When it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, the latest news is startling. Earlier this year, Moscato—celebrated in hip-hop hits by Drake, Lil’ Kim and Waka Flocka Flame—shoved Sauvignon Blanc aside to become the third-most-popular white-wine variety in America (after Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio). This is an ignoble fate for a noble grape, though it’s possibly a testimony to the unlikely power that hip-hop stars wield over the US wine market.
But Sauvignon Blanc has always been a love-hate proposition, much like cilantro or beets. Some people adore it, and some people flat-out can’t stand it. What captivates people about Sauvignon Blanc is its crispness, its citrusy zing, its refreshing vivacity—all those qualities that make it one of the best wines for hot summer days. It’s an edgy wine, tart by nature, which is why acid heads, as they’re known in the sommelier world, are all for it. On the other hand, for fans of big, buttery Chardonnays (or soft, sweet Moscatos), that thrilling acidity may seem shrill and harsh.
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An even bigger problem for Sauvignon Blanc is that it sometimes smells and tastes like a green vegetable, specifically bell peppers. Some people find this pungency appealing, particularly when it’s relatively subtle and reminiscent of fresh-cut grass. Others—my wife, for instance—find it revolting. In fact, when I asked her recently why she didn’t like Sauvignon Blanc, that was the word she used. She also said it reminded her of the Wicked Witch of the West: “It’s green, pinched and nasty.” She made claws with her hands to emphasize Sauvignon’s Wicked Witch-ness and added matter-of-factly, “It’s really everything I loathe in the world.” And then she left for work.
All right then, I thought, no Sauvignon Blanc for you. But it also occurred to me that, since my wife is hardly alone in her feelings, winemakers who specialize in Sauvignon Blanc must deal with this attitude all the time. So I called up Kevin Judd and asked him about it. For 25 years, Judd made wine at Cloudy Bay, New Zealand’s most famous Sauvignon Blanc producer, and he has continued producing it at his new winery, Greywacke. At Cloudy Bay, Judd pretty much defined the original New Zealand style: intense, herbaceous and flamboyant. Certainly he must have run into his share of Sauvignon despisers over the years.
Judd admitted this was true. “I regularly meet people who say, ‘Oh, I’m not really a fan of Sauvignon Blanc,’ ” he said. “They almost whisper it, as if it were some sort of terrible secret.”
He added, “But with Greywacke, I’m steering away from that in-your-face style.” While Judd’s 2011 Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc is fresh and vibrant, with zingy passion fruit and grapefruit flavors, it eschews the intense green-peppery notes that were once the hallmark of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
Many New Zealand producers have headed in a similar direction, including Cloudy Bay itself. Cloudy Bay’s current winemaker, Tim Heath, says, “We’re at a nice midpoint now, with ripe flavors underpinned by fresh herbal notes. They’re what I call the ‘positive greens’—more fresh herbs and grass than bell peppers and jalapeños.”
Those notes come from a class of naturally occurring compounds called methoxypyrazines. The chemistry gets complex quickly, but the key thing to know is that by managing how much sunlight the grapes get—by pruning back the leaves that shade the grape bunches, for instance—and by choosing when to pick, a vineyard manager can influence how “green” a Sauvignon Blanc will be, at least to a degree. (And it’s really the vineyard manager who is in control, not the winemaker. As Heath explained to me, “Once the methoxypyrazines are in your juice, there’s not much you can do to them.”)
Of course, winemaking also plays a role in how Sauvignon Blanc tastes. Age a Sauvignon in oak barrels instead of stainless steel tanks (as is common in Bordeaux, where blending with Sémillon is also standard) and it becomes a very different wine. But most aren’t oak-aged, and generally speaking, the climate of the region where Sauvignon Blanc is grown determines what character it will have more than anything else.
Warm places, like Napa Valley, much of Australia and central Chile, are known for softer, fruitier Sauvignon Blancs, with citrus-melon flavors and very few herbal or grassy notes—and sometimes no real acidity, either. That can be depressing, because a flabby Sauvignon Blanc is like a fat greyhound: It’s just wrong. But for a good, appropriately taut sense of this style, Napa Valley’s Honig is impressively reliable.
