If you believe the new red wine is white, sauvignon blanc is well-positioned to take advantage of the natural pendulum swing that will lead opinion makers and leading edge wine sippers away from red, and back to white wine. Anthony Gismondi helps you discover, or redisvocer, sauvignon.
If, like me, you believe the new red wine is white, sauvignon blanc is well-positioned to take advantage of the natural pendulum swing that will lead opinion makers and leading edge wine sippers away from red, and back to white wine.
But it's more than just being white that makes sauvignon blanc so trendy. When it's grown on a cool site and handled in a specific manner, sauvignon delivers big flavour in the glass. And these strong flavours should attract red wine drinkers (already used to big flavours) back to the white wine camp — especially sauvignon.
It's been four years since Wine Access looked at sauvignon blanc around the world, and since then, most changes have centred upon oak, as in using less of it. Winemakers are also using less cork and more screwcaps.
But that's not all. After coming off a large tasting of sauvignon in California early in 2005, we decided to update our thoughts on the versatile grape that is enjoying a re-birth in selected vineyards, wineries and restaurants around the world.
We begin with a refreshing story about a quartet of people dedicated to a sauvignon style that many believe is the future of the grape.
The Sauvignon Republic concept is brilliant, and will no doubt be copied: one winery, focused on one grape, grown on premiere sites around the world.
The players, all from California, include John Buechsenstein, winemaker and GM for Sauvignon Republic. The former winemaker at Fife Vineyards is also a noted educator and teaches regularly in the CIA-Greystone wine program in the Napa Valley and UC Davis Extension.
Chef John Ash, long-time culinary director for Brown Forman Wines, brings his food and wine prowess to the mix to help shape the style. The irrepressible Paul Dolan, former president at Fetzer Vineyards, fourth generation winemaker, principal at Parducci Vineyards and crusader for bio-dynamics and corporate ethics, does the same in the vineyards.
Tom Meyer, long-time restaurateur and former brand director for Kendall Jackson and Fetzer Vineyards, is charged with moving the product worldwide. The group was drawn to sauvignon because it expresses terroir more profoundly than almost any other grape variety. It has shown greatness in California, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and France; the Republic intends to produce examples in each of those jurisdictions. Buechsenstein thinks, like us, that "oak has no future in sauvignon blanc."
In California, where the acid is already marginal, the trick is to keep the wine fresh. "Sauvignon is made to be a fruit-forward wine with big flavour," says Buechsenstein. "It's the ketchup on your oatmeal." Given that most Golden State sauvignon is somewhat soft and safe, it's ironic that four Californians are behind this venture, but it proves that if you are focused and committed to a single variety, anything is possible.
The first Sauvignon Republic offerings hail from the Russian River and offer ripe, lush fruit characters with plenty of zip in the mouth — in some ways close to New Zealand's Hawkes Bay style. Globally, most sauvignon falls into three categories; the pure varietal or un-wooded style with crisp acidity; a lightly oaked version combining some portion of barrel-fermented juice (in mostly neutral French oak) with tank-fermented juice that makes a slightly richer, more complex wine and the fading fast old-school, full-blown barrel-fermented, toasted-oak and lees style that has more to do with chardonnay than sauvignon. In the same manner that the riesling renaissance had to be jump-started outside of its German home base, interest in sauvignon blanc is being rekindled outside of its French home sites of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé by the likes of Marlborough, New Zealand, Casablanca, Chile, and coastal South Africa and California.
It's not to say Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé or Touraine have gone unnoticed because repeatedly the best sauvignons tasted from outside of France are described as being Sancerre or Pouilly Fume-like. The problem is many consumers are unaware that Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, Touraine are all made from sauvignon blanc.
During a recent stop in Vancouver, Pascal Jolivet, Loire Valley sauvignon blanc crusader since 1985, says he wants the grapes to express the terroir with as little interference as possible from outside influences. In fact, Loire Valley examples continue to show the most complexity. The result, as Jolivet says, is "rich, powerful wines that look old when they are young and young when they are old." We did note in our California tastings that the Napa Valley style, when done right, more closely resembles the Loire style with its smoky, mineral, pear and green apple flavours, leaner structure and higher acidity.
In Chile, everyone is heading for the coast and while Casablanca has a beachhead on sauvignon blanc, three hours to the north in the fog-shrouded Limari Valley, sauvignon blanc is coming alive. The best Chilean sauvignon blancs are round, fresh and fruity although not necessarily as complex as their global brethren.
The good news for consumers, however, is the Chilean labels are usually the best values in the market. Not to be dismissed is Australia and in particular, the revolution in the Adelaide Hills. Super-fresh examples from Shaw and Smith, Nepenthe, David O'Leary, Longview, Penfolds, Wolf Blass and many more are redefining the varietal in Oz. All are in screwcap — a closure seemingly perfected for sauvignon's delicate fresh fruit character.
The story of South Africa's rebirth on the international market is closely tied to sauvignon blanc although a bigger challenge may be getting those wines into the Canadian mainstream market. Until then, watch for Mulderbosch, Klein Constantia, Neil Ellis, Stellenzicht, Simonsig, Plaisir de Merle and Vergelegen, Groote Post, Lands End and Villiera.
Last but not least, there are glimmers of hope closer to home in cool-climate Canada. In British Columbia, Black Hills, Sumac Ridge, Mission Hill lead the pack; in Ontario, Peninsula Ridge, Henry of Pelham, and Creekside are names to watch. What follows is a select list of sauvignon blanc that speaks to the new bright vibrant style.