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Summer Sauvignon Blancs: Others are Fume Blancs
Restaurateurs in San Francisco tell me that they sell more Sauvignon Blanc during lunch service than Chardonnay, even though Chardonnay far outstrips Sauvignon Blanc in retail sales generally. Hardly surprising, and not really a paradox given the wine's light, refreshing qualities and its well-known food-friendly nature.
Consider some of the more popular luncheon items offered by restaurants featuring review-quality cuisine to busy executives, their busier secretaries, downtown shoppers and just about anyone else who seeks a fine meal in attractive surroundings. Meal-size salads full of crisp vegetables and chunks of chicken or poached fish, napped with a zesty dressing and accompanied by still-warm sourdough bread. Pan-fried sand dabs served with lemon and steamed vegetables. Steamed halibut steak served with sauteed fennel and roasted new potatoes. Grilled salmon accompanied by anything tasty. This kind of food cries out for crisp, dry Sauvignon Blanc instead of fuller-bodied, oak-enhanced Chardonnay.
Sauvignon Blanc is also the perfect wine for home-cooked summertime meals, given its range of spicy, fruity flavors that add depth and finesse to lighter meals enjoyed on the deck or at a sunny, outdoor picnic. Aromas associated with Sauvignon Blanc (either singly or in combination) include rosemary, freshly mown grass, bell pepper, nutmeg, dill, smoke, white pepper, freshly cracked black pepper, anise and bay leaf. Flavors, again singly or in combination, can be reminiscent of figs, melons, apples, citrus (lemon, grapefruit), spicy oak, butter and vanilla. Some other descriptive terms appear in the tasting notes below.
Once damned by faint praise as "poor man's Chardonnay," Sauvignon Blanc now offers not only the choice of excellent quality at comparatively bargain prices, but a wide range of styles from which to choose, not only from California, but also France, New Zealand and Australia.
In Bordeaux, where is it customarily blended with semillon and aged for some time in older oak barrels, the wine is spicy and round. In the Loire Valley, French winemakers, such as de Ladoucette, consider the varietal their star performer, and seek to bring out its herbaceous aromas and flavors in their Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumes by relying on stainless steel instead of oak, or using neutral oak to preserve freshness.
Southern hemisphere winemakers, particularly in New Zealand, make some of the world's most sought-after Sauvignon Blancs, such as Cloudy Bay from New Zealand's Malborough region, with its expressive herbaceous nose, lean, sleek mouthfeel and complex flavors of citrus, quince and tropical fruit enhanced by peppery spice and garden herbs.
In California, styles of Sauvignon Blanc cover the entire spectrum, from barrel-fermented, aged-on-the-lees bottlings that can be as sturdy, rich and creamy as some Chardonnays, but with crisper acidity, to bright, fruity, stainless steel-fermented wines that offer restrained, straightforward aromas and no-nonsense, food-friendly flavors. Many reserve bottlings are truly bargains at under $20, as they are generally made from the finest lots of sauvignon blanc (and often semillon, too), fermented and aged in oak just the right amount of time to develop intriguing complexity and depth, and packaged in elegant, tall bottles that grace the finest tables. Some of these wines are called "Fume Blanc," which is another name for Sauvignon Blanc; others are called white Meritage or go by a proprietary name, such as Semi's "Sendal" or de Lorimier's "Spectrum." An earlier Vintner's Choice column sang the praises of these wines and provided some background on how they're made.
Recently, the Vintner's Club panel sampled and evaluated 12 wines labeled either Sauvignon Blanc or Fume Blanc from various growing areas, including Monterey County in the Central Coast, Paso Robles in the South Central Coast, several North Coast wine-growing regions, and a couple of wines with a general California appellation. Prices ranged from $7 to $50 a bottle, and two vintages were represented: 1995 and 1996. Many bottlings are now being offered in the market from the 1997 vintage, which is as good as or better than those two earlier vintages. So, if the brand you prefer is now into the 1997 vintage, you can be confident it will be pleasing.
