Dunne on Wine: Lake County is right for sauvignon blanc

Short of being folded back into Napa County on the south and Mendocino County to the north, from which it was formed in 1861, along with a slice of Colusa County, what does Lake County need to do to establish itself as prime wine country?

To judge by results of this summer’s Lake County Wine Awards Competition, it might best embrace and promote enthusiastically the grape clearly most at home on its plains, slopes and ridges: sauvignon blanc.

Oh, there’s a lot that can be said positively about Lake County’s cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah, to be sure, but no varietal wine produces more consistent results for the area than sauvignon blanc.

If sauvignon blanc isn’t more closely identified with Lake County, it’s because local vintners, while appreciative of how it helps their cash flow, don’t see it as so prestigious that it will raise the county’s standing as a fine-wine region, whereas cabernet sauvignon has the following and the stature to do that, if only it were more impressive and more steady.

Lake County’s growers and vintners are working on that. In the meantime, there’s sauvignon blanc, which all on its own could help generate the tourism and the respect Lake County’s wine trade wants.

Lake County is receptive to sauvignon blanc for several reasons. It’s a warm growing area, and sauvignon blanc can take the heat. Fog only rarely intrudes into the area. The air may be the clearest of any wine region in the state. That purity, coupled with the elevation – vineyards generally are at about 1,400 feet and higher – exposes grapes to unusually intense sunshine; growers often go on and on about how ultra-violet radiation benefits their fruit.

What’s more, Lake County’s soils form an unusually varied tapestry. That diversity could help explain why Lake County produces no single style of sauvignon blanc, unlike New Zealand, recognized for the limey zestiness of so many of its sauvignon blancs.

Instead, some Lake County sauvignon blancs are round and soft, others lean and sharp. Some tilt toward the grassy side of the flavor spectrum, others to the grapefruit end of the scale. Some can be perky with pimiento, others lush with melon. They can be dry, or they can be a touch sweet. And, yes, some can be so vibrant with lime they could be mistaken for an example from New Zealand.

Most of Lake County’s sauvignon blanc is planted in the Big Valley area about Kelseyville, long ago covered by the waters of Clear Lake. The soils of Big Valley include loams, sticky clays and some gravel, all fairly high in magnesium, says Glenn McGourty, viticulture and plant-science adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension Service in Mendocino and Lake counties. “More than any other variety I have seen, sauvignon blanc seems to thrive in these kinds of soils.”

Lake County’s continental climate, just a touch warmer than Bordeaux, another area that does well by sauvignon blanc, also benefits the variety, McGourty adds. “This is a good climate for sauvignon blanc because the vines develop good, ripe flavors. Due to the high elevation of Lake County and very clear skies, the nighttime temperatures tend to be cool, and vines don’t respire acidity in the fruit the way that vines do in warmer districts. Consequently, you can find both ripeness and good acidity in sauvignon blanc wines from Lake County, a very nice counterpoint.”

Today, nearly 8,400 acres are planted to wine grapes in Lake County, of which 1,852 are sauvignon blanc. (As a measure of the confidence that Lake County growers and vintners have in cabernet sauvignon, it is planted to 3,129 acres.)

Of the 142 wines in this year’s Lake County Wine Awards Competition, 16 were sauvignon blanc, divided into two classes, one of entries priced up to $17, the other of entries costing more than $17. Our panel got the 10 entries priced up to $17. We awarded two gold medals and six silvers, a showing that seems to say that sauvignon blanc from Lake County offers one of the more attractively priced segments in today’s wine market.

Eventually, six wines were nominated for best white wine; three of them were sauvignon blancs, by far the most popular varietal in that final roundup.

Of all the sauvignon blancs I tasted that day, these were my favorites:

The red-wine sweepstakes round, incidentally, included two cabernet sauvignons in the 15-wine field. Both finished far out of the running, with the eventual sweeps winner being the powerful, peppery and persistent Chacewater Winery 2010 Red Hills Petite Sirah ($18).

Chacewater had a good day, and if its name rings a bell that could be because it also had a good run at last year’s California State Fair commercial wine competition, where it was named Golden State Winery of the Year on the strength of the numerous honors it received there.