Acid & Smoke: The Styles of Sauvignon Blanc
What white wine goes well with a wide range of foods, from salads and vegetable dishes, to seafood dishes, lemon chicken and many cheeses? Sauvignon Blanc. And what’s one of the best values you can find on any restaurant wine list? Yup, again, Sauvignon Blanc.
Sauvignon Blanc is a white grape originally from western wine regions of France that is now grown widely around the world. It excels in such diverse locations as France’s Loire Valley, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and California’s Dry Creek Valley. It tends to have bright acidity and grassy, green fruit and citrus flavors like lime, grapefruit and gooseberry. Versions grown in cooler climates and on chalky, gravelly and/or flinty soils also tend to have a strong sense of minerality.
In France’s Loire region near the town of Pouilly-sur-Loire, there is a lot of flint in the soil. Sauvignon Blanc grown there takes on a smoky, gun flint quality that led locals to add to the place name the French word for smoke, calling it Pouilly Fumé. In the late-1960s, when his Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t selling that well, Robert Mondavi borrowed the same French word to coin the name “Fumé Blanc.” Under the new name, sales took off dramatically.
Across the river from Pouilly-sur-Loire is the other great area in the Loire devoted to Sauvignon Blanc. These are the limestone and chalk soils of Sancerre, which produces my favorite versions of the grape, with high acidity, complexity and intense minerality.
In both Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, most of the wines are raised in stainless steel tanks or neutral barrels –barrels used previously, so they don’t impart new oak flavors–which preserve the wine’s fruit characteristics and sharp acidity. They also ferment at high temperatures, which tend to bring out the grapes’ minerality. These wines are delightful when they’re young, and they can last a couple of years, but they are not wines that improve with aging.
In Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc is blended with the oily textured and honeyed Semillon grape and then aged in new barrels to produce “Bordeaux blanc.” Sometimes a third white grape, Muscadelle, is part of the blend. The Graves region of Bordeaux is most known for this white blend, which tends to be heavier and rounder than the unoaked whites of the Loire. It is also capable of aging and evolving for 10 to 15 years.
The same white grape blend used for dry whites in Bordeaux is also the source of the famous French sweet wines, from Sauternes and Barsac in the southern part of Bordeaux. There the Sauv Blanc and Semillon grapes are left on the vine until they have been affected by the fungus botrytis cinerea, which removes water from the grapes leaving a higher concentration of sugar. The rich, unctuous, sweet wines that result have good underlying acidity, and are capable of aging and evolving further for decades.
To begin your exploration of Sauvignon Blanc, I strongly recommend trying Sancerre, which usually runs only $20 to $25 a bottle. Some of the best producers are Claude Riffault , Edmond Vatan, Etienne Daulny, Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy, Gérard Boulay, Jean Vincent, Pascal Cotat, Sylvain Bailly, Thomas-Labaille and Domaine Vacheron. In Pouilly Fumé, the great producer is Didier Dagueneau, whose wines also tend to be the most expensive. Other producers worth seeking out include de Ladoucette and Pascal Jolivet.
White Bordeaux is typically much pricier, but great, ageworthy versions are made by Domaine de Chevalier, Lynch Bages, Château Olivier, Pape Clément and Smith Haut Lafitte.
California produces some terrific Sauvignon Blancs, and it’s now the fourth most planted white variety in the State, after Chardonnay, French Columbard and Pinot Gris. The best ones I’ve tried have come from Araujo, Brander, Clouds Rest, Grey Stack, Merry Edwards, Peter Michael, Quivira, Robert Mondavi and Rudd. The Brander, Grey Stack and Quivira bottlings are particularly good values. Rudd makes one of the best Graves style California Sauv Blancs I’ve had, blended with a little Semillon and Muscadelle. An Oregon producer, Patricia Green, also makes an excellent Sauvignon Blanc blend called Panama White that’s reminiscent of a Pouilly Fumé.
For a taste of New Zealand Sauv Blanc, which tends to have the same zingy acidity as Loire versions but with more intense fruit, try wines from Huia, Saint Clair or Stoneleigh. The latter’s wines are an excellent value at about $13 a bottle. South Africa also makes very reliable Sauv Blancs, at value prices. Try wines from Neil Ellis, Springfield Estate or Zorgvliet.
And for a pairing made in heaven, try Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese.