Sauvignon Blanc: A Summer Staple

 


Wines, much like people, tend to be lumped together in broad categories based on over-arching generalizations and limited samples sets. It's just second nature to presuppose that a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will taste of gooseberries and chilies while one from France will recall minerals and herbs. While these generalizations are right on certain levels they tend to get extrapolated out and become more about the grape and less about the region. Perhaps it does reveal some inner truth about Sauvignon Blanc: it is after all a grape prone to grassiness and a distinct green pepperiness, but it may prevent people from exploring Sauvignon Blanc in all it's glory.

Sauvignon Blanc is a quintessential summer white. It tends to be very fresh and crisp with juicy fruit flavors and has typically been made as an unoaked wine. These elements combine to produce a wonderfully refreshing wine with an affinity for foods, particularly those we love in the warm summer months: seafood, salads, and the riches that come from the bounty of our garden, or maybe the farmers market.

Having said that it there are in fact more than a few styles of Sauvignon Blanc and many regions produce wine with a recognizable and distinct character that may overpower the efforts of a winemaker to put his or her stamp on the final product.

Here are a few wines that manage to express so much about their origins and provide maximum refreshment while doing it!

South Africa – South Africa is a relative newcomer to the Sauvignon Blanc scene. As the country's wine growers hedge their white wine bets, splitting the bulk of production between Chenin Blanc, traditionally called Steen in South Africa, and the decidedly more popular, though perhaps ultimately less compelling Sauvignon Blanc.

It's not that South Africa is a slouch with Sauvignon Blanc, the opposite in fact is true. The wines tend to be more mineral, precise, and taut than many, due in no small part to the combination of soil and a slightly short, if wonderfully consistent growing season.

The main reason I find South Africa's Sauvignon Blanc less compelling than their Chenin, is that they enter a much more crowded field and it is all too easy to compare the wines with established styles from around the globe, rather than simply on their own merits.

South Africa, along with France, is the source of most of the Sauvignon Blanc I regularly drink. I prefer the steely, mineral and citrus style that I find comes from many of South Africa's terroirs though there is a concerted effort on the part of many producers to emulate the more fruit driven style of New Zealand

2008 Sutherland  - light aromatics, crisp yellow fruit, a touch flinty, a touch of green tea, rather soft and easy with fresh citrus flavors, lime, pineapple, and guava, fresh limeadey, decent acid shows up on the backend, clean fruity finish, uncomplicated but appealing in it's intense lime character and freshness 87pts

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2009 Indaba – ripe with an almost peachy fruitiness on the nose,  fresh cut grass,  almost dandelion like, subtly floral, very fresh in the mouth, a touch lean but crisp with lemon, herb, and very soft chili notes, there's a ripe sweetness to the fruit here, nice crisp grassy tones on the rather long and succulent finish  which ends with a spearmint finale 88pts

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2008 Brampton – a rich nose with very ripe exotic fruit tones, passion fruit, a little pink grapefruit, roasted green chili, lime leaf, a nice lean mouthfeel with rather ripe fruit tones but retaining decent freshness, this gives up a bit of precision and zing in favor of ripe fruit tones and flavor. A bit loose though there is a nice mineral tone on the finish. 86pts

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 New Zealand, now here is the grand Sauvignon Blanc success story. Unlike France, where the region's name is king, think of Sancerre, New Zealand has made Sauvignon Blanc their go to grape. With a very fruit forward style featuring pineapple, gooseberry, fresh chilies, grass and even some Kiwi, which shouldn't come as a surprise, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has emerged as an affordable, appealing easy drinking, yet full flavored alternative to Chardonnay.

By utilizing the naming conventions typical of the New World, the grape variety takes prominence followed by the producer, country and region, New Zealand has set up the entire country as an easy consumer grab. If you're looking for a fruity, full throttle Sauvignon Blanc what could be easier than remembering an entire country.

Truth be told there are of course stylistic differences among producers in New Zealand, but the bottom line is that many producers adopted this “New Zealand” style as their own following in the foot steps of some early, and wildly successful trailblazers, like Cloudy Bay.

