Lake County Turns Heads With Sauvignon Blancs

The region is even starting to give New Zealand a run for its money — and market share.


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Photo by Ramona d’Viola

Better known for its fishing than its fine wines, Lake County — Napa Valley’s northernmost neighbor — is California’s fastest growing grape-growing region and ripe for discovery.

With seven different appellations and a staggering variety of terroirs, most of Lake County’s wine grape growing bets were focused on the prestigious red varietals — many destined to become Napa Valley wines. Look closely at the next bottle of big red anything from Napa, and you’ll likely see a significant percentage of Lake County grapes in the mix.

You’d think France’s Loire Valley, where sauv blanc originated, would be the epicenter of this wine’s influence. But it was New Zealand’s lime-y, grassy, herbaceous, and overtly green interpretation that captured the world’s attention, becoming the oft-imitated flavor profile popularized by the country’s Marlborough region.

That is, until Lake County started giving the Kiwis a run for their money — and market share.

Now, it’s Lake County’s sauvignon blancs that have the wine world suddenly smitten. What was once considered a precursor to the “serious” white wines, the region’s sauvignon blancs are known for their aggressively agreeable, fruit-forward, and sunshine-y citrus flavors. Sauv blancs bring the party and like to be drunk young.

The elegant Brassfield Estate Winery (10915 High Valley Road, Clearlake Oaks, 707-998-1895, BrassFieldEstate.com) at the southeastern end of Clear Lake takes full advantage of the high elevation and diurnal terroir of its High Valley Appellation. Blazing temperatures at high elevation, with prolonged UV exposure, create the perfect growing conditions for sauvignon blanc.

“Sauvignon blancs grapes can take the heat,” said Brassfield’s award-winning winemaker, Matt Hughes. “The longer hang time allows us to maximize the sugars, balance the acidity — and capture all that sun.”

Beginning her winemaking career in New Zealand, Lake County native Joy Merrilees returned to the United States and quickly climbed from “cellar rat” to director of winemaking at Shannon Ridge Winery (13888 Point Lakeview Road, Lower Lake, ShannonRidge.com, 707-275-2181). As one of a cadre of young, talented Lake County vintners, Merrilees is making a name in the world of wine with her distinctive sauvignon blancs.

“We grow grapes in three different vineyards, at some of Lake County’s highest elevations. The prolonged UV exposure really brings the sugars out. Our sauvignon blancs are redolent of grass and grapefruit, with hints of stone fruit and apples — more of a ‘Sancerre-style,’” says Merrilees. “Resulting in a fruit forward wine with a soft mouth feel.”

Kaj and Else Ahlmann purchased a 4,300-acre cattle ranch in 2004 and turned it into the award-winning Six Sigma Ranch and Winery (13372 Spruce Grove Road, Lower Lake, 707-994-4068, SixSigmaRanch.com). Named after the certification process Kaj pioneered, the vineyard has crafted medal-earning sauvignon blancs since they started harvesting.

“Our sauv blancs are known to be lively and citrus-y with a nose of lime blossoms, spring grasses and elderflower. It’s like drinking sunshine,” said Christian Ahlmann, Six Sigma’s vice president. “Our Asbil Valley vineyards have 12 different soils — from clay to volcanic.”

Recognizing Lake County’s grape growing potential early on, Gregory Graham was already a noteworthy vintner before seizing the opportunity to make wines under his own label, Gregory Graham Wines (13633 Point Lakeview Road, Lower Lake, 707-995-3500, GGWines.com). He and wife, Marianne, saw an opportunity to be part of the regions’ winemaking renaissance — and lead Lake County in sauvignon blanc world domination. “I make wines people like to drink.”

Ready to learn all you can about this burgeoning white wine? Check out the 2018 Sauvignon Blanc Experience (SauvignonBlancExperience.com), a two-day symposium and tasting on May 4-5 at Chacewater Winery & Olive Mill (5625 Gaddy Lane, Kelseyville, 707-277-1278).

Consider these accommodations for your visit: Stonehouse Cellars (500 Old Long Valley Road, Clearlake Oaks, 707-998-3378, StonehouseCellars.com), The Lodge at Blue Lakes (5135 State Highway 20, Upper Lake, 707-275-2181, TheLodgeAtBlueLakes.com; or The Tallman Hotel, 9550 Main St., Upper Lake, 707-275-2245, TallmanHotel.com).

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