Eight wines to try and one surprising, expensive superstar
Sauvignon blanc is my go-to white. Maybe yours, too. It was the fastest growing wine variety in the US in 2020 as sales soared 22% in volume, 24% in value. Why is the grape getting so much love? I think wines made from it have a winning formula. They are dry and crisp, with a light touch yet high flavour, and they boast tongue-tingling notes of lemon and herbs. There is also that whip-cracking acidity.
Think of them as the ultimate food-friendly, all-purpose vino you can happily pair with just about everything except red meat. The hallmark taste is immediately recognisable. A chilled glass before dinner calls up sunny days and lively music, giving the day an upgrade — even if it has been a downer.
The current boom is global. In Italy, sales in 2021 were up 13%, and the UK’s Sunday Times Wine Club claims sauvignon blanc is the country’s favourite wine. No wonder winemakers want to make more of it. Last year, vignerons from some 20 countries submitted 1,200 examples to the Europe-based Concours de Mondial du Sauvignon wine competition, more than twice as many as in 2010, when the judging event began.
Maybe the biggest reason for the grape’s popularity with drinkers is that there is a style for everyone, from sparkling to skin-fermented (also known as orange) and from fresh and easy to savoury, oak-aged and complex. Even no-alcohol bottlings taste surprisingly good.
And then there is the price. You can find a good one for US$15 ($20), but if you feel like splashing US$150 and up, there are plenty of stunning cult wines. I will review them in another column.
But if you need a primer, here is what you need to know: The best sauvignon blanc come from cool-climate regions. France’s chilly Loire Valley is the territory for the grape, with more acreage than anywhere else in the world. Its popular Sancerres show a subtle, elegant flint-and-gun smoke character and sophisticated complexity. These can range in price from US$30 to more than US$300. Rapidly rising prices have pushed me to hunt alternatives from nearby Loire Valley spots Reuilly and Touraine, a hotbed of young producers.
New Zealand’s inexpensive tart, refreshing, grassy, in-your-face versions have spurred the surge in demand. In the past decade, many of the best producers have added less edgy, more serious, age-worthy styles — still for under US$30.
Don’t ignore the rest of the planet, either. Terroir and wine making add other nuances. Most Bordeaux dry whites are rich, opulent sauvignon blanc and semillon blends, but the number of powerful, elegant examples made purely from sauvignon blanc — such as Château Margaux’s Pavilion Blanc — is increasing.
The grape is grown all over Italy, but the northeastern regions of Friuli and Alto Adige are the main hot spots, with full, savoury (and not grassy) flavours; vignerons are even experimenting with aging in amphora. In Chile, look toward cool, coastal regions such as the Casablanca Valley, where wines resemble Sancerre at one-third the price. The same goes for South Africa.
Then there is California, which has come a long way with the grape since Robert Mondavi launched one of the first dry, elegant examples in 1968, labelling it Fumé Blanc to entice drinkers to buy. At the time, sauvignon blanc had a negative image as a sweet wine, and Mondavi used “fumé” (smoke in French) to evoke the Loire Valley’s Pouilly-Fumé appellation. Now, the name usually — but not always — conveys that the wine has been aged in oak. Some 235 Napa wineries make, or have made, sauvignon blanc in styles echoing Sancerre, Bordeaux and Italy’s Friuli.
The excellent wines below offer a global tour of the grape at its best, for US$30 and less.
2019 Zorzal Eggo Blanc di Cal Sauvignon Blanc (US$30): From a high-altitude vineyard in the trendy Gualtallary region, this wine is made with concrete eggs and shows the sharp, stony, chalky side of the grape, yet also has a long rich finish.
2020 Tement Kalk & Kreide Sudsteiermark Sauvignon Blanc (US$18): Examples from this Austrian region on the Slovenian border are especially subtle and stylish. This one shows off floral aromas, citrus and smoke flavours and a suave, silky texture.
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2019 Tabali Talinay Sauvignon Blanc (US$24): Bone dry and crisp, this comes from a cool spot two miles from the Pacific. Its zingy acidity, pure, fresh herb aromas and chalky minerality remind me of Sancerre.
2020 François Chidaine Touraine Sauvignon (US$16): A renowned organic Loire producer makes this wine with grapefruit-y aromas and tart apple and light herbal (not grassy!) flavours. It’s perfect with goat cheese.
2020 Abbazia di Novacella Sauvignon Blanc (US$22): Whites from this monastery, founded in 1142 in the Alto Adige region, are noted for their low price to high quality ratio. This one is brisk, fresh, zesty and tangy, with mineral and green apple notes.
2019 Seresin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (US$20): Made from biodynamic grapes, this crisp sauvignon with a dash of semillon has a riper, rounder style than the country’s typical “savvies,” with a smooth texture and notes of melon and fig. Also look for Seresin’s inexpensive Momo bottling, a steal at US$15.
2020 Paul Cluver Sauvignon Blanc (US$15): In the cool-climate area of Elgin, southeast of Cape Town, this family winery is in the Kogelberg Biosphere, a Unesco world heritage site with 1,600 plant species. It is intensely flavoured and spicy, with passion fruit flavours and green herbal tones.
2018 Grgich Hills Estate Fumé Blanc (US$23): The combination of barrel fermentation and oak aging give smoky overtones and a rich creamy texture to this certified organic wine, made primarily from the musque clone of the grape. This is one of the few Napa wineries that still uses fumé blanc on the label.
One unusual splurge superstar
2018 Les Champs Libres Bordeaux Blanc (US$100): This intense, complex and knockout 100% sauvignon blanc — with aromas of honeysuckle and lemon — is made from top Sancerre clones planted in Bordeaux’s Fronsac appellation (other vintages include a dash of semillon). It is made by the team at cult Pomerol Château Lafleur. — Bloomberg LP