Wine 101: What’s behind the surge in sauvignon blanc?
Sauvignon blanc is the poster child of success right now in the California wine industry.
In 2022, it saw an uptick in sales and plantings while nearly every other major varietal lost ground, according to the 2023 State of the Wine Industry Report.
With my Wine 101 column, I share what I know about wine to make it less intimidating and more of an adventure. Today we’ll look at the surge in sauvignon blanc and the allure of this varietal, especially for younger wine drinkers.
Surge in sauvignon blanc
In 2022, sauvignon blanc plantings more than doubled in California, with the addition of 1,744 acres across the state, according to the 2023 State of the Wine Industry Report. Sonoma County, according to the report, leads the way for the most sauvignon blanc acreage in California.
Meanwhile, sales of sauvignon blanc in the U.S. grew by 24% in the 2022, according to Bev Alc Insights, an online resource for data and insights about the alcohol industry. It reported the uptick in sales was due to consumers seeking refreshing, healthier, low-calorie wines.
What I love about sauvignon blanc is that, at its best, it illustrates pitch-perfect balance better than any other varietal. The most well-crafted ones are buoyed by crisp acidity and have great minerality. Then there are the captivating aromas and flavors that run the gamut but often include a mix of grapefruit, ripe melon, fig and passion fruit.
California sauvignon blancs tend to be fruit-forward, while the New Zealand style rides on crisp acidity, tart grapefruit, grassy notes and often a hint of jalapeno. I’m fond of both versions, as well as those that fall in between. But I’ve noticed over time that balance is what makes or breaks this varietal.
I like Karen MacNeil’s take on sauvignon blanc because I think she captures the spirit of the varietal. In “The Wine Bible,” MacNeil writes: “If chardonnay is Marilyn Monroe, then sauvignon blanc is Jamie Lee Curtis.” Chardonnay, at its most decadent, is round and rich while sauvignon blanc is nice and dry with a backbone of acid.
What local winemakers say
Tim Bell, winemaker of Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Vineyard, said of the varietal’s popularity: “We keep hearing that millennials are interested in trying new things, new varieties. So that may be a factor here. And the fact that sauvignon blanc is a complex, intriguing wine that doesn’t command as high a price as cabernet sauvignon, for example, must help younger drinkers purchase a wine that is of high quality.”
Bell said he thinks wine drinkers are “waking up” to the natural complexity of sauvignon blanc because it doesn’t require a lot of winemaking technique to make some stunning wines.
Dry Creek Vineyard produces more sauvignon blanc than any other varietal, roughly 49,000 cases a year. Bell said the winery produced a bit more sauvignon blanc than usual in 2022 but was limited by Mother Nature. But the winery is expanding, with a new block of sauvignon blanc in its vineyards that will hit full production in 2024.
“We see other growers around Dry Creek Valley who have planted more sauvignon blanc within the last couple of years,” Bell said.
Stephanie Honig, co-vintner of Rutherford’s Honig Vineyard & Winery, said the goal to be physically fit is playing into the rise of sauvignon blanc.
“As younger generations of wine drinkers focus on making healthy choices in everything they put into their bodies, they’re opting for wines that are lighter in style,” she said.
Honig added that consumer preferences are changing and becoming more sophisticated; many want a wine they can drink by itself or with a meal.
“When sauvignon blanc is made well, it can be enjoyed on its own but also pairs well with food and can be very complex,” she said. “Sauvignon blanc also has a lot of versatility, depending on where it’s grown and how it’s made.”
The winery produces up to 45,000 cases of sauvignon blanc a year. Honig said there was definitely an uptick in sales in 2022.
“Sauvignon blanc is a driver of the Honig portfolio,” she said.
The following labels have fared well consistently with their sauvignon blancs in Press Democrat blind tastings, largely because they’ve mastered balance. These brands produce sauvignon blancs that are among the most well-crafted in Wine Country and worth a try: Alma de Cattleya, Bricoleur, Davis Bynum, Dry Creek Vineyard, Honig, Husch, J. Bucher, J. Lohr, Quivira, Merry Edwards, Rodney Strong and Spottswoode.
You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at 707-521-5310 or firstname.lastname@example.org.