Ever wonder why there are so many impressive Napa Valley Chardonnays, but few exceptional examples of Sauvignon Blanc? The answer is simple: The prime land for Sauvignon Blanc in Napa also happens to be the land best suited for Cabernet Sauvignon. Given that Cabernet sells for three or four times as much, it’s not baffling to figure out why it gets the lion’s share of vineyard plantings.
One Sauvignon Blanc standout above the rest, and the source of its brilliance lies in the quality of the vineyard site. The To Kalon Vineyard was originally planted in 1868 by Napa pioneer Hamilton Crabb, the man generally credited with bringing attention to Oakville as a winegrowing district. He named it To Kalon, Greek for “most beautiful.” By the early 20th century, it was recognized as one of the best vineyard sites in the world.
The major part of the vineyard today is still owned by the Robert Mondavi winery, although grower Andy Beckstoffer purchased a large chunk in the early 1990s. The Mondavi parcel is the source for the winery’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Reserve Fumé Blanc; the Reserve Fumé is harvested from meticulously tended, 60 year-old vines. You might find any number of reasons to criticize the Mondavis over the years, but their stewardship of To Kalon has been admirable.
The nose of the 2011 Mondavi Fumé Blanc Reserve ($48) offers a pure reduction of grapefruit, highlighted by scents of minerals and white pepper. At first sip, the wine is steely and austere, closer in style to Sancerre than Napa. It gains in amplitude as it warms: The mid palate displays ripe notes of citrus and melon, backed up by grainy flavors of minerals and fresh herbs. This is a rich and satisfying white wine, well worth the formidable price tag.
To answer an often-asked question: What’s the difference between Sauvignon Blanc and Fumé Blanc? Nothing—they are the same grape variety. Fumé Blanc was a term invented by Robert Mondavi in the 1960s, when California wine was not on the radar of connoisseurs. Mondavi thought that giving it a French name would help sell it to Americans. He was right, and the name persists to this day.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); his second book, Moonshine Nation, is forthcoming from Lyons Press in June 2014. For more information, go to amazon.com