THE WORLD OF SAUVIGNON BLANC
Until recently, Sauvignon Blanc was never as popular or highly regarded as her sister Chardonnay, the “White Queen.” Things have changed.
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You may recall from “The Royal Sisterhood” the sharp distinctions between Sauvignon Blanc and her siblings Chardonnay and Riesling. Now let us consider the stylistic differences among Sauvignon Blancs around the world. But first, what do they all have in common? If grape variety is indeed the single most important determinant of a wine’s quality, what characteristics do all Sauvignon Blancs share? What unites the diverse worldwide sorority that includes flinty Bordeaux Blancs, minerally Sancerres, razor-sharp New Zealanders, and lush Californians?
If a gathering of present or former professional wine geeks were to blind-taste a proffered sample of Sauvignon Blanc, most of us would immediately ID the grape by its inherent signature perfume– a piercing bouquet of snappy green herbaceousness, wet-stone minerality, perhaps a touch of melon, and, most notoriously, a whiff (or more) of that downright feral fragrance so familiar to cat owners. And then, upon first sip, one’s palate is aggressively attacked with fresh and zingy acid, made all the more prominent by the absence of mitigating components associated with her sisters– indeed, Sauvignon Blanc has never worn oak as comfortably as has Chardonnay, nor sweetness as easily as Riesling.
If the part about “fresh and zingy acid” makes Sauvignon Blanc sound a little like Pinot Grigio, you are in the ballpark. Hell, if you LIKE Pinot Grigio, you’ll probably LOVE Sauvignon Blanc. (However, if you already LOVE Pinot Grigio, there may be no hope for you.) Though superficially similar in acidic profile, properly-made Sauvignon Blanc is simply more complex, more flavorful, and way more interesting than Pinot Grigio could ever hope to be.
All that being said, let’s look at the great Sauvignon Blancs of the world and what differentiates them, starting with France–
France is home to three distinct versions of Sauvignon Blanc– the whites of Bordeaux, and the twin gems of the upper Loire Valley known as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Bordeaux Blanc is typically a judiciously barrel-aged blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, a lesser-known variety noteworthy mainly for its complementary richness. Although we’ve come to recognize the primacy of Nature over Nurture in winemaking, i.e., that grape variety is the single most important determinant of a wine’s flavor, the unique treatment of Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux puts its heath of origin ahead of or at least on par with its innate characteristics. HERE is a guide to the best versions.
The Loire sub-regions of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé (NOT Pouilly-Fuissé) eye each other across the middle stretch of France’s longest river. While snobbish connoisseurs dwell on their differences, suffice to say that both exhibit textbook Sauvignon Blanc flavors and aromas as well as complexity, food-friendly minerality, and refreshing acidity. We'll just let the socially insufferable geeks strain to identify minute distinctions between the soil chemistries of proximal or even adjacent vineyards... meanwhile, just know that a highly-rated version of either Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé is almost always worth the search and the hefty price, if only to permanently hone one’s palate for a lifelong and worldwide quest for excellent and delicious Sauvignon Blanc.
Varietal Californian Chardonnay was perfectly positioned to become a “thing” in the Great American Wine Boom that began in the late 1960’s; Sauvignon Blanc, however, was not, as Californian winemakers weren't quite sure what to do with it. But then along came Robert Mondavi, the second-generation Napa Valley wine mogul and instinctive marketing genius who coined the name “Fumé Blanc” for his bone-dry and slightly oaky version of Sauvignon Blanc. Others soon imitated the style and adopted the popular (if bogus) moniker; if nothing else, this helped to secure Sauvignon Blanc’s foothold in the American wine market until enough people got tired of Chardonnay and switched over. By 2005, when my partner and I opened a new restaurant, we were pleasantly stunned to see Sauvignon Blanc outsell Chardonnay for the first time ever.
(HERE is a buyer’s guide to Californian Sauvignon Blanc.)
Some countries (or states) are inextricably associated with particular wine grapes, especially when decades of experience confirms the affinity between grape and terroir, i.e., the conjunction of climate and soil. In the minds of most of the wine-buying public, Germany equals Riesling, Oregon is famous for its Pinot Noir, Argentina has laid claim to Malbec… and New Zealand has become synonymous with zingy, crisp, and refreshing Sauvignon Blanc.
(HERE is a good read on the development of their wine industry.)
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There are certainly other parts of the world in addition to those mentioned above that make perfectly delicious Sauvignon Blanc, e.g., CHILE, AUSTRALIA, and even SOUTH AFRICA. But we recommend first familiarizing yourself with at least one each from France, California, and New Zealand.
Sauvignon Blanc pairs perfectly with all manner of seafood, but enjoys a special affinity with salmon.
In the world of grape husbandry, offspring sometimes bear little or no resemblance to their parents. Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, is the seemingly unlikely child of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.
And finally, one should note that “Bordeaux Blanc” has historically been synonymous with sweet dessert wine (e.g., Sauternes and Barsac) and it is way too easy to accidentally purchase something too sweet for the dinner entree… like I once did way back when I was just getting my start in the wine universe. Purchase with caution.