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All hail the summer queen — Sauvignon Blanc
2014-08-07
By John H. Isacs

If one could come up with all the criteria for a perfect summer wine, Sauvignon Blanc could well be the only variety to meet all of them. Good arguments can be made that Sauvignon Blanc is the quintessential summer wine.

Scientists in Europe and California are using the latest of DNA and related technologies to discover the origins of many of the world’s grapes. But Sauvignon Blanc remains a mystery.

The earliest mentions of the grape were from the 17th century in southwest France, but wine scholars hypothesize the grape originated elsewhere centuries before. One thing we definitely know is that sometime in the 18th century, Sauvignon Blanc was paired with Cabernet Franc to create the world’s most popular red wine variety Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the late 19th century, after the first attacks of the vine-killing phylloxera pests, Sauvignon Blanc moved from its ancestral home in southwest France to the Loire Valley where it became the grape of choice in the best growing areas of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. By the 20th century, the grape successfully migrated to neighboring European countries and the New World to became one of the world’s most popular wine varieties.

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Sauvignon Blanc vines thrive in cooler regions, specifically those where the day heat is tempered by cool evenings. This difference helps extend the growing season and the grapes ripen more slowly, resulting in more complex wines with balanced fruit and acidity.

Sauvignon Blanc wines from warmer climates tend to be over ripe, vegetal and flabby.

Though it’s fair to generalize and say all good Sauvignon Blanc wines are fresh and fragrant, this grape makes wines with a wide range of styles.

Two nations stand out in the world of Sauvignon Blanc.

France

The best single variety, French Sauvignon Blanc wines come from the Loire Valley in central France. Here in vineyards around the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, winemakers make beautifully perfumed wines famed for their grassy and mineral qualities.

The Sancerre AC comprises Sancerre Village and 13 other small villages in the central-north region of the Loire Valley. The most prized Sancerre wines are from the villages of Bue, Chavigno, Menetreol and Verdigny and not from Sancerre Village.

The best wines of Sancerre are high in acid and have ample mineral characteristics. The Pouilly-Fume AC in the central region of the Loire Valley feature hilly vineyards that surround seven small villages.

As we can infer from the name, the wines often have distinctive smoky or flinty qualities along with typical grassy and structured acidity characteristics. Recommended producers of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume wines include Domain Fouassier, Pascal Jolivet and Henri Bourgeois. Budget-worthy Sauvignon Blanc wines are also being made in Languedoc in southern France. One fine example is Les Jamelles Sauvignon Blanc.

Before moving on to New World, I must mention that Bordeaux also makes exceptional Sauvignon Blanc wines, albeit blended with small amounts of Semillion. These Bordeaux blends are among the greatest white wines in the world especially those from Presson Langudue like the super expensive, legendary trio of Haut-Brion, Laville Haut-Brion and Domaine de Chevalier.

But these are exceedingly serious and weighty wines that taste best when served with substantial autumn or winter fare. Therefore, despite all their greatness, in the summertime they still must take a back seat to their sister whites from the Loire.

New Zealand

Little more than three decades ago some intrepid winemakers in Marlborough first planted Sauvignon Blanc. Surrounded by rough and beautiful hills and mountains, this cool climate region proved ideal for making uniquely lively and intense wines. By the 1980s, a few people started to take notice and by the 1990s Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs were becoming stars.

Today, they are among the most popular and admired white wines in the world. The typical aromas and flavors of Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs include vibrant tropical fruit, gooseberry, lime, passion fruit and fresh grass. The intense aromas and flavors of these wines literally jump out of the glass and explode in the mouth. There are many Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs available in Shanghai.

My favorite producers include Villa Maria, Highfield, Kim Crawford, Tiki and Craggy Range.

On a recent trip to New Zealand, I discovered that good Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc wines are not the exclusive domain of Marlborough. Excellent examples are also being made in the Martinborough and Central Otago regions.

Honorable mention

My list of honorable mention Sauvignon Blanc producing nations is quite lengthy, but let’s start with Chile where some of the most affordable and delightful expressions of this grape can be found.

The quality of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc has improved dramatically over the past 10-15 years with the best wines coming from the cool climates of Casablanca, Leyda and San Antonio Valley. Stylistically they are somewhere between the Sauvignon Blancs from France and New Zealand. A fine example is the Miguel Torres Santa Digna Sauvignon Blanc.

In the United States, California still makes the best Sauvignon Blanc but Oregon and Washington State are catching up. Try Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Joseph Phelps and Estancia wines from California or the cheaper but still lovely Chateau Ste Michelle Sauvignon Blanc from Washington State.

This column is getting longer and longer and I’m still not running out of excellent Sauvignon Blanc wines. Fine examples from Australia come from the cool climate Adelaide Hills region in the south and the Margaret River region in the west, where the grape is often blended with Semillon. South Africa also deserves mention for their increasingly stylish and eminently affordable expressions of this grape.

Returning to the Old World, both Italy and Spain have a growing number of excellent Sauvignon Blanc wines.

The best Italian examples come from the northern regions of Friuli and Alto Adige while excellent Spanish Sauvignon Blancs are made in Rueda in the north and Penedes to the east.

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Sauvignon Blanc at a glance

Green-skinned, late-budding and early-ripening grape

Color: Pale straw to bright light golden yellow with greenish hints

Aromas & flavors: Grass, melon, citrus, mineral, gooseberry

Mouth feel: Crisp, dry, steely

Key descriptor: Bracing


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