How Average is California Sauvignon Blanc?

Just how average (or below average) is California Sauvignon Blanc?

I was thinking about this today when I opened what turned out to be a really beautiful SB from Dry Creek Valley. Nice grassy component, citrus, pear, slightest hint of melon, zero wood, great backbone. I loved it.

Now there was a time when Dry Creek Valley in Northern Sonoma was considered a great place to plant Sauvignon Blanc. But you don’t hear that much anymore. In fact, it seems that Lake County is the only place really trying to make a reputation on the grape.

But I got curious. How are California’s SB’s ranked and rated? Wine Spectator has a very searchable database of scores. So I went there. I wanted to know what percent of CA Sauvignon Blancs scored 90 points or above and what percent scored less than 80 points.

I was kind of shocked. The percentage of California SBs over 90 points seemed very low. So I started looking at the percentage of SBs from a couple different CA appellations that scored 90 points or above. Then I started looking at non-California SBs that scored 90 or above. Then I started looking at all white wines reviewed and all red wines reviewed and all wines in the Wine Spectator database that were scored 90 points or above. In every case I stuck to the 2005-2007 vintages.

It doesn’t look to me like the Wine Spectator is very impressed with CA Sauvignon Blancs. In fact, it doesn’t look to me like the Wine Spectator magazine is too impressed with the Sauvignon Blanc grape in general. It turns out that no varietally labeled Sauvignon Blanc produced anywhere in the world from the 2005-2007 received more than 93 points from the Wine Spectator. And there were only 4 such wines out of the 1,121 that were reviewed.

Of all Sauvignon Blancs rated by the Wine Spectator from these three vintages only 9% received 90 Points or above.

In the August 31 issue of the Wine Spectator there was an article on California Sauvignon Blanc. I went to it to figure out what the magazine thought good California Sauvignon Blanc tasted like:

"The best examples are crisp and refreshing, with a fragrant profile and juicy fruit flavors."

I can’t argue with this description of what the best California Sauvignon Blancs should taste like. You can’t argue taste. But there’s no question that The Wine Spectator finds Sauvignon Blanc in general lacking compared to all other white wines and California Sauvignon Blanc in particular to be lacking by comparison to all other wines.

Interestingly, if you look at reviews of Sauvignon Blanc from The Wine Enthusiast from the same vintages we see a kinder appreciation for the varietal. 18% of California Sauvignon Blancs receive 90 points or better.


10 Responses

  1. dhonig - September 5, 2008

    Wine Spectator is far too fond of New Zealand cat pee, I mean “gooseberry,” and grapefruit.

  2. Tom Wark - September 5, 2008

    Wouldn’t it be interesting if you could search the major reviewing publications by key words, like “Tropical”, “Grassy” or “Unctuous”.

  3. jbh - September 5, 2008

    Decanter (the Brit WS, if you will) trashed California Sauvignon Blanc in a June 2008 tasting report. It’s definitely on the outs with the mainstream wine press. The implication, of course, is that California’s best efforts are unworthy of rinsing the Sauvignon Blanc fermentation tanks in Bordeaux or the Central Vineyards.
    But as a stalwart Sancerre lover who’s also been thrilled by recent $18-$30 releases from Groth, Cakebread, Provenance, and Duckhorn, I’ll go corkscrew to corkscrew with anyone over the fact that it generally costs more to get a delicious SB from the Loire (and certainly Bordeaux) than it does to get one from California. New Zealand probably has the best price:quality ratio, and media coverage of it has been more or less fair.
    Subjective conclusion? Reviews and articles belittling American wines practically write themselves. Let them eat cake with $700 Haut-Brion Blanc.

  4. Jack - September 5, 2008

    Not shocked.
    Then again, you left out Northern Italy and Southern Austria. Oh, and the Loire.
    I now drink more Northern Italian (and Slovenian) SBs than the rest of the world combined. Hmmm.

  5. Arthur - September 6, 2008

    2005-2007 produced leaner and less over-the-top whites in CA in large part because these were longer, cooler and (in some cases) wetter years. That brought these wines closer in style to those wines of the same grape from other regions of the world.
    In a few cases, especially in 2005 and to some extent in 2006, winemakers didn’t “get it” about the vintage’s weather and let their grapes hang to long resulting in bitter, over-ripe white wines.
    So if most of the 2005-2007 SB were divergent in style from the typical California style, then I am not surprised or bothered that WS critics may have rated these wines lower (because they rate based on power, impact and extraction rather than on fidelity to varietal character). In the cases of the wines made from grapes that hung too long: you can’t score those wines high, no matter what criteria or rating paradigm you use.

  6. Arthur - September 6, 2008

    In talking to some other wine writers, I have noted in the last year (or maybe 2) a trend in the WS to give lower scores overall. With this has come the more frequent use of the word “raisin” or “raisiny”. Those wines with that word in the description seem to get lower scores as well.
    Just one guy’s observation.

  7. Dylan - September 7, 2008

    Could certain varietals be considered more “in-style” than others? Does anyone here think reviews could ever be impacted by a wine varietal losing its popularity in the mainstream?

  8. Steve Heimoff - September 8, 2008

    Tom, I may be kinder to California Sauvignon Blanc than my friends at Wine Spectator, but I will agree (as I’ve written many times) that too many examples are sweet and simple. As I posted today on my blog at Wine Enthusiast’s Unreserved, I wish more California winemakers would treat SB more seriously, instead of an afterthought.

  9. Morton Leslie - September 8, 2008

    A wine that is “Nice grassy component, citrus, pear, slightest hint of melon, zero wood, great backbone” is a $15 wine. Now if you add cat piss to that description it might be worth $25.
    When I was a student taking Maynard Amerine’s Enology 126 he made the statement that the best white wines produced in California were Sauvignon blanc by a wide margin. It actually was true. Somewhere between then and now most winemakers gave up. They planted Cab, Merlot and the other three B.reds on the best soils and put SB on the heavy deep stuff because it ripens early, color isn’t an issue, and the white wine drinker wanted Chardonnay, SB was an afterthought. They put it on wide spacing with a double canopy and roped on the crop. When they found that these could be a little “weedy”, they cooled down the fermentation, cleaned up the juice, 100% stainless ageing, bottled after a couple months of age with a generous dose of sulfite. Down Under Style.
    The exceptions are Selene, Spottswood, and Spring Mountain, but for the most part we don’t try to make something great like Haut Brion Blanc is made. If we did we’d plant it meter by meter on warm, stressful soils in coolest locations and crop it at two tons. We’d pick it ripe and barrel ferment it in well seasoned barrels, and given the great acidity and structure from actually growing it where it will do well, we could age it nearly a year sur lie. Yes, I said a year and let it develop some character and show its terroir beyond simple, fruity fermentation bouquet. In a few lucky locations we would have something that equals or maybe exceeds Haut Brion Blanc.
    The people making and consumers who tolerate the cat pee so popular today, hold back anyone wanting to do something special. The variety has been so badly maligned that you can’t get more than $25 for it.

  10. Emily - September 9, 2008

    I was intrigued by the mention of Lake County really trying to make a eputation on the grape; but no stats on Lake County SB ratings?

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