If there is a grape with a split personality it is sauvignon blanc. Sometimes it yields wines that are aggressive, hard to take, and downright unfriendly. At other times it is generous, becoming wines that instill thoughtfulness, and are altogether pleasing. From time to time it seems anorexic, offering nothing but leanness; then it may reappear heavy and dull, or it can be as shapely as any voluptuousness model. What makes sauvignon blanc like this is its home life, character and outside influences.
When allowed to speak with one voice, unblended and unsoftened by a winemaker’s tricks, the resulting wines can have pungent scents of lemongrass, citrus, asparagus (some use a descriptor of cat’s pee but I can do without that one); brazen flavors of grapefruit and tart lemonade; with the body of white Burgundies and a finish that is cleansing without being acidic.
Sauvignon blanc calls many places around the world home today, but its roots are in Bordeaux. From there, it moved to the Loire Valley, and then like many other grapes, it was brought to the New World. In Bordeaux, sauvignon blanc can be either dry or sweet. Sometimes it stands alone in a wine, but mostly it is blended with Semillon, the other important white wine grape of Bordeaux.
Sauvignon blanc’s natural character is highly acidic. This trait is tamable by various methods. One way is to let nature work its wonders through lasting and sufficient exposure to sunshine, allowing the grape to ripen fully. This ultimately produces enough natural sugar in the grape to balance the natural acidity. Another method occurs in the winemaking process employing aging in new French oak barrels. This softens the acidity while adding some body and infusing the wine with a vanilla-like flavor.
THE FRENCH WAY
The Bordelaise like blending their sauvignon blanc with semillon, mostly because sauvignon’s high acidity enlivens semillon’s natural softness. While many wine drinkers see red when Bordeaux is mentioned, the dry white wines of this region, and in particular those of the Pessac-Leognan appellations (Chateaux Haut-Brion, Chevalier, and Smith-Haut-Lafitte, for instance) are worthy of the finest cellars and foods.
Sauternes and Barsac are two other appellations for great white Bordeaux wine from sauvignon blanc. Here the grapes are left on the vines until late fall with the hope they will become infected with botrytis, or as it is euphemistically called, “noble rot.” When this occurs, sauvignon blanc’s acidity gives the unctuous wine a backbone that prevents it from being cloying. In great vintages, the best wines from this region, Chateau d’Yquem and Suduiraut, are majestic. While most sauvignon blanc wines from Bordeaux are consumed within a few years of the vintage, the dry and sweet wines from the great chateaux can age for decades.
Near Bordeaux is the Gascony region and like Bordeaux ruled by the English for 300 years in the Middle Ages where crisp, dry sauvignon blanc is made. Recently, I enjoyed the grapefruit-like character of the 2000 Domaine du Tariquet made from 100 percent sauvignon blanc.
Loire Valley wines like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are for many the place where sauvignon blanc reaches its zenith. The vineyards of these two appellations were planted with sauvignon blanc after being destroyed in the 19th century by phylloxera. While Bordeaux tamed its sauvignon through a combination of ripeness, malolactic fermentation and/or aging in oak barrels, the winemakers of the Loire let the grape’s natural personality speak loud and clear by avoiding the softening quality of malolactic fermentation, and by aging in neutral containers like stainless steel tanks, glass-lined vats, or old oak casks. None of the creamy vanilla flavors that new oak can impart disturb sauvignon blanc’s natural high acidity.
Sauvignon blancs from this region are the perfect wines to bring out the flavors of delicate fish dishes; match the vibrancy of “fusion” cooking; enjoy with goat and cow milk cheeses; be paired with poultry, veal, and pork dishes, and are great counterpoints to spicy Asian foods.
However, in less than good vintages, sauvignon blanc from this area can be mean and lean. Without body and sufficient fruit flavors, sauvignon blanc wines from the Loire Valley are offensively vegetal and aggressively acidic.
ALL OAKED UP
There is a movement afoot to use new oak barrels for Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé wines as popularized by Didier Dagueneau of Domaine de Ladoucette. With the region’s cool climate producing grapes with low sugar and high acidity, the use of new oak can give the wines more body and roundness. However, when not done with restraint the wines take on a candied aroma, fig-like taste, and lose their identity.
The New World has not been saved from sauvignon blanc’s split personality. California’s climate is much warmer than in the Loire, Bordeaux, or New Zealand (a new bastion of sauvignon blanc wines). And with winemakers from the Golden State in love with oak-infused chardonnays, it was only natural for them to transfer this affection to sauvignon blanc. The problem with this transferal is that often the grapes are too ripe, the sugars too high, the acidity too low. The resulting wines are too much like a wannabe-chardonnay. In short, they are heavy and dull. (California is also the home of the so-called Fumé Blanc, a marketing name created in the late 1960s by Robert Mondavi to sell his sauvignon blanc wine.)
Some producers in California have escaped this mindset. Picking grapes with lower sugar content, from cooler areas like Sonoma’s Russian River and Dry Creek districts, and restraining the vanilla-like flavor that new oak barrels impart, wines of good body, complex flavors, and balancing acidity are by winemaker’s like David Stare of Dry Creek Vineyards.
New Zealand is another frontier for sauvignon blanc. Its cool climate is ideal for creating sauvignon blanc wines that are the flip side of California’s and remarkably tailored to Loire Valley’s style. Yet, New Zealand sauvignon blancs are far from being Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume second fiddles. These wines epitomize the French meaning of sauvignon: savage or wild. Razor sharp on the palate, as noticeable as pepper in the nose, New Zealand sauvignon blancs are in-your-face from the first sniff to the last sip.
If sauvignon blanc from Bordeaux is Christian Dior than New Zealand sauvignon blanc is Soho punk with blue spiked hair. New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc is so aggressive, zestful, and distinctive that this one grape has placed the country amongst leading winemaking nations. And one winery, Cloudy Bay, carries the banner for this group.
SB, ITALIAN STYLE
Friuli sits in the northeastern section of Italy and is home to six appellations, or denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) using sauvignon blanc. Like in the Loire Valley, sauvignon blanc was first planted in this region after phylloxera destroyed the indigenous vines in the 19th century. And while the grape has grown here for several generations, it is only in the last decade that winemakers began using cold fermentation and stainless steel tanks to produce a clean, crisp, citrus-like wine.
Paolo Nitti, winemaker and owner of Tavagnacco winery in the prestigious Colli Orientali DOC, puts it this way. “If you put sauvignon blanc in oak and leave a little residual sugar, it becomes an aperitif instead of a Martini…the wine doesn’t go with fish, which was the original idea since that is the center of our cooking.”
Wine labeled sauvignon blanc from Friuli must be at least 95 percent true varietal. The region has no regulations concerning the use of oak barrels or stainless steel tanks, yet, it is unmistakably clear that these winemakers are devoted to the green tomato and lemongrass scent and flavors of limestone and citrus that stainless steel aging preserves in this area’s sauvignon blanc.
Australia, Washington State, Chile, and South Africa are other areas producing sauvignon blanc. Some producers in Washington State and Australia use it as a blending grape, just as in Bordeaux. Winemakers in South Africa and Chile tend to let the grape stand alone, but often put the wine in oak barrels for months.
Both styles are pleasing to my palate when the grape’s natural character of herbal and/or citrus fragrance and lemon, lime, and/or grapefruit-like flavors are retained. It is these characteristics that allows sauvignon blanc to be partnered with so many foods. And a good partner always has a full personality.
John Foy is a former restaurateur and chef, and a wine columnist for the Bergen (N.J.) Record.