The Great White Hope in Wine

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While many newcomers to the vineyards are intimidated by the price of a bottle of wine, the worry is often misguided. In fact, some of the savviest connoisseurs I know have come to appreciate value more than price and "cheap finds" more than the "expensive gems" when it comes to wine.

I think of it this way: I am rarely disappointed by a bottle of wine under $20. My expectations are tempered and the pleasant surprises outdistance the vinegar-like bottles 10-to-1. However, when I am disappointed by a $50-$100 bottle of wine I am really disappointed, sometimes to the point of tarnishing an otherwise lovely evening.

There are a number of tips on finding great value. Some say it has to do with the grape. In reds, instead of a Cabernet, look to the Merlots or the Pinot Noirs for value. Among whites, instead of looking toward the suave Chardonnay, try the crisp taste of Sauvignon Blanc or even the Vigoner.

With that in mind, today we embark on a journey of inexpensive -- dare I say cheap? -- wine. And, in this case, I guarantee you that those who don't know the price will ever call you cheap when you serve these wines at your next social gathering.

The ABCs of White Wine: Anything but Chardonnay

We begin this journey with tasty yet inexpensive whites. While many wine enthusiasts swear by their California Chards, there is a growing number of wine pundits that think as I do; while California Chardonnays are nice, many have become way over-oaked (think sap from your favorite oak tree for some) and almost all of the first-class Chardonnays have developed egos -- and prices to match -- that are rarely justified. Sure, there are exceptions, but Chardonnays have become far too popular for the contrarian wine drinker.

When looking for a drinkable, crisp, clean white, I will often turn to a Sauvignon Blanc. While not as complex or "full bodied" as a Chardonnay, the generally smooth nature of the Sauvignon Blanc grape generally appeals to a broader array of wine drinkers.

When I think Sauvignon Blanc, I think grassy overtones, often a hint of melon, apricots and lemon and sometimes even a bit floral. It is a crisp wine, meant to be served slightly colder than you might enjoy a Chardonnay. Others describe the Sauvignon Blanc grape in its final form as having a grapefruit aura or even just a hint of spice.

You will find the Sauvignon Blanc grape blended with other grapes to create a unique and usually tasty white meritage (or blend) that comes in all price ranges from the ever-changing and always enjoyable Conundrum (about $25 a bottle in your local wine shop) to the more moderately priced Berringer Sauvignon Blanc (around $12, often discounted) which combines the somewhat sweeter Semillion grape with Sauvignon Blanc.

Here's a quick look at four mainstream Sauvignon Blanc wines and one wildcard, all under $20, that are well worth a taste or two:

  • Husch Sauvignon Blanc: A quiet little vineyard in Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, Calif., produces one of the most drinkable Sauvignon Blancs around and you can find it (if you can find it) for about $15. Husch's Sauvignon Blanc has won gold and silver medals in international wine competitions for over a decade and continues to be produced from pure Sauvignon Blanc grapes from a single vineyard -- Husch's La Ribera vineyard. The single vineyard production creates consistency and predictability and is one of the only under-$20 Sauvignon Blanc wines I know of that comes from the same vineyard year after year. The wine is crisp and grassy but with a very clean finish. One of my favorites.
  • Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc: A tried-and-true Sauvignon Blanc, the most recent entry -- the 2002 -- is blended with a bit of Semillion and Sauvignon Musque. Unlike Husch, Mantazas Creek blends grapes from a number of Sonoma County appellations (regions) to produce a more robust Sauvignon Blanc than many. It generally is very crisp with a nice bouquet of fruit and the Semillion adding a bit of sweetness. Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc can be found in most local wine shops for about $19.
  • Hogue Fume Blanc: In the wine business, marketing is everything and the Mondavi family is rumored to have produced the first Fume Blanc, simply another name for wine crafted from the Sauvignon Blanc grape. Traveling north to Washington brings a fun Sauvignon Blanc from Hogue Cellars, located in Eastern Washington at the tip of the Yakima Valley. The area's weather is greatly influenced by the Columbia River, which has given rise to a number of world-class vineyards. Influenced by a Semillion blend of 17%, the Hogue is among the more fruity Sauvignon Blancs, which makes it great with seafood. The best part of it, if you can find it in your local wine shop, is that you aren't likely to pay more than $10 a bottle for it. I put the Hogue in a category I call "fun wines" -- wines great for a picnic, a tailgate or a barbeque.
  • Bernardus Sauvignon Blanc: Down the California coast from Napa and Sonoma, just south of Carmel and Monterrey, is the Central Coast appellation. Not as discovered -- or crowded -- as the more popular Northern wine districts, the region is beginning to produce some outstanding wines. Among the leaders is Bernardus, a winery and spa rolled into one. The winery's Sauvignon Blanc is a solid addition to the value class at about $15. The wine is very crisp and may seem slightly more acidic than more floral versions of the wine. Yet, on the palate it has a nice fruit flavor and can stand up well against most dishes with which you might think to serve a Chardonnay.
  • Linden Glen Manor Sauvignon Blanc: West out of Washington, D.C., on Interstate 66, about 75 minutes, is an exit for Linden, Va., in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Largely unknown, the village is frequented by travelers and farmers that are hungry or need to refuel. Someday it will become known as the home of one of the best-kept wine secrets on the East Coast. Jim Law has been crafting great wines at his growing vineyard now for two decades and his passion shows. When I first discovered Linden in the mid-1990s, the winery had the feel of an entrepreneur's playground. Today, the tasting room and accompanying winery and storage facility looks like it could have come from any major wine-producing region in the world. Jim crafts a number of great whites (I served Linden Chardonnay at my wedding) as well as reds. His Sauvignon Blanc stands with the best in the business. Crisp, refreshing like mint and clean, at $17 a bottle -- it is only found in Virginia stores and at the winery -- this wine, and Linden's other entries are worth the drive out Route 66.
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    There you have it: five fantastic Sauvignon Blancs under $20 a bottle. That leaves plenty in the budget for a nice piece of fish or chicken, a nice pasta dish, a crisp salad and fruity dessert to end the evening. What more could you want? And, the great thing about Sauvignon Blanc wines is they are made to be consumed. They don't need to age and should be consumed within a couple of years of bottling. So, enjoy them today.

    Let me know what you think: Do you like or dislike these wines and do you have favorites of your own? Your feedback will help craft this column in the future. Shoot me an email with your toasts and disappointments as well as wine questions. And, watch for responses in this column coming soon.

    Until then, cheers.

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