For me these wines can be delicious, but tend to be too intense to partner with the foods that have a natural affinity for Sauvignon Blanc. They are best served as a cocktail wine in many cases, though just when one feels comfortable making outlandish assertion such as that an exception comes up just to remind you that you are wrong again!

2006 Oriel Mana Marlborough  – big fruity nose with aggressive grass, chili, and dusty gravel tones over passion fruit and even pomegranate tinged fruit, big entry, very zesty with gooseberry, lime and again a touch of pomegranate berry fruitiness, rich but still almost steely with nice balance, finishes with nice cleansing acidity and moderate acidity 88pts


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2008 Sauvignon Republic Marlborough – Intense grass and roasted chili on the nose almost smoky mineral tones as well, smells like a riverbed,  A bit light, disconcertingly so, with adequate acidity but a rather blowsy feel in the mouth, moderate flavors of gooseberry and green plum on the palate with a touch of zesty herb and lime,  rather low key and boring though the lightness grows on you. Eminently drinkable and so friendly that I look forward to trying this in the right situation: i.e. by the pool! 85pts

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One could also be wrong if one were to assume that all Sauvignon Blanc from France were ideally suited to be paired at the dinner table, perhaps much less wrong, but wrong just the same. OK, so maybe only very slightly wrong.

Sauvignon Blanc from France tends to emphasize the mineral crispness of grapes grown in cooler climate with citrussy flavors instead of the more tropical tones associated with New Zealand, for example. These crisp, sometimes almost salty, chalky notes are mouthwatering; that Sauvignon Blanc retains excellent acidity when ripe also helps, and really sets these wines apart.

France lacks the stylistic consistency of many other countries when it comes to their Sauvignon Blanc. While the quality many times is excellent each region imparts a certain style, and there are regional differences in wine making that take into account what nature is able to give in each producer.

Sancerre is arguable the most famous region in France for Sauvignon Blanc. With the rather chalky soil that stretches throughout the region contributing tautness to the wines, these are among the raciest and most beguiling interpretations of the grape in all of France.  Fruit flavors tend towards the citrus but notes of ripe orchard fruit contribute a lovely complexity and provide a wonderful contrast to the tension of the minerality.

2008 Cirotte Domaine de la Croix St. Laurent Sancerre  -  sharp nose, mineral, yellow flower, touch of ash, touch of green pepper, green apple notes, a hint of celery,  lovely zesty entry, succulent with lemon and mineral tones, gains nice depth in the mouth with a suggestion of sweetness from the ripe fruit, a touch of Asian pear to the  lime and grapefruit pith fruit,  nice clean, minerally finish good length, very nice 91pts

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Pouilly-Fumé is another name that is inexorably intertwined with Sauvignon Blanc. Here the wines tend to be a bit bigger than in Sancerre with more varied fruit tones buttressed by an unmistakable smoky note contributed by the flinty soils. These may very well be the epitome of Sauvignon Blanc, full of fruit, mineral, and floral aromas and with a finesse and balance that makes them compelling and complex world-class wine. Of course there is a fair amount of plonk labeled under the name Pouilly-Fumé but such is the price of fame.

With rising popularity has come rising prices, so it's no surprise that alternatives to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé have come to the market in recent years. Whether from the East, with the best wines of Quincy and Menetou-Salon pulling off rather impressive imitations of classic Sancerre, or from the West's sprawling Jardin de France, as the Loire valley, home to Touraine, is known, Sauvignon Blanc is a grape with a long and impressive history at these northern most latitudes of winemaking in France.

