As summer fast approaches, it’s bringing local produce from the farmer’s markets and the lighter, fresher meals we dream about all winter. For wine sellers, it’s a time when sauvignon blanc is in vogue.
This versatile grape makes wines that are crisp, dry, aromatic and vibrant, distinctive in each growing region and eminently suited for sipping and matching with the foods of the season. With that in mind, Cheers asked some leading wine professionals for their perspectives on sauvignon for summer.
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chicago
Night after night at RPM Italian in Chicago, you can bet that sauvignon blanc will be one of the two top-selling white varietals by the glass, doing battle with pinot grigio and chardonnay.
And that’s fine with Ryan Arnold, sommelier/division wine director for the modern Italian dining spot. But he also aspires to show guests who enjoy clean, crisp, stainless-steel-fermented sauvignon that there are higher expressions of the grape that might increase their pleasure.
The key to exploring added texture, flavor and aroma in sauvignon blanc is a moderately higher investment, Arnold says, along with guidance from the server or sommelier. The sweet spot on the wine list is a price of $50 to $80 a bottle.
“I think when you are in those price points, it is worth spending that extra dollar,” says Arnold, who also guides the wine programs of dining concepts such as Summer House Santa Monica and Stella Barra Pizzeria, both with locations in Chicago and North Bethesda, MD; Hub 51 and Paris Club Bistro and Bar in Chicago. All are owned by Lettuce Entertain You, a Chicago-based multiconcept operator with more than 100 restaurants in Illinois, California, Arizona, Maryland, Virginia, Minnesota and Nevada.
Arnold encourages the Sancerre drinker to sample the greater complexity of Pouilly-Fumé, made just across the Loire River in France. And he urges the fan of 100%-varietal California sauvignon blanc to experience the added richness and weight of a sauvignon blend with semillon or viognier.
Hand-selling spurs guests’ interest in unfamiliar wines and helps them feel comfortable trying something new. For example, Arnold may tell a table of guests how the Napa Valley producer Matthiasson blends sauvignon with semillon and the traditional Italian varietals ribolla gialla and tocai friulano to make an intense and aromatic blend inspired by the wines of Friuli.
“It’s a marriage of the best that Northeastern Italy does with what they do best in Napa Valley,” says Arnold.
Matthiasson 2012 Napa Valley White Wine, as the blend is called, is a winning match for Lobster Caprese at RPM Italian. Arnold notes that it has the richness and acidity to complement the dish’s lobster, buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil.
“I find that sauvignon blanc really plays well in matching that intensity,” Arnold says. The wine is priced at $78 on the RPM Italian list.
Arnold turns to New Zealand sauvignon to pair with ahi tuna tostadas on the menu of Summer House Santa Monica in Chicago. The dish is a California-style riff on ceviche made with marinated ahi tuna, watermelon and Thai chile on corn tostadas with avocado crema. Infamous Goose 2013 Marlborough sauvignon blanc, priced at $44, has the structure and acidity to work with textures and piquancy of dish, Arnold says.
W. Scott Harper, Master Sommelier
Bristol Bar & Grille, Jeffersonville, IN
Sauvignon blanc is a go-to grape for summertime food matching at the Bristol Bar & Grille in Jeffersonville, IN. The casual dining concept offers a diverse menu of American and international dishes and a wine program marked by variety, discovery and value.
Master sommelier W. Scott Harper fields a regular list of 60 wines—40 poured by the glass—plus a 60-bottle reserve list. Together they represent more than four-dozen growing regions around the globe, a selection as broad as the dining room’s panoramic view of downtown Louisville, KY, just across the Ohio River.
Harper offers sauvignon blancs from Napa Valley, CA; Marlborough, New Zealand; Sancerre, France; and Casablanca, Chile. These pair well with casual dining favorites like fried calamari as well as more elevated entree options, such as ahi tuna seared rare and served with a tropical fruit glaze.
“It is an awesome food wine, and that is what we do,” says Harper, who is general manager of the Jeffersonville restaurant, as well as managing partner/corporate wine and beverage director for Bristol Bar & Grille, which also has four Bristol locations in Louisville.
With an appetizer of pan flashed shrimp with artichoke and roasted red pepper chipotle sauce, Harper suggests Quintay Clava 2013 Casablanca sauvignon blanc. Bristol prices the wine at $6.50 a glass, $22 a bottle.
The Quintay Clava is a good expression of cool-climate Casablanca fruit made without oak treatment, helping to keep the price reasonable, Harper notes. Its citrus and herbaceous notes and touch of fruitiness complement the crustaceans and their zesty sauce.
“The wine is dry, but not crazy dry,” says Harper. “And that little bit of fruit helps quell some of the spice of the chipotles.”
Harper also recommends Honig 2013 Napa Valley sauvignon blanc, priced at $8.50 by the glass, $30 by the bottle, with shrimp and scallops basilicato. The Honig’s ample body and acidity—plus a touch of minerality—make it a congenial companion for the shellfish, which is prepared with garlic butter, white wine and pesto and served over linguine.
