Sauvignon blanc is the grape that I most happily associate with summer. True, it's not as trendy as pinot gris/grigio, not as elegant as riesling, not as popular as chardonnay...
Sauvignon blanc is the grape that I most happily associate with summer. True, it’s not as trendy as pinot gris/grigio, not as elegant as riesling, not as popular as chardonnay, and certainly not as colorful as chilled rosé. Like some forgotten middle child, sandwiched between the superstar first-born and the oh-so-cute baby, sauv blanc often gets overlooked. And yet, a nicely chilled glass of a crisp, not-too-oaky sauv blanc is perfect for warm, sunny weather, and full-bodied enough to carry you well into autumn.
Sauvignon blanc is made worldwide, usually in one of two styles, that are based upon either Bordeaux blanc or the white wines of the Loire. In Bordeaux it is blended with semillon and barrel fermented, giving it round, creamy/toasty flavors; while in the Loire it is served straight up, no other grapes added, and most often without barrel fermentation or aging, so the wines are searingly tart, crisp and herbal. The best Loire appellations (Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé) add intense mineral and gunmetal scents and flavors to the mix.
Not everyone likes this stuff, for sure. It can be aggressively grassy and herbaceous. Alternately, if grown in a hot climate, the grape often turns peachy and tropical, while losing its precision and bite. If given too much exposure to oak, it loses all distinction altogether, and tastes like chardonnay. What’s the point of that?
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In California, I find that many inexpensive sauv blancs are overripened and/or overcropped. What results are simple, fruity, slightly sweet wines of no distinction. More expensive California sauv blancs are usually barrel-fermented, given an acid-reducing malolactic fermentation, and blended with other grapes (such as gewürztraminer!). They are not bad wines, but they do not convey the unique character of the grape.
There are exceptions, particularly in Sonoma County (Kunde), the Dry Creek Valley (Fritz, Preston, Pedroncelli) and parts of the deep Central Coast. Mondavi has pioneered the grape and makes several different styles, including a popular barrel-fermented Napa Fumé Blanc. (Fumé blanc, a term invented by Robert Mondavi years ago, has no legal meaning and simply adds confusion. It should probably be retired.) The 2001 Robert Mondavi Stags Leap Sauvignon Blanc ($23) is done in a more traditional style; aggressive and grassy, yet with a vibrant complexity that I quite enjoy.
Also from California, I can recommend the 2002 Adobe Creek ($12) from Contra Costa grapes, done in a fruity, lightly tropical style; the 2002 Voss Vineyards ($18) from the Napa Valley, reminiscent of the classic Cakebread sauvignon blancs; and especially the 2002 Sterling North Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($14), a grapefruity wine with lovely herbal grace notes.
Elsewhere in the New World, buying sauvignon blanc is a bit of a crap shoot. Chilean versions from the Casablanca Valley can be quite good, with pretty, floral highlights. I have yet to taste a bottle from South Africa that wasn’t oxidized and tired; it’s a mighty long distance from there to the Pacific Northwest. Australia hasn’t made much of a splash with the grape, though one producer, Coldstream Hills, makes a ripe, round version with pleasant flavors of melon and kiwi.
Which brings us to New Zealand. Wah-hoo! Here’s a country whose top vineyards didn’t even plant sauvignon blanc until the mid-1970s. In just three decades, New Zealand has developed so well, so fast, that its winemakers can lay legitimate claim to making the best in the world.
They aren’t cheap, but prices do seem to be coming down as more producers enter the U.S. market. Look for wines from the Marlborough region. The good ones capture intense flavors of tart fruit and steely acids that send wine writers into a frenzy. Terms such as gooseberries, nettles and lime get tossed around like Frisbees.
I’m not big on gooseberries, and never ate a nettle, but the thing I look for in these wines is clarity a sharp, pungent mouth feel that refreshes and penetrates. They should show green citrus and green berry flavors, with traces of herb. If instead you find flavors that taste more like asparagus or green bean or canned veggies, it’s time to move on to another bottle.