2007 Chateau Gaillard Touraine  – a lovely nose, slightly woodsy, warm, waxy and almost figgy in it's ripeness yet maintains a tension bright, super zesty high acid style, totally refreshing with ripe berry fruit, and under-ripe green and yellow tones, a touch of green tea, some tree bark and mint notes, lemon and grapefruit fruits, delicious with a slightly herbal/medicinal finish that is just a touch dilute, 91pts

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At one extreme, stylistically, come the Sauvignon Blanc from Burgundy. These Saint Bris, as the wines are known, come from vineyards that share chalky soils similar to, as well as virtually adjacent to the famed vineyards of Chablis . Here the wines tend to be remarkably linear and crisp with an unencumbered character revealing a purity of green fruit paired with the lean, sinewy feel that is so typical of Chablis. These are wines that refresh and are able to revive one's palate with their blazing minerality and acidity but are not easy, fruit forward wines that need no thought.

2007 Simonnet Febvre St. Bris  -  crisp white flowers, and lightly smoky soil tones on the nose add to the fruity notes of dried pineapple, dried lime and Asian pear on the nose.  Nice and bright in the mouth with fine balance between the acid spine and fleshy feel, lovely mouthfeel, just rich enough yet still very fresh with subtle shadings of ripe herbs, yellow berry fruit and gravelly spice notes.  Drop off a bit on the finish with a single note citrus return, 88pts

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If one were to move further south one might come to the find the white wines of Bordeaux, based on blends that include Sauvignon Blanc typically blended with Semillon and Muscadelle. But even here, where blending is normal and oak-aging of Sauvignon Blanc an accepted practice, one finds much Bordeaux Blanc where  Sauvignon Blanc takes control of the blend and dominates the finished product with lightly grassy aromas, decidedly less minerality than the more northern wine exhibit, yet a wonderful purity of lemony fruit.

2008 La Mouliniere Bordeaux Blanc  - earthy, melony, a touch of spic y floral tones on the nose with rather waxy fruit tones, a touch of ash.  Light in the mouth, melony and somewhat pink fruit flavors, a touch peachy, very easy style,  nice length, peachy and lightly mineral/vitamin/ashy on the finish then ends with a lime finale. Lacks a little depth but is refreshing. 86pts

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Our own domestic history with Sauvignon Blanc, and it's alias Fume Blanc, a name craftily massaged by Robert Mondavi, in California is decidedly mixed and even after decades we are still searching for an identity for our wines. We, as is typical, run the gamut of styles.  Growers in California have Sauvignon Blanc planted all over the state and still more time is need to identify the ideal regions for the variety.

Historically Sauvignon Blanc from California has been thought of as a rather grassy, weedy wine, as many early versions exhibited these traits. Ironically the reason may have been that the grapes were planted in regions that were too warm. While this seems counter-intuitive, more heat should yield fruitier wines right? Wrong, the facts are that grapes ripen in stages that are not always well aligned.

A grapes maturity, it's sugar-acid balance, can fallow a path that allows it to run parallel to it's physiological ripeness, the ripeness of the skins and pips that contribute to the flavor of the wine. If the maturation curve gets ahead of the physiological ripeness a grower may be forced to pick grapes with perfect sugar and acid reading yet unripe, green flavors. Such is the case with much of California's Sauvignon Blanc of years past.

Today a new generation of producers has taken a hard look at the issues presented by Sauvignon Blanc and have taken measures to produce wines that are making a break with the past. Growers are either seeking out cooler vineyard site for Sauvignon Blanc or have embraced the styles they can make from their warmer sites utilizing a little bit of wood aging to add depth and a creamy texture to soft wines with rich orchard fruit tones. It's ultimately a stylistic decision that consumer can embrace.

2008 Robert Mondavi Private Selection  – fresh and crisp with grassy notes and fresh pear, light peach and grapefruit tones.  Bright, a touch small in the mouth and perhaps just a whisper of unneeded sweetness. Round and fruity style, with nothing wrong, just simple, easy, with some subtle grassy and sweet herb tones. Short finish. Clean and simple 84pts



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2008 Hess Allomi Vineyard Napa Valley   -  floral and sweet on the nose with a key lime pie/ lemon custard edge to the fruit, , quite floral, very focused in the mouth with moderately rich flavors of  nectarine,  pink grapefruit and a creamy touch.  A touch of herb and mineral pops on the moderately long finish. A fairly large scaled SB that remains balanced and fresh, bay leaf on the backend 91pts