Sesame seared tuna with pineapple-ginger-soy glaze, priced at $19, is an ideal match with Spy Valley 2012 Marlborough sauvignon blanc, priced at $35. The wine’s trademark sauvignon acidity and medium-to-full body stand up to the meaty fish, while its fruit nuances are compatible with the pineapple-ginger-soy glaze.
The better expressions of sauvignon blanc offer consistently high quality and value for the money, Harper says. That is also true of his wine program in general.
“I don’t mean everything here is priced at $20,” says Harper. “But if it’s 20 bucks, it’s gotta rock it out for 20 bucks. And if it’s a $50 bottle of Sancerre, it should be damn good for 50 bucks.”
Shaker & Spear, Seattle
If early indications hold true, sauvignon blanc-based wines will be hot properties this summer at Shaker & Spear, a new Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants seafood spot in downtown Seattle. The varietal was already selling well in early spring, says Lauren Lathrop, general manager/wine director of the cozy, 60-seat restaurant.
For Lathrop, it’s a varietal in tune with executive chef Walter Pisano’s menu, which is fresh, frequently changing and focused on simply prepared seafood and local produce.
The wine list, which Lathrop assembled with Emily Wines, Kimpton’s master sommelier/national director of beverage programs, numbers about 60. The selections emphasize high-acid white wines, hence the role for sauvignon blanc.
“Brightness and minerality are the things that are the most consistent across the wine list,” Lathrop says. “That is what elevates the chef’s food.”
Sauvignon, with its herbal qualities, has a special affinity for spring and summer produce. Lathrop describes Chateau La Freynelle 2013 Entre-Deux-Mers, a Bordeaux Blanc priced at $10 by the glass, $40 by the bottle, as “the perfect salad wine,” especially for spicy, peppery-tasting greens with herb-enhanced vinaigrette.
Nobilo 2013 Marlborough sauvignon blanc, priced at $7 by the glass, has a traditional New Zealand grassy style with some roundness that works well with simply grilled whole fish, Lathrop says.
Also a good match with many seafood dishes is a home-state favorite, Cadaretta 2013 SBS sauvignon blanc/semillion from Columbia Valley, WA. Priced at $50 by the bottle, it’s a blend in the style of Bordeaux Blanc.
An example of a pairing that Shaker & Spear may feature in the summer is herb-stuffed branzino, grilled and served with a pickled radish and shaved asparagus salad, with Domaine Lucien Crochet 2013 Sancerre Croix du Roy. “Branzino would be delightful with classic Sancerre,” says Lathtrop. “Sancerre often features a bright, herbal quality that is unique to the region and will make an herb-stuffed branzino sing.”
John Ragan, M.S.
Union Square Hospitality Group, New York
Depending on the mood or the occasion, sauvignon blanc can either be shorthand for crisp, fresh, easy-to-drink white wine or a passport to adventure—like a stroll in the vineyards of Chavignol in France’s Sancerre appellation, for instance.
“There is a spot where wine transcends being a refreshing beverage and tells a story and speaks of a place and time,” says John Ragan, master sommelier/director of wine and restaurant operations for Union Square Hospitality Group in New York. “One of the reasons sauvignon blanc is so important is that it can fight on both of those levels.”
Great Sauvignon is often less expensive than great chardonnay, because its elevage, or winemaking process, is shorter and it usually does not require new oak barrels, says Ragan. He oversees the wine programs of several New York dining destinations including Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, Marta and Maialino.
“Even the best bottlings from Pascal Cotat [Sancerre] and Didier Dagueneau [Pouilly-Fumé], two winemakers in the epicenter of sauvignon blanc on the planet, will be priced between $85 and $200 on a wine list,” says Ragan. “For the best chardonnay on the planet, you would add another zero or two.”
Yet there is value at lower price points, too. “The straightforward glass of Sancerre for $13 or $14, or the simpler $9 glass from another place, can deliver a lot of pleasure,” Ragan says.
He finds that some of the most distinctive sauvignons these days are coming out of Italy’s Friuli. Winemakers there are exploring a variety of blends, oak treatments and vineyard practices. “For me, those different takes are what makes that region so interesting,” Ragan says.
Given sauvignon blanc’s crisp, fruity character, matching it with summer ingredients is “a no-brainer,” Ragan says. Salads, foods with herbaceous notes and seafood dishes are likely partners.
At The Modern, the cauliflower cooked in crab butter with almond, lemon and tarragon, meets its soul mate in Pascal Cotat 2013 Les Monts Damnés Sancerre, priced at $120 a bottle. Ragan notes that the generous acidity of the Cotat answers the richness of the crab butter and its citrus and herbal nuances echo the lemon and tarragon in the dish.
And at Union Square Café, the Cara Cara orange salad with pine nuts, ricotta salata and fennel vinaigrette is happily married with Lieu Dit 2013 Santa Ynez Valley sauvignon blanc, priced at $65. The wine “dances with the oranges and work really well with the fennel and ricotta,” says Ragan.
James Scarpa covers food, beverage and the business of restaurants from Chicago.