- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2006

No wine suggests spring as seductively as sauvignon blanc. Cool and crisp, with an enticingly warm core, a well-made example will taste racy and relaxing all at once. Its bright character seems much like the season itself.

Good sauvignon blancs provide an intensity of flavor (and pleasure) that few other wines can match. Unfortunately, the market is awash these days with sauvignons that taste innocuous. They’re not so much bad as boring — a cardinal sin with this varietal.

The problem is that sauvignon blanc, a grape that people usually think of less in terms of terroir than varietal flavor, turns out to be very site-specific. It needs to be planted in cool locales, as too much heat robs it of the very characteristics that constitute its appeal — pungent aroma, crisp acidity and vivacious flavor. Much of the winemaking world is simply too warm for it.

Although first-rate sauvignon blancs do come from elsewhere (South Africa, for example, is coming on strong), wines from grape-growing regions in four countries crowd the shelves in Washington-area stores. In order of importance (quality, not quantity), they are: France, New Zealand, the United States and Chile. A survey of each reveals both the thrills and the pitfalls that can come with springtime’s favorite white wine. Recommended bottlings reflect the best of those I have sampled so far in 2006.

FRANCE

This is sauvignon blanc’s historic home. The grape appears to be indigenous to both Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, and it can make excellent wine in both regions. It also, however, can make indifferent wine. A high Gallic price tag is no guarantee of quality.

Sauvignon tends to yield a softer, less pungent wine in Bordeaux than it does in the Loire, with the very top white Bordeaux becoming varietally atypical. These are just about the only sauvignon-based wines in the world that reward aging. With time in bottle, creamy depth rather than bright vivacity becomes their appeal. That explains why wines from famed producers such as Chateaux Haut-Brion and Margaux are beyond the scope of this survey. They taste wonderful, but they do not seem redolent of spring.

Other shorter-lived Bordeaux do. They can be hard to find, since many white wines from the region taste dull. But the search can be worthwhile when you try wines as exciting as Chateau Coustaut 2004 ($15) and Chateau Doisy-Daene Blanc 2004 ($24). Both exhibit layered subtleties. The Doisy-Daene, in particular, tastes wonderfully complex and complete.

While vintners in Bordeaux aim for grace and elegance, their counterparts in the Loire Valley want something edgier. Sauvignon grown there, particularly in the twin appellations of Pouilly Fume and Sancerre, tastes leaner and crisper, with a green, slightly herbal character, citrus and green apple fruit flavor, and a mineral-tinged undertone. Being initially cold and tight, with soothing warmth at heart, they most definitely have a springlike charm.

Loire sauvignons sometimes can seem too tight or tart. When everything goes right, though, they rank among the finest wines made from this grape. Superb examples I have tried recently include Lauverjat “Coteau Fruite” Sancerre 2004 ($19), Domaine Herve Seguin Pouilly-Fume 2004 ($23), and Alphonse Mellot “La Moussiere” Sancerre 2004 ($26). The last of these, multilayered and wonderfully nuanced, is definitely worth a special hunt to find.

NEW ZEALAND

Sauvignon blanc has been grown in New Zealand only since the 1970s, but in that time the wines made from it have taken the wine-loving world by storm. That’s because New Zealand sauvignon tastes like Loire Valley sauvignon on steroids. It’s more pungent, more intense, more bracing. At its best, it’s ethereal.

Of course, it’s not always best. New Zealand sauvignons sometimes seem just too intense, something like alcoholic grapefruit juice. Some vintners try to temper this propensity towards tartness by retaining sugar, but they run the opposite risk as their wines can seem excessively sweet. Getting sauvignon to taste harmonious is clearly a difficult balancing act.

The good New Zealand sauvignons taste first and foremost of citrus fruit, with a knife-edge cut of acidity that proves supremely refreshing. They often offer excellent value. Fine examples include Brancott 2005 ($12), Monkey Bay 2005 ($11), and Nobilo 2005 ($11), all from the Marlborough region at the northern tip of the country’s South Island.

A step up in price can bring you a step up in quality. The wines will still be racy, but they also will display secondary, nonfruit flavors that render them even more compelling. Excellent examples include Seifried 2005 ($18) from Nelson and Kim Crawford 2005 ($19) from Marlborough.

As you may have noted, all these wines are very young. They never will taste better than they do right now. As a general rule, sauvignon blancs are wines to drink within a couple of years of the harvest.

UNITED STATES

In terms of overall quality, France and New Zealand lead the sauvignon blanc race by a wide margin. Yet in terms of quantity, the grape has been planted widely elsewhere. The United States ranks fourth in the world in terms of acres under vine (coming after France, Chile, and Moldova), and American wines abound in the American marketplace.

Sadly, the vast majority of them taste lackluster at best. Some seem too OK, while many lack varietal identity. Even expensive American sauvignons too often taste like little more than generic white wine.

This has begun to change over the past few years. The increase in quality hasn’t been big enough to qualify as a renaissance or revival, and French and New Zealand vintners have no need (yet) to look back over their shoulders, but at least good American sauvignon blanc is no longer an oxymoron.

Although an occasional tasty wine can come from elsewhere (Virginia’s Linden Vineyards often makes a fine one), almost all exciting U.S. sauvignons are Californian. They come from a variety of regions in the state and in a variety of styles, ranging from wines that seem Loire- and New Zealand-influenced, with bright citrus flavors, to ones that taste rounder and fuller, with fruit that echoes melons and figs.

In the brighter style, Geyser Peak 2005 ($15); Mason 2004 ($18), and Dry Creek Vineyard Fume Blanc DCV3 Vineyard 2004 ($25) all excel. In the richer style, Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc 2005 ($19) and Frog’s Leap 2004 ($22) are well worth trying. (The name “fume blanc” is a California faux-French moniker, invented in the late 1960s by Robert Mondavi in an effort to make sauvignon blanc sound — but not necessarily taste — fancy.)

Finally, one producer who successfully treads a stylistic middle ground is Gainey Vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. Gainey Limited Selection Sauvignon Blanc ($23) is about as good as this varietal gets in the U.S. Look for the 2004 vintage, scheduled to arrive in shops shortly.

CHILE

Most Chilean sauvignon blanc imported to these shores carries a low price tag and tastes shrill. The good examples, though, prove compelling. Because this South American country is so thin and narrow, its vineyards are apt to be influenced by their proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Particularly in the Casablanca region, the cool ocean influence provides ideal growing conditions for sauvignon.

Good Chilean sauvignon tends to follow the New Zealand model in emphasizing bright fruit and crisp flavors, while evidencing a bit less acidity. The wines rarely suffer from the sugary excess that mars some from New Zealand. They’re bone dry and so very food friendly.

Folks on a budget can’t find a better sauvignon anywhere than Santa Rita “120” 2005 ($8). It tastes wonderfully fresh. Similarly styled, Veramonte 2005 ($11) also offers good value.

If you want to take a step up in both quality and price, try Terrunyo 2004 ($25), a wine made very much in a Loire Valley style, with grapefruit-scented fruit and an enticing mineral undertone. It’s very classy. Chile clearly has enormous potential with sauvignon blanc. The top vintners there treat it with genuine respect, and their wines are perfect for springtime sipping.


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