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2006 Star Lane Vineyard  -  ever so slightly grassy, more herbal and very yellow fruited on the nose with ,a big wild flower note and soft aromas of grape, peach and a hint of banana -  fresh entry with nice body, a bit soft but nice mineral tones back up the soft, ripe yellow fruits that recall the nose,  rather creamy feel on the backend with a touch of banana and more apple and orchard fruit tones than citrus, Made in a richer style this remains zesty and fresh. Nice mineral finish 89pts

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It's a wonderful thing, this variety we find with Sauvignon Blanc around the world. Unlike some other grape varieties, there is healthy stylistic experimentation and competition going on as different producers and regions attempt to carve out a piece of the Sauvignon Blanc pie for themselves. I can't think of a better scenario for producer and consumer alike. I'm glad it's summer and time for our own experiments with Sauvignon Blanc.

Gregory Dal Piaz

Community Manager

Snooth


Mentioned in this article

Comments

  • Snooth User: penguinoid
    Hand of Snooth
    148296 1,216

    Some interesting wines here. I'm a bit of a fan of minerally white wines, so I think I'll keep an eye out for the 2007 Simonnet Febvre St. Bris. Some of the South African ones sound interesting, too, so I'll keep an eye out for them as well.

    Jul 20, 2009 at 7:12 AM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,424

    Agree with you on the Mondavi, Greg, and thanks for the pointer to the Hess Allomi, which I haven't tried.

    I'm a fan of French sauvignon blanc, all year around, depending on the menu. Elsewhere, stated in broad terms, I've continued to be disappointed, with the few I've had from South Africa and the more from New Zealand (I liked Cloudy Bay better, perhaps as a novelty, in the early '90s than since then with the overall rise in growing season temperatures). Somehow I still hold out hope for California, Oregon and Washington if they can focus on the varietal seriously for a bit longer.

    Next time around, anything from Graves, or that part of France, too?

    Jul 20, 2009 at 10:47 AM


  • Snooth User: Derek67
    Hand of Snooth
    32027 694

    Hi Greg,

    I have had the following recently and they are dynamite:
    Rochioli 2008-RRV
    Stephen Test 2007-RRV
    Mauritson 2007-Dry Creek
    Chateau St. Jean 2008-Sonoma County (The best buy in Fume!)

    DC

    Jul 21, 2009 at 1:06 AM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,424

    Thanks, Greg, and I'll be looking forward to your notes on whites across Bordeaux.

    Though nothing to do with SB, might I also suggest a couple different visits at some point?
    1) Perhaps the 2007 reds, of all varietals, up and down the Rhone?
    2) Since I joined Snooth this past winter, I haven't seen too much in depth on chardonnays-would thus like to suggest a visit all across Burgundy when you have a chance. And then even some comparison to New World chardonnays made in a more ‘French' style?

    Jul 21, 2009 at 7:14 AM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 212,964

    I was impressed with the Hess, fully prepared not to like it but it does what it does very well.
    For me the best of South Africa is second only to France. New Zealand, for the most part, is just too in your face and I'm looking more for refreshing subtlety.

    I hope to be able to report more fully on the whites of Bordeaux in the near future.

    Jul 21, 2009 at 11:43 AM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 212,964

    We just tasted through some domestic Chardonnay. Getting samples from Burgundy can be challenging, though some are awaiting “friends” to complete a line-up.

    Jul 22, 2009 at 11:26 AM


  • Snooth User: VegasOenophile
    Hand of Snooth
    202759 12,195

    I have been enjoying Nobilo Icon from New Zealand for a couple years now and the 2008 was something special. If you can find it, definitely worth a try! I keep buying four or five bottles at a time when I see it.

    Oct 03, 2009 at 4:34 AM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 212,964

    I'll keep an eye out for the Icon. Thanks for the tip!

    Oct 05, 2009 at 12:39 PM


  • MY new try is Rose Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2007.
    Had a strong lemon, apple, pear, honey and floral scent . Very clean.

    Apr 10, 2010 at 11:05 PM


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