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Sauvignon Blanc: A Versatile, Food-Friendly Wine
When writing about Sauvignon Blanc, my thoughts invariably focus on satisfying food and wine combinations instead of analyzing the wine as a subject by itself. Wine tasters can pick apart a dozen Chardonnays as a mental exercise, looking for oak toast levels, acid balance, depth of fruit, malolactic butteriness and the like, but in comparing and contrasting a dozen Sauvignon Blancs, the effort tends to produce thoughts and comments such as "This one would be great with pan-fried sand dabs with lemon butter," and "Couldn't you just imagine how tasty this one would be with mesquite-grilled medallions of pork?"
That's the beauty of this versatile varietal: both the wine and the food it accompanies are enhanced and made complete by the pairing. While Chardonnay may well be at home in the living room as an apÈritif, Sauvignon Blanc's place is definitely in the dining room.
So food friendly is this wine that it can set the tone for an entire meal. Just a few weeks ago, for example, another wine writer and I spent the better part of a morning in the Napa Valley tasting through an entire product line with the winemaker -- everything from Viognier to Cabernet Sauvignon. Afterwards, we made our way for lunch to Pinot Blanc, a country French bistro-style restaurant that specializes in grilled and roasted menu items, as well as generous luncheon salads. The winemaker remarked that the restaurant had Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc on its extensive wine list. Perfect. All of us immediately agreed that this hard-to-find New Zealand version of Sauvignon Blanc, with its characteristic forward grassiness, crisp acidity and wonderfully defined peppery-melon and herb flavors, was just the wine around which to build a rewarding lunch.
Sauvignon Blanc (sometimes called FumÈ Blanc) has the capacity to enoble plain, simple seafood, and will hold up nicely to herbal preparations (thyme, rosemary, basil, tarragon, coriander -- flavors often found in Sauvignon Blanc) or fowl and white meats (veal and pork). The wine has vibrant flavors that go surprisingly well with spicy and ethnic cuisines, such as Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Korean, Mexican and Southwestern dishes, as well as traditional French fare. An endive leaf filled with a mixture of goat cheese, freshly cracked black pepper, minced herbs and extra-virgin olive oil is a perfect foil for an assertive, grassy Sauvignon Blanc or a classy white Meritage (a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and SÈmillon). Other table suggestions include smoked salmon or trout, lobster bisque and cured duck.
The best Sauvignon (or FumÈ) Blancs should exhibit some grassy character, either as the scent or flavor of fresh garden herbs or new-mown grass or hay. The wine should be clean and refreshing on the palate, with lively acidity. Fruit qualities should be somewhere on the spectrum from citrus and melon to pineapple and passion fruit, depending on the growing area. If blended with some SÈmillon, the resulting wine may take on pleasing fig-like qualities and extra richness and body.
There seems to be a trend at many California wineries to take greater care with Sauvignon Blanc than ever before. Enlightened vineyard management removes excess canopy cover, allowing better ripening conditions and eliminating or restraining excessive vegetal or "green bean" qualities in the resulting wine. In the winery, the free-run juice is often kept on the lees -- the sediments consisting of various by-products of fermentation, including spent yeast cells, usually left behind in the barrel or stainless steel vat when the wine is removed -- allowing it to extract more flavor and aromatics. Partial or complete barrel fermentation and some aging in older oak are also now employed to give greater depth to Sauvignon Blanc.
Recently the Vintners Club panel evaluated a dozen current-release Sauvignon Blancs ranging in price from $7 to $14. Most were from the 1995 vintage, an excellent year for California wines. There is a style here to fit every preference. In addition to the wines listed below, excellent Sauvignon Blanc is offered by, among others, Quivira (especially their reserve bottling), Ferrari-Carano (labeled as FumÈ Blanc), St. Clement, Langtry White Meritage (produced by Guenoc), Simi Sendal (a proprietary blend of two-thirds Sauvignon Blanc and one-third SÈmillon), Duckhorn, Dry Creek Vineyard, Cain "MusquÈ" (a special Sauvignon Blanc clone), Matanzas Creek and Spottswoode.