Check out the Matua Valley 2002 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($10), a textured gem with vivid tangerine/citrus fruit flavors and a hint of sweetness. Mount Riley is another excellent brand; look for its 2001, a complex jumble of crisp green fruits, less aggressively grassy than the 2002.
Among other well-distributed New Zealand producers, the sauv blancs of Sileni Estates, Glazebrook, Kim Crawford and Goldwater Estate are quite pleasant and drinkable. The 2002 sauvignon blanc from Esk Valley in Hawke’s Bay surprised me with its brisk, lively mix of citrus and mouth-cleansing clarity. And somehow, on a wine this tasty, even the screw cap seemed like a good idea.
In France we will leave aside the Bordeaux blancs for another column. Let’s move directly to the Loire Valley, where the most deliciously pure and quaffable sauvignon blancs are made. Relatively unknown appellations such as Quincy deliver vivid, no-frills, low-alcohol wines that will transport you to your favorite little Parisian café, at least in spirit. The town of Sancerre, and the villages around it, make the most prestigious Loire Valley white wines, and they are widely available.
Look for the wines of Henri Bourgeois for consistent, affordable quality (its 2002 Quincy, about $12, is a delight). Henry Pelle is another producer who puts out a solid Sancerre nuanced with white pepper, grapefruit rind and herb ($16). Pascal Jolivet is a young, stylish producer making very good and affordable wines. Try Jolivet’s 2001 “Attitude” ($13), made with grapes from the Touraine region. Stainless steel fermentation and perfectly ripened fruit creates an elegant and crisply appealing wine without overt grassy flavors. Jolivet’s 2002 Sancerre and 2002 Pouilly Fumé (both $20) are accurate, mineral-infused, steely renditions of the regional classics.
Here in Washington some producers have been smart enough to indicate the style on the label, either by naming the blend or writing “traditionally produced Bordeaux-style wine” in bold type. Kudos to DiStefano for this helpful prose; now if they could spell semillon (hint: it’s not semillion) they’d really be on the right track!
I’ve always enjoyed Washington sauv blancs, though they are a mixed bag to be sure. When they miss, they miss big, with awkward, flat, odd flavors of vitamin pill and mint. The wines listed below are all winners. I can’t think of a better way to say good-bye to what has been a glorious summer.
Recommended Washington sauvignon blancs (in order of preference):
Ryan Patrick 2001 “Vin d’été” ($20). This self-proclaimed “summer wine” really nails it. Plenty of ripe fruit (enhanced, in this instance with 19 percent semillon), a sweet-scented citrus blossom bouquet and a round, rich, lightly toasty presence.
Arbor Crest 2001 Sauvignon Blanc ($10). This winery has made some of Washington’s best sauv blancs for the past quarter-century. This is rich, intense and textured, with flavors of ripe tropical fruits.
Barnard Griffin 2002 Fumé Blanc ($9). Fumé schmoomé, it’s a smooth, polished wine with no rough edges. A choice mix of fruits, herbs and toast, served up without grassiness.
Di Stefano 2000 Sauvignon Blanc ($8). The 2000 is getting a little long in the tooth, but it’s drinking beautifully dry, lightly herbal, with grassy/spicy highlights and specially priced. Note: the 2002 is also in the market, priced slightly higher. I have not yet tasted it.
Lone Canary 2002 Sauvignon Blanc ($10). Ex-Caterina winemaker Mike Scott’s first release is a sharp, melony, oyster-friendly wine, with a refreshing, steely finish.
Gordon Brothers 2002 “Katie’s Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc ($12). This is made in a forward, fruity style with pleasant, peachy/orange flavors.
Camaraderie Cellars 2002 Sauvignon Blanc ($10). Good, melony and accented with some unusual fennel notes.
Robert Karl 2002 Sauvignon Blanc ($10). Tart citrus fruit and hints of graham cracker in the toasty finish.
Avery Lane 2001 Sauvignon Blanc ($7). A very light, pleasant wine shows melon, citrus and lemon zest flavors.
Paul Gregutt is the author of “Northwest Wines.” His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.