For more zing, and flavors suggesting grapefruit and sometimes passion fruit with notes of fresh herbs or cut grass, head to cooler places, such as coastal Chile, northern Italy, Austria and especially France’s Loire Valley. The Loire was making great Sauvignon Blancs when people in New Zealand’s Marlborough region and Napa Valley were still selling lumber and harvesting prunes, respectively; it’s essentially the benchmark region for the variety. To get a sense of the differences between the Sauvignon Blancs of the Loire’s two most renowned appellations, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, taste wines from a top property like Domaine Fournier or Pascal Jolivet side by side. Or compare a world-class Sancerre like Domaine Vacheron’s to Concha y Toro’s superb Terrunyo Sauvignon Blanc, from Chile’s windswept Casablanca Valley—the results can be fascinating.
The coldest wine-growing areas, like Marlborough or Elgin in South Africa, give Sauvignons a distinctive passion fruit-gooseberry intensity. They’re also where the “positive greens,” as Tim Heath calls them—and sometimes notes of bell pepper or even jalapeño—are often most pronounced. Cloudy Bay is unquestionably the emblematic Marlborough wine (and it’s also very good). For a slightly subtler take on the New Zealand style, look for Craggy Range’s elegant Te Muna Road bottling, which comes from the moderately warmer Martinborough region, some 19 miles away, across the Cook Strait on the North Island.
My advice to seekers of the ideal Sauvignon, though, is not simply to focus on Marlborough versus Martinborough or Sancerre versus Pouilly-Fumé. Instead, try wines from around the world, from all three climates: warm, cool, cold. Line them up next to one another and taste each one. You’ll know instantly which you prefer. Then cook something summery to go with it. Sauvignon Blanc is an incredibly food-friendly wine: The bright acidity refreshes the palate, the citrus flavors can accompany a vast range of foods, the alcohol levels tend to be modest, and in the end, the herbal notes accentuate food much the way herbs themselves do.
But if, no matter how hard you try, this lovely, summery grape still reminds you of a green, pinched, nasty person on a broom, take comfort: At least Sauvignon Blanc is never going to come after you with an army of evil flying monkeys.
15 Sauvignon Blancs to Try
2011 Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc ($23)
This ripe, almost luscious Napa Valley white from Cliff Lede (pronounced “lady”) comes from a Stags Leap District estate that also produces superlative Cabernet Sauvignon.
2011 Franciscan Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($17)
Franciscan has made wine in Napa Valley since the early 1970s, but it only started producing this juicy, melony Sauvignon in 2007.
2010 Joseph Phelps Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc ($32)
Phelps uses French oak barrels to age this generous wine—a technique borrowed from the classic white wines of Bordeaux that adds texture and richness.
2010 Beckmen Vineyards Santa Ynez Valley Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($16)
Juicy ruby-red grapefruit flavors mark this wine from one of the Central Coast’s top producers.
2011 Geyser Peak California Sauvignon Blanc ($13)
Year in and year out, this crisp, balanced white is one of the best California Sauvignon Blanc deals around.
2011 Matetic Corralillo San Antonio Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($16)
Unusual for Chilean Sauvignon Blanc (and Chilean wines in general), this minerally bottling from Matetic uses 100 percent organically certified grapes.
2011 Montes Limited Selection Leyda Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($15)
Montes was among the first Chilean wineries to explore the relatively cool Leyda Valley, where this citrusy white comes from.
2011 Lake Chalice Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($19)
Abundant citrus and passion fruit flavors—that is, classic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc character—are the signature of this vibrant white.
2011 Greywacke Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($20)
Cut grass, a touch of green pepper and juicy passion fruit notes make Greywacke a New Zealand classic, even though this is only its third vintage.
2011 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($25)
The Sauvignon Blanc that made New Zealand’s reputation for that grape in the 1980s is still one of the country’s best: citrusy and lightly herbal, with a terrific, succulent texture.
2011 Domaine Vacheron Sancerre ($34)
Complex and impeccably balanced, with layers of herb and citrus flavor, this wine shows why Vacheron is one of Sancerre’s greatest producers.
2011 Jean-Paul Picard Sancerre ($22)
The Picard family’s 400 or so years of making wine show in the quality of this elegant white, all fresh herb and grapefruit flavors.
2011 Alphonse Mellot La Moussière Sancerre ($30)
Mellot’s La Moussière bottling is incredibly minerally—it’s almost as if one can taste the region’s limestone soil in the wine itself.
2010 Domaine Fournier Père & Fils Les Deux Cailloux Pouilly-Fumé ($25)
Pouilly-Fumé tends to have a slightly denser texture than Sancerre, as well as a light smoky note. Fournier’s bottling is a great example.
2010 Tokara Reserve Elgin Sauvignon Blanc ($22)
Those who appreciate Sauvignon Blanc’s green-peppery side will love this bottling, which comes from South Africa’s chilly Elgin appellation.