1996 Beringer Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($9)
Forward, attractive aromas of freshly cut hay, mint, anise, pear-melon fruit, vanilla and a hint of oak spice. A fleshy wine a creamy texture and good acidity, the flavors replicate the nose, with emphasis on the fresh-hay component.
1996 Fetzer Fume Blanc, Echo Ridge, California ($8)
A fruity style of Sauvignon Blanc with delicious melony, ripe apple and peachy flavors tinged with subtle notes of tarragon and fresh mint and buoyed by crisp acidity.
1996 St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc, Dollarhide Ranch, Napa Valley ($9.90)
Forward, very pleasant, grassy scents enhanced by bell pepper notes and ripe melon fruit. Smooth, moderately rich and round, with lots of grassy, ripe fig and white melon flavors; juicy and delicious. An extravagant style of unabashedly grassy Sauvignon Blanc. GOOD VALUE.
1995 Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc, To-Kalon Vineyard "I Block," Napa Valley ($50)
Very forward, intensely fragrant, varietal scents focus on citrus and tropical fruit, blatant grassy-bell pepper herbaceousness, and exotic spice. Bold, concentrated and exquisitely balanced, the flavors replicate the aromas with the addition of succulent quince and figs. Excellent acidity. Immensely delicious and unique, this is Sauvignon Blanc for the connoisseur who demands purity and distinction; not for every palate.
1996 Clos du Bois Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County ($8)
Moderately forward nose of bell pepper and ripe citrus, accented by intriguing notes of rose petals and tangerine, plus a touch of oak. Crisp and delicious with fine acidity, this well-made wine offers lots of citrus fruit accompanied by varietal herbal character. GOOD VALUE.
1996 Bernardus Sauvignon Blanc, Monterey County ($14)
Appealing, aromatic nose suggesting fresh alfalfa and clover, along with melon and peach fruit. Round and full in the mouth, the wine's flavors show citrus, peach and fig and have good depth.
1995 Chateau St. Jean Fume Blanc, Russian River Valley, La Petite Etoile Vineyard ($13)
Always a classy and distinctive wine, this version of La Petite Etoile ("LPE" for short) offers fragrant scents of pineapple, tangerine, and apple, enhanced by notes of nutmeg and shy grass. On the lean side, the flavors echo the nose and also exhibit a mineral note. Best enjoyed with food, such as a fresh fennel salad dressed with olive oil and topped with shaved dry cheese (Monterey Jack or Parmigiano-Reggiano).
1996 Guenoc Sauvignon Blanc, North Coast ($13.50)
Subtly fruity nose of lemon blossoms and minerals lead to fresh, fruity flavors of citrus and pear, buoyed by adequate acidity. A non-assertive wine with subtle, almost muted, varietal character.
1995 Kendall-Jackson Sauvignon Blanc, Grand Reserve, California ($24)
This wine lost favor with the panel due to its earthy nose and not quite fresh fruit flavors, more like canned fruit cocktail. Perhaps this was an off bottle (it wasn't "corked"), but at this price level, one expects more varietal character.
1996 Dry Creek Vineyard Fume Blanc, Sonoma County ($9)
Restrained nose of melon and fig with a pleasant floral component and perhaps a touch of botrytis honey. Round, fleshy and juicy on the palate with a hint of grass.
1995 Canyon Road Sauvignon Blanc, California ($7)
Nose of juicy pears and peaches is replicated on the palate, where the wine is moderately viscous and slightly sweet without much varietal character. A "no-risks" wine that appeals primarily because of its price. Other Canyon Road Sauvignon Blanc bottlings have exhibited better varietal definition.
1995 Creston Sauvignon Blanc, Paso Robles ($10)
Shy melon fruit mingles with notes of grapefruit rind, mint, orange peel, slate and wet pebbles. Moderately viscous and juicy in the mouth with straightforward melon-citrus-peach fruit, the wine's acidity is just adequate and it finishes short.
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.