Sauvignon Blanc for the Savvy: A Global Guide to 10 Top Bottles
With oceans of this ever-popular white wine out there, how do you know which one to pick? Here, a road map to the Sauvignon Blanc regions—and bottles—smart drinkers should seek out
SAUVIGNON BLANC is a wine-world conundrum: highly distinctive but sometimes unremarkable; wildly popular yet not always prized; grown everywhere, but even its fans know only two types: New Zealand and Sancerre.
Perhaps that’s why so many wine professionals invoke these two places when selling Sauvignon Blancs produced just about anywhere else. When I bought a couple of bottles from Italy’s Friuli region at a Manhattan wine store recently, the salesman described one as “New Zealand-like” and the other as “like Sancerre.” Never mind that Sauvignon Blanc has been produced in Friuli for centuries. Nothing if not peripatetic, Sauvignon Blanc also grows in South Africa, Chile and Washington State, not to mention New York, Napa Valley, Sonoma, Germany, Austria and Australia, and so on (and on). It thrives in a range of climates and soils.
The wine’s popularity is increasing not only among growers but with wine drinkers, too. And yet, with so much Sauvignon Blanc produced all over the world, there are clearly going to be both winners and duds (with most examples falling somewhere between forgettable and avoid-at-all-costs). What should wine drinkers look for, and which producers and regions can they trust?
Perhaps it might help to understand a bit more about what sets this varietal apart. Take, for example, the descriptors commonly used on the back labels of bottles to describe Sauvignon Blanc’s aromas, which read like a trip down the grocery store produce aisle: green apple, pineapple, mango, melon, orange, honeydew, lemon, lime, gooseberry.
Sauvignon Blanc’s lively acidity also makes it an easy and versatile partner with food. A good bottle can cost less than $20, and a decent one can be found for as little as $10 (though a lot of Sauvignon Plonk can be found at that price too). That’s because Sauvignon Blanc typically costs relatively little to produce: It’s often fermented in stainless steel instead of more expensive oak barrels and shipped out soon after bottling. While this can result in some less than spectacular wines made to turn a quick buck, even the inferior examples haven’t led to a backlash akin to the one Chardonnay has suffered.
Yet Sauvignon Blanc has rarely attracted the same kind of fulsome praise from serious oenophiles that Chardonnay has, save for a few lauded Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés and white Bordeaux (blends of Sauvignon Blanc with Sémillon). A wine collector friend told me that while he liked Sauvignon Blanc because it was “easy to drink,” he didn’t have much respect for the wines because they “lack the grandeur of a white Burgundy.” He actually said that while drinking a very good Sancerre, the 2015 Gérard Boulay Monts Damnés Sancerre—which may prove nothing more than some collectors are snobs.
But some wines definitely outrank others, and the grape presents different characteristics—sometimes unpleasantly so—depending on how and where it’s grown. For example, in too-warm climates, it can take can take on an unappealing aggressive herbal note. Furthermore, in each growing region a unique winemaking culture prevails, and certain ones have adopted unmistakable Sauvignon Blanc styles.
A WELL-TRAVELED WINE // 10 SAUVIGNON BLANC REGIONS—AND BOTTLES—TO KNOW, AROUND THE WORLD
Even non-oenophiles can identify a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The juicy acidity and lively fruit, characteristics that drinkers love, have made New Zealand Sauvignons one of the more durable categories in American wine stores. According to Dan Schmude, regional manager and buyer at Bottle King, which has 14 stores in New Jersey, the stores’ sales of New Zealand Sauvignon rise 10% each year. Bottle King’s 30 Kiwi Sauvignons account for 75% of its Kiwi wine sales overall.
New Zealand winemaker Mike Allan of Huia in Marlborough credits the novelty of the New Zealand style. “They were flavors that hadn’t been seen before,” he said, recalling the debut of Cloudy Bay, the iconic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that put New Zealand Sauvignon on the map in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Mr. Allan was part of the early Cloudy Bay winemaking team.) Then there’s the infamous “cat’s pee” smell often associated with Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand—a very particular sharpness—not necessarily considered a bad thing. (One Kiwi producer even decided to make it a selling point and named a Sauvignon Blanc “Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush.”)
The Sauvignon Blancs produced in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, in France’s Loire Valley, tend to be richer and earthier than their counterparts in New Zealand, with less acidity. This is partly due to climate and partly to soil (chalk and Kimmeridgian limestone), and both are important factors in determining the character of Sauvignon Blanc.
Winemaking also plays a role. When Sauvignon Blanc ferments and ages in oak rather than stainless steel, the profile becomes bigger, sometimes slightly sweeter too. In the 1970s, winemaker Merry Edwards raised the profile of Matanzas Creek winery in Sonoma with her barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc. Few California winemakers were doing it back then, but the practice is commonplace now. (Ms. Edwards makes a barrel-aged Sauvignon Blanc under her own label today.)
The 2015 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc was among 25-plus Sauvignon Blancs I tasted in the company of Sauvignon Blanc-loving friends. Faced with the oceans of available Sauvignon Blanc, I was determined to ferret out bottles that were not only top-quality but also representative of their regions. The wines ranged from $10 to $45 and were geographically and stylistically far-flung, too. Some were light, crisp and refreshing; others, more substantial, with the potential to age well. See “A Well-Traveled Wine,” below, for the results, a greatest-hits list as well as a field guide to regional styles.
‘Sauvignon Blanc drinkers who look beyond Sancerre and New Zealand will find there’s much more out there to love.’
The simplest hailed from South Africa and Chile. And while some were a little too simple, the standouts can best be described, in the words of Anthony Hamilton Russell, proprietor of Southern Right winery in South Africa’s Western Cape, as “somewhere between the freshness of New Zealand and the minerality of the Loire.”
The New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs came from Marlborough, save one from Hawke’s Bay, and were the most consistent in style. As a group they exhibited the refreshing, round, full-bodied Kiwi Sauvignon character.
Plantings in California have increased, and Sauvignon Blanc has become particularly popular in Napa, with more and more producers turning out stylish Sauvignon Blancs in addition to fancy Cabs. The wines we tasted from Napa and Sonoma were more various than those from New Zealand—some soft and more floral than herbal, some marked by an aggressive acidity, others rounder and more complex.
The French wines varied about as widely as the California ones did. Some Sancerres presented the “clean Sauvignon Blanc” profile sommeliers don’t particularly admire but have no trouble selling. (Josh Nadel, beverage director of Andrew Carmellini’s restaurants in New York City, calls Sancerre “bulletproof.”) But several were notable, especially that outstanding 2015 Gérard Boulay Monts Damnés Sancerre, full-bodied and rich but with a bright mineral finish. “Perfect,” my group of Sauvignon Blanc lovers declared.
I also found remarkable wines from much less popular Sauvignon Blanc precincts including Friuli in northern Italy, the Adelaide Hills in Australia, the Pfalz in Germany, the North Fork of Long Island and the Yakima Valley in Washington State—each one a singular expression of this most singular grape.
Sauvignon Blanc drinkers willing to venture beyond Sancerre and New Zealand will find there’s a lot more out in the world to choose from and even to love.
This northeastern corner of Italy, an important white-wine region, produces a wide range of grapes—and Sauvignon Blancs in a medium-bodied, riper style.
BOTTLE TO BUY: 2015 Russiz Superiore Collio Sauvignon ($32). According to Russiz Superiore proprietor Roberto Felluga, “The wines of Sancerre have a texture we aspire to without making Sancerre.” His polished wine pays more than worthy homage.
Copyright 2017 Marco Felluga. All rights reserved.