The white wine grape that is sauvignon blanc has more aliases than a candidate for witness protection; one source listed nearly seventy. Not to worry — there will not be a quiz.
But the number of synonyms is reflective of one thing: Depending on climate and geography, the grape can take on widely differing characteristics, from tart and grassy to lush and melon-y. Even in its natal region, France's Bordeaux and Loire Valley, wines vary in nuance from floral to smoky — a reflection of soils dominated by chalk or gravel. You don't really need to know all of this to appreciate the wine for the spring and summer charmer that it is. It does help to know that if you pick up a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, it will be worlds apart in every sense from one produced in California.
New Zealand is a good place to start as the Kiwis made a big marketing push in the '90s to establish sauvignon blanc as a signature grape — and it was a signature with a John Hancock flourish: in-your-face grass, grapefruit and gooseberry. It got our attention — and then it lost it. Which in turn got the attention of winemakers who began experimenting with other expressions. The 2014 Loveblock Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, recently tasted at Supper's bar, has traded in the grapefruit peel (though it kept a little of the grass and gooseberry) for flavors that hew closer to white peach and passion fruit, all kept honest by brisk acidity.
The Loveblock is a beautiful wine, one that's reflective of the country's new approach to the grape. And so is Trinity Hill's 2013 Hawke's Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($18). The gooseberry here is riper and coupled to green melon and some ruby grapefruit — but it's all restrained. On the palate, the wine is decidedly New Zealand in pedigree, but the grapefruit, joined by lemon, passion fruit and lemon grass, is no longer one-note.
From my own so-called cellar comes another Southern Hemisphere charmer, the 2014 Mulderbosch Western Cape Sauvignon Blanc ($16) from South Africa. Mulderbosch ages this wine on its lees for body and texture, and the result is aromas of light grass and lime peel coupled to more savory notes of green peppercorn. Tastes run at first to lifted lime and green apple, but with time in the glass a flinty minerality emerges. Feel free to find fig, even green olive ... the point is that flavors and aromas are all in balance.
Chilean sauvignon blancs can be southern seducers too, and among them is the modestly priced 2014 Casillero del Diablo ($10). This Concha y Toro product may not be as nuanced as the Mulderbosch or the Loveblock, but for the price it delivers attractive aromas of citrus peel and stewed rhubarb, along with lime and green olive, all of which soften nicely over time.
Many of the sauvignon blancs produced in California tend to exhibit characteristics of ripe melon or guava. But the state is hardly uniform in geologies and microclimates — and in wine-making approaches, for that matter. Some winemakers look to barrel ageing to convey rounder, fuller flavors (and in the process, often employ the marketing term fumé blanc, first used by Robert Mondavi); others are steadfastly stainless steel in orthodoxy in order to emphasize acid and citrus. And some, such as Ryan Zepaltas, do both. A project of the winemaker for pinot-famous Siduri, Zepaltas Wines produce a sauvignon blanc from Lake County vineyards at 1,400 feet. The 2013 release ($18) I tasted showed light lemon and green apple/pear on the nose, all shading into non-grassy grapefruit and passionfruit on the palate. Despite some apparent ageing in neutral barrels, this is poles away from the big-melon approach. (At around $25, the 2013 Round Pond Estate Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc is at another pole with unabashedly pretty aromas of lemon blossom and zest and flavors that toggle between stone fruit, kiwi and, yes, melon.)
I'm now looking wistfully at a bottle of chilled Sancerre Les Boucauds Claude Riffault ($28) from France's Loire Valley ... but you know what? I'm going to wait for a little shrimp sautéed in the same wine with, maybe, some tarragon or fennel. I should have started here, and now I've had enough sauv blanc for a while. But I know what to expect: light citrus, white peach, a bracing minerality ... the French don't disappoint. Good bottles of Sancerre can be found for half the price, too.
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