Hard on the heels after looking at Malbec, it is time to highlight what is arguably the UK’s most favourite white grape variety – Sauvignon Blanc – exploring what makes this distinctive grape variety so popular – and in good time for “Sauvignon Blanc Day” on Friday 1st May.
Sauvignon Blanc is the one of the most fashionable and widely enjoyed grape varieties. It parades across the vinous catwalk with an amazing array of exotic smells and flavours with a dry, crisp and immediately appealing style. It has also managed to maintain its “edge” and attraction to wine lovers over a considerable period. Why is this?
It starts paradoxically with reference to both the Old World (Europe) and New World of wines – probably in equal measure. The “spiritual home” of Sauvignon Blanc is found in the eastern section (or Central Vineyards) of the Loire Valley. Here, on well drained, chalky soils Sauvignon excels, as exemplified by the renowned districts of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, where dry, crisp and mineral Sauvignon wines made such an impression on the wine lover that their fame spread around the world. Fast forward to the 1980s and a relatively newly planted region in the northern end of the South Island of New Zealand – called Marlborough. Here the dry, perfumed and exotic Sauvignons again created so much attention that another, new, world standard expression of Sauvignon was formed.
So much so that the highly respected wine writer Oz Clarke wrote at the time (in 1991, in his ground-breaking book “New Classic Wines”); “A quintessential style of Sauvignon Blanc is now made in New Zealand, not France, and is a rare example of an old classic being stripped of its crown by a new”. The soil and climatic conditions are near perfect in Marlborough – nearly always sunny and dry, but never too hot. No wonder the Maoris called the region “Kei puta te Wairau” – the “place with the hole in the clouds”.
Today these two great expressions of Sauvignon are as respected and enjoyed as ever before, but maybe the two styles have moved a little closer towards each other – with top Loire examples being slightly riper and more exotic, whilst top Marlboroughs have become more restrained and mineral.
And quite simply, you cannot ignore the sheer exuberance, aromas and fruitiness of Sauvignon – it shouts from the glass and dances on your palate. The header picture symbolises just a few of the many varied smells and flavours which make this grape and wine so appealing. And – with a few noble examples – it doesn’t require oak, or over manipulation by the winemaker to create a “manufactured” style.
Like a lot of good things in life it has attracted many imitators, and today is a firm favourite white grape in many countries. Other star areas which have emerged and challenge the status quo include South Africa – especially in regions such as Walker Bay and Elgin; also, Chile – especially in areas such as Casablanca and Leyda Valleys. And – it may surprise you – Sauvignon has long been the primary grape in the top quality dry white wines from Bordeaux, as exemplified in the revered area of Pessac-Léognan. These wines also, successfully, balk the tradition by being mainly barrel fermented. And… ironically, it is likely that Sauvignon may have originated from the Bordeaux region, not the Loire!
And (this may also surprise you) it is the “mother” of Cabernet Sauvignon, when crossed many years ago with the black variety Cabernet Franc.
With leaves like dinner plates, this variety is highly vigorous and relatively easy to grow. Its kaleidoscope of aromas and flavours include – in cooler climates – grassy, asparagus, bell pepper and citric fruits – often led by pink grapefruit – and sometimes gooseberry. In warmer areas notes evolve to include elderflower, kiwi, and passion fruits. However, Sauvignon does not work well in hot growing areas where it loses its vitality, freshness and precise fruit flavours and aroma.
Most Sauvignons are best consumed young whilst still vibrant and fruity. If aged it tends to become more vegetal with notes of tinned peas, which not everyone finds so attractive. The one style which can be aged successfully, however, are the top quality barrel fermented white Bordeaux.
Whilst a lot of Sauvignon is drunk on its own as an aperitif it does work well with a wide range of foods, including light meats, charcuterie, crudités and vegetable dishes (not least new season English asparagus, available now); also fish and especially sushi. The richer Pessac-Léognan style works well with richer fish dishes and sauces.
A real surprise is how well the wine also works with young, fresh goat’s cheese! These wines, not unsurprisingly, work very well with lighter spring and summer dishes and – not least – are refreshing on warmer days.
Sauvignon Blanc, quite simply, is a wine for our times and well made and balanced examples offer enormous pleasure at all levels. There are numerous examples on the Wine Trust site…
Here is a fine selection from that portfolio to celebrate Sauvignon Blanc Day, longer days and Spring sunshine.
Benchmark! A classic Kiwi take – dry with plenty of pink grapefruit and delicate passion fruit notes. This is restrained but without any loss of zestiness or vitality. More-ish. Only £9.95!
Fine zesty example from the cool climate coastal region of Casablanca
Cult Marlborough example from Kevin Judd, former Cloudy Bay winemaker – also shows nice touch of bottle evolution in its style
Classic barrel fermented and aged white Bordeaux from the premium Pessac-Léognan district. 80% Sauvignon (with 20% Sémillon) this is a lovely, richer and more textural style
Yes, I hadn’t heard of the Chenonceaux area either until recently! Famous for its Château, this region is to the south-east of Tours in the Loire Valley in the overall Touraine appellation. Very aromatic and citrus – crisp and zesty
Its structured yet balanced palate reveals the consecrated minerality and freshness of an excellent Sancerre