1994 Kendall-Jackson Sauvignon Blanc, "Vintner's Reserve," California ($9.50)
A blend of fruit from Lake County, Mendocino, San Luis Obispo, Sonoma and Napa, this bargain-priced wine offers pleasant, appealing aromas of new-mown hay, melon and citrus with notes of vanilla and spice from barrel fermentation. Delicious flavors of melon and fig are moderately complex. The wine is medium bodied with excellent acidity.
1995 Caymus Sauvignon Blanc, Barrel Fermented, Napa Valley ($13)
An oaky style that comes off quite nicely -- not too heavy handed or Chardonnay-like. Butterscotch and spice in the nose, along with ripe, lemony citrus. Rich on the palate, offering nice fruit and plenty of cinnamon-clove spice.
1995 Hanna Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County ($10)
Blended with 8 percent Chardonnay, the Hanna exhibits aromas of apple-pear and lemon, plus honeysuckle and vanillin oak from the partial (35 percent) barrel fermentation. Soft citrus flavors are complemented by an intriguing mineral note.
1995 Chateau Souverain Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley ($7.50)
Wild flowers, fresh white melon and peach-like fruit and a hint of sage define the nose. Crisp acidity brings out the floral and fruit flavors; medium bodied with a lingering finish. The winemaking here offers a clue to the wine's appeal: Gentle cluster pressing to avoid bitterness imparted by seeds and stems, fermentation and ageing in older French Nevers oak barrels and no malolactic fermentation which could have muted varietal character. Excellent value.
1995 Rodney Strong Sauvignon Blanc, Charlotte's Home Vineyard, Northern Sonoma ($10)
A grassy style here, with lots of pleasant now-mown hay scents in the nose. Mouthfilling with good acidity, the wine's flavors carry through with the grassy element plus ripe, peachy fruit.
1995 Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County ($7.50)
Forward scents of tropical fruit and mild bell pepper herbaceousness are complex and appealing and are replicated in the flavors, which are elegant and very varietal. A generous, delicious, complex wine that represents a terrific bargain; my style of Sauvignon Blanc.
1995 Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($13.50)
Shy aromas of peachy fruit with little of the grassy or herbal notes often found in Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs. Similar flavors are fruity and pleasant; adequate acidity.
1995 Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($14)
An oaky style here, offering fresh scents of lemony citrus and vanilla. The flavors focus on melon-pear and citrus fruit, plus an evident oakiness.
1994 Beringer Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($8.50)
Quite oaky here, exhibiting almost a pungent char from the toast level in the barrels used for fermentation and aging. Creamy, spicy citrus flavors and a noticeable viscosity are reminiscent of Chardonnay.
1995 Fetzer FumÈ Blanc, "Echo Ridge," California ($7)
A much better wine than its ranking here would suggest, the Echo Ridge is a good example of the fruity style of Sauvignon Blanc with its delicious melony, ripe apple and peachy flavors tinged with subtle notes of tarragon and fresh mint and buoyed by excellent acidity. After fermentation in stainless steel, a portion of the wine was allowed to rest on the fermentation lees (called sur lie ageing), which imparts a soft, nicely round mouth-feel. The moderately intense aromas of green apples, freshly cut grass, lemon and fig are pleasant and appealing. Part of the complexity is explained by the blend of 10 percent Riesling and 4 percent Chardonnay with the Sauvignon Blanc from San Luis Obispo, Mendocino, Monterey and Sonoma counties. An excellent wine for the price.
1995 Clos du Bois Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County ($8.25)
Spicy nose of melon and fig plus a touch of vanillin oak. The juicy flavors replicate the aromas; good acidity.
1994 Simi Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County ($9.50)
Again, a better wine than the ranking here would suggest, the Simi Sauvignon Blanc offers a French-like nose of minerals, white peaches and honeysuckle. On the palate, the flavors focus on tangerine citrus and a mineral element. An interesting wine that was unlike any other wine in the tasting.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.