Food-Friendly Wines; Part 2:
While it’s easy to like Sauvignon Blanc, it’s a difficult wine to get to know well. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, you’ll happen upon a version that tastes quite different. Sauvignon Blancs range widely in part because the grape reflects the growing conditions, the climate and the soil — i.e., what the French call terroir — more than most others. And, of course, they’re also given different treatments by different winemakers.
Sauvignon Blanc is generally distinguished by a distinctive bouquet, often compared to freshly mown grass, and an herbaceous character. Many Sauvignon Blancs are lively, aromatic wines with an exuberant, assertive, sometimes flamboyant personality that tends toward tangy and zesty. These characteristics are generally found in the lean, unoaked Sauvignon Blancs from cool climates, like New Zealand.
Sauvignon Blancs from warmer regions, including Bordeaux and parts of California (where they’re sometimes called Fumé Blanc), are often aged in wood barrels. They’re more restrained and tend to be rounder, richer and fuller bodied, sometimes with spicy or smoky notes. These wines are frequently blended with other grapes, notably Sémillon.
The Loire Valley and Bordeaux are the two main regions in France known for their Sauvignon Blancs. In the cool-climate Loire, the two most important appellations are Sancerre, whose wines are typically grassy, minerally and fresh, and Pouilly-Fumé, whose wines sometimes have smoky overtones. Although Bordeaux is famed for its great red wines, it also produces some excellent whites, from appellations including Graves, Pessac-Léognan and Entre-Deux-Mers. And Sauvignon Blanc plays a starring role in Sauternes, Bordeaux’s luscious sweet wine. (See my story How Sweet It Is: Dessert wines for all budgets.)
But it is the Loire that set the standard. According to wine expert Andrea Immer (now Robinson), who wrote in Great Wine Made Simple (in 2000), "The outstanding Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, South Africa and Austria . . . are modeled on [the Loire Valley] style, as are some made in the US, Chile and Italy.”
Ever since New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blancs burst on the scene, however, the Loire wines have had some serious competition. Although a fairly new phenomenon there — Sauvignon Blanc vines were first planted outside Auckland in the early 1970s — the varietal has been extraordinarily successful, especially in Marlborough on the south island. Today New Zealand’s zingy, zippy Sauvignon Blancs are regarded as among the best in the world. Strong words are required to convey their impact: They’ve been described as “pungently aromatic and explosively flavored.” Because they’ve captivated many wine lovers, New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are today being emulated by winemakers worldwide.
Trying to capture the essence of Sauvignon Blanc in words isn’t easy owing to the significant variations. In California, Sauvignon Blancs are grassy, fruity, spicy or oak-influenced. Some Sauvignon Blancs have floral scents; some exhibit smoky, spicy or minerally characteristics. Fruit flavors include grapefruit, lime, lemon, melon, pear, peach, apricot, mango, passion fruit, gooseberry, lychee and apple — a veritable fruit salad.
Well, then, it’s no wonder Chardonnays have been more popular. They’re simpler. They’re easy to understand. For decades, they tasted just like wood. (There is at last a welcome trend away from overoaking.) Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, demands more effort. You have to get to know the different styles and discover your preferences. Apparently, consumers are doing just that.