Sauvignon Blanc shows its versatility around the world

 
 
Published6/18/2008 12:07 AM

With warmer weather and longer days, you'll likely be headed to the wine shop looking for summer wines before long. Goodness knows there are plenty of tasty ones, both red and white, but here is one big, overall piece of advice to keep in mind: Stick with young, fresh Sauvignon Blanc from just about anywhere and it will be hard to go wrong.

Sauvignon Blanc is a versatile grape that's used ­- often with its traditional blending partner, Semillon ­- to make everything from fun, sunny quaffers to elegant white Bordeaux to some of the world's most luscious dessert wines.

 

The grape has undergone something of a juicy revolution in the past decade. When we started our column in 1998, the most widely available Sauvignon Blanc came from the U.S., where too many winemakers stripped it of its varietal character - fresh-cut grass, kiwi, lime and grapefruit, with bouncy acidity - by making it into a kind of oaky junior Chardonnay.

Then New Zealand's Sauvignon Blanc hit the shores and changed everything. Not only did Sauvignon Blanc revitalize New Zealand's wine industry, but it showed the way for winemakers everywhere. Its clean, fresh, lively and mouth-popping tastes became a model. Now, vintners everywhere are making such good Sauvignon Blanc that it's pretty much always a good bet when you're staring at a wine list or a long shelf of wines. Even in Mexico, we found that country's Chardonnays often leaden but its Sauvignon Blanc crisp and food-friendly.

So here is a warm-weather guide to Sauvignon Blanc, based on our blind tastings and our real-life wine drinking over the past decade. We have tried to provide a general idea how wines from certain places taste, but, as always with wine, there are many exceptions. We have listed some names to look for; these are not necessarily the very best example of their type or even our favorites in our most recent tasting, but they are wines we have found consistently good throughout the years that also are at least moderately available. The prices listed are ballpark figures to give you a general idea how much they cost. Buy the youngest vintage you see.

Sancerre: From the Loire Valley of France, this is the Sauvignon Blanc by which others are measured. While it has the crisp, fragrant, green-grass smells and juicy tastes of others, Sancerre has a special tartness, more underlying minerals and, in the best, a sense that the tastes have been boiled down to their essence. As we wrote in our notes recently of La Poussie 2005: "Serious intensity and minerality. Laser-focused, ripe lime-grapefruit tastes. Pure tastes. Long finish. Limestone, seashells and slate. Rich fruit flavors and a long finish."

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The only bad news is that the price of Sancerre has risen, so plan to spend around $20 to $30. Still, this is a very classy white for the money and it will impress people who already love Sauvignon Blanc and knock the socks off those who are still on the fence about this varietal.

Some names to look for are La Poussie, Chateau de Sancerre, Domaine de la Perriere and Domaine Girard.

New Zealand: POW! WHAM! SMACK! That's what New Zealand's explosive Sauvignon Blanc tastes like. These are take-no-prisoners Sauvignon Blancs that come right at you with fresh, juicy tropical-fruit tastes. They are generally wines to gulp, enjoy and cheer, not to discuss, and they're great in the hot outdoors.

At a time when so many wines, both red and white, taste like they were made from chemicals in the lab, these seem like fresh-picked, ripe, plump grapes that burst in your mouth. The most famous name is Cloudy Bay, which has more stuffing and complexity than others and would certainly impress your host if you're taking a bottle to someone's house for a spring or summer gathering. It generally will cost more than $30, but there are many other good ones that cost less than $20, including Babich, Brancott, Stoneleigh and Villa Maria. When we tasted a Babich recently, Dottie immediately started talking about peel-and-eat shrimp, blackened catfish and even guacamole.

Chile: Some of the best values in wine today are coming from Chile, and its Sauvignon Blanc is no exception. Chile's version tends to be light, but it still offers lovely, relaxed varietal character. It's notable for its underlying tastes of earth, which give the wine an interesting complexity and a little bit of backbone.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

When we buy white wine for a big group, this is what we get. Our go-to Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is Concha y Toro "Casillero del Diablo," which costs around $9 a bottle. It's particularly aromatic and, like so many good Sauvignon Blancs, makes us hungry - especially for seafood - just to smell it.

Other good names to look for, also all around $10 or so, are La Playa, Anakena and Miguel Torres "Santa Digna."

South Africa: South Africa is offering some of the most distinctive Sauvignon Blancs around right now, and at great prices, too. South Africa's Sauvignon Blancs have aggressive, bright smells of fresh green pepper that makes them just about leap from the glass. They also generally have some underlying minerals.

We find these days that quite a few Sauvignon Blancs from all over the world have marvelous, lively tastes at the front of the mouth and long, happy finishes, but not enough going on in the middle of the mouth. These are different, more complete, which makes them particularly satisfying. Among the names we have found consistently good over the years are Mulderbosch, Neil Ellis, Thelema and Buitenverwachting.

U.S. American vintners have found a very special middle ground for their Sauvignon Blanc (which is sometimes called Fume Blanc): more restrained and fuller than New Zealand's, but not as minerally as Sancerre. The resulting wines are, in many cases, quite sophisticated, sometimes with some weight and mouthfeel, but still varietal - a neat trick that's delicious to try.

As Dottie said recently while we drank a Groth 2007: "This is a dinner-party wine as opposed to a picnic wine." Some of the names we have found consistent over the years are Chateau Ste. Michelle, Geyser Peak, Groth, Hogue, Kenwood, Kunde, R.H. Phillips, Joseph Phelps, Bernardus and Voss. Those take in a lot of price territory, from about $8 to $30. For a large party, we'd go with the Geyser Peak, which is about $11 and leans a bit more toward the gulpable New Zealand style.

If you get a chance, you really should consider buying Sauvignon Blancs from three countries and tasting them against each other. We know it's difficult to imagine the difference between hints of fresh-cut grass (New Zealand) and green pepper (South Africa) or minerals (Sancerre) and earth (Chile). But trying wines against each other that have so much in common, yet their own distinctive tastes, can be fun. Of course, just drinking them is even more fun.

One other tip: The wines from the 2008 vintage in the Southern Hemisphere will be here before too long. When these are brand new, they are particularly exciting and vibrant. Grab the first one you see.

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher write Tastings for the Wall Street Journal. Write them at wine@wsj.com.

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