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Standing up for sauvignon blanc | David White
Poor Sauvignon Blanc.
For years, some of America's most prominent wine critics have bashed the grape. In Slate Magazine, Sauvignon Blanc was once described as "maddeningly dull." Wine Enthusiast's West Coast editor has criticized the grape for failing to elicit "profound excitement."
Hogwash. Like every wine grape, Sauvignon Blanc demands the right soil, the appropriate climate, and a skilled winemaker. When those demands are met, the grape can produce remarkably fresh, complex wines, capable of expressing a sense of place and provoking emotion.
Whether paired with a simple green salad, enjoyed on a hot summer day with ceviche, or consumed as an aperitif, Sauvignon Blanc can be delightful. And in July and August, it's hard to find a better match for the weather.
I've had two "aha" moments with Sauvignon Blanc.
The first came two years ago while visiting Chimney Rock Winery in the Napa Valley. Prior to tasting the company's lineup of Cabernet Sauvignons, the winemaker handed me a glass of her "Elevage Blanc," a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris that's aged in a combination of stainless steel and neutral oak.
It's an expensive wine, retailing for about $40 per bottle. But it's worth it. Chimney Rock's Elevage Blanc is stunningly layered and exceptionally gulpable. And it seems to linger on the palate forever.
Chimney Rock isn't the only producer making top-flight Sauvignon Blanc in California. In Napa, those who are willing to splurge should seek out the offerings from Spottswoode, Grgich Hills, and MAZE Wines. In Sonoma, the Sauvignon Blanc from Merry Edwards is in a league of its own.
My second "aha" moment occurred at a seminar on the versatility of South African Sauvignon Blanc, hosted by Duncan Savage of Cape Point Vineyards, one of South Africa's most well-known winemakers.
We made it through wines from six producers, all from different parts of South Africa. Each wine had balance, complexity, and freshness -- and I would have confidently put any of them up against the finest Sauvignon Blancs in the world.
This isn't to say that there isn't an awful lot of terrible Sauvignon Blanc.
In South Africa and France, where the best examples are marked by subtle aromatics, like chalk and white flowers, too many Sauvignon Blancs are excessively green. Sometimes, the wines smell like over-the-hill asparagus and seem thin and alcoholic on the palate.
In California, where Sauvignon Blanc is sometimes called "Fumé Blanc," the best bottles proudly show off the state's sunshine by exhibiting rich tropical fruits with citrus undertones. Sometimes, however, California Sauvignon Blanc is too ripe and seems lifeless on the palate. And oftentimes, California winemakers bludgeon the grape with too much oak.
New Zealand has built its modern-day wine industry on zesty Sauvignon Blanc. The wines there are completely unique, marked by explosive aromas of fresh-cut grass and gooseberries. But occasionally, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc can be too intense and seem artificial.
Such criticisms, however, aren't particularly noteworthy. No grape consistently produces great wines.
Perhaps the best thing about Sauvignon Blanc is its price. Dozens of wonderful examples cost less than $15 per bottle.
Rather that send you to the wine shop with my recommendations, my advice is to put together a wine tasting with some friends. Pick out a warm weekend day and ask each guest to bring over a Sauvignon Blanc from somewhere different in the world -- France, California, New Zealand, South Africa, even Chile and Italy.
Notice how they're different. And then, figure out which ones you enjoy the most -- and why. Chances are, you'll soon be able to stock your fridge with delicious wine on the cheap.
David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Wines.com, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.