Spring into Sauvignon Blanc
The sauvignon blanc grape occupies a strange place in the world of wine. Like its very distant red relative, cabernet sauvignon, and its popular and ubiquitous “big brother” Chardonnay, it takes well to many different soils and climates. However, unlike those two “international” grape varieties, sauvignon blanc rarely reaches profound heights.
Instead, sauvignon blanc produces an ocean of good to very good wine from a multitude of regions around the world. Each place produces a distinct expression of sauvignon blanc, but the grape’s pungent, intense aromas always shine through, along with tangy fruit ranging from citrus to tropical flavors. Here are some of my favorite regions to source sauvignon blanc, along with some recommended examples (see sidebar).
Two parts of France are famous for their sauvignon blanc wines: the Loire Valley where the regions of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé are king and queen, and in Bordeaux, where the grape partners with semillon to make age-worthy, rich dry whites and the legendary dessert wines of sauternes and barsac. I particularly love the wines of Sancerre, which show sauvignon blanc at its most stony and intense. Though Sancerre produces middleweight wines, they do not lack for layering and complexity.
MARLBOROUGH, NEW ZEALAND
New Zealand sauvignon blanc may be the new world’s greatest white wine success story. The best producers in Marlborough, a wine-growing region in northern half of New Zealand’s southern island, produce some of the world’s most intensely aromatic expressions of the grape. (Master sommeliers I have met have joked that, if you can’t tell a New Zealand SB from aromatics alone, you are in trouble when it comes to passing the test.) Marlborough sauv blancs explode from the glass with grassy and tropical fruit aromas, and have dense fruit packed into a lighter texture.
NAPA VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
California’s most famous wine region is best known for cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and I think privileging the latter is a major mistake. While chardonnay grows well in a few cooler corners of the valley, the most interesting Napa whites are, for me, the rich, tropical expressions of sauvignon blanc grown there. Interestingly, recent research performed on cabernet sauvignon’s DNA shows that it was produced by a chance crossing of sauvignon blanc and the lighter red grape cabernet franc.
Sauvignon blanc tends to thrive in the same areas where those two red grapes perform well, so Napa Valley is a natural home for the grape. You will occasionally see California SB labeled as “fumé blanc” —the Mondavi family gave their version this name to borrow a little cachet from France’s famous Pouilly Fume region.
When people ask me for a value white wine for their party, I almost always steer them first to Chilean sauvignon blanc. The grape can produce good flavor at high crop levels, and the large scale production wineries of Chile lean heavily on the grape to produce both quantity and quality. For those on the hunt for a sub-$10 white, it’s hard to go wrong with some of the best-known brands.
Recommended Sauvignon Blancs
France – There are many branches of the Reverdy family in Sancerre, but Hippolute Reverdy has always been my favorite. This wine is stony and flinty with great layering of citrus fruit. For a richer French expression, look for Chateau Carbonnieux Graves Blanc. This property is well-distributed in the United States, and a great example of a rich white Bordeaux.
To Kalon I Block – Napa Valley Splurge
Napa Valley – Classic examples come from Groth, Silverado and, of course, Robert Mondavi. The regular Mondavi fumé blanc is good, but if you can ever find a bottle of the "To-Kalon I Block" bottling, jump on it.
New Zealand – Nobilo is consistent from year to year, and very affordable. It has the intense aromatics and bracing tropical and citrus flavors that exemplify the grape in Marlborough. For a special treat, track down a bottle of Nobilo’s "Icon" bottling.
Chile – The widely available Santa Rita "120" sauvignon blanc is a great spring and summer weeknight wine, and perfect for larger parties. For a more extravagant example, hunt for Casa LaPostolle’s “Casa” version.