came through blandly, with fat and flat notes of canned asparagus up front and lawn mower clippings in the middle. The finish was all bitter herbs with no fruit to balance it out. I was able to try the newer 2010 vintage which will be available soon, and I am sorry to say that it is not much better.

Neither was the Flora Springs Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($23.99 at Beacon Wines and Spirits, 2120 Broadway at 74th St., 212-877-0028). While less aggressive than the Ghost Block, it was certainly nothing to write home about. A slightly floral scent led to a timid citrus flavor profile that ended with a watered-down, lemonade-y finish.

The best Cali Sauvignon blanc of the bunch, however, is probably one of the best Sauvignon blancs I've had so far this year, period. The Groth Vineyards Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2010 ($18.99 at Sherry-Lehman Wine and Spirits, 505 Park Ave. at 59th St., 212-838-7500) was everything a Sauv blanc that spent time in oak should be. Even though the casks in which this wine ages are inert (all at least 4 years old), the wine still has hints of vanilla bean on the nose, along with the rich scent of fresh-baked peach cobbler. The flavor profile is luxurious and super round thanks to the wine aging on its lees, the spent yeast cells that convert the sugars to alcohol. This gives it a soft texture but doesn't rob the wine of its acidity. It's like biting into a fresh apricot.

Next week, the tastings continue!

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