Suddenly Sauvignon Blanc
This crisp alternative to Chardonnay is undergoing a sales surge in the U.S., as winemakers learn to tame its extremes and enthusiasts broaden their horizons.
If you want to measure the sophistication of American wine enthusiasts, it’s best, I think, to look at the newcomers. I’m referring to people who are buying less beer and spirits, and are now looking to wine as their beverage of choice, both in restaurants and in retail shops.
Many of these consumers, particularly those in their early twenties, begin their wine educations with crisp, easily quaffable white wines like Pinot Grigio—likely, their first sips of the variety took place at a wedding, or at another social event. Wine newcomers appreciate Pinot Grigio because it’s refreshing, easy to find (do you know a restaurant that doesn’t serve it by the glass?), easy to pronounce, and goes well with a variety of foods. What I’m noticing is that these new wine drinkers are turning their attention to another variety with these same attributes: Sauvignon Blanc.
That was my hunch, just based on observation and buzz, but I wanted it confirmed with some data. I asked Motto Kryla Fisher, the California-based wine business advisory firm, for some numbers on supermarket sales over the past few years. The supermarkets are where most neophyte wine drinkers in this country buy their wine, and the sweet spot, in terms of price, is $9 to $12.
In that price category, volume sales of California Sauvignon Blanc grew steadily from 2002 to 2004. Last year Sauvignon Blanc, imported and domestic, was the best-performing white variety. Sales grew by 3.2 percent, which seems modest, but, by comparison, Chardonnay grew by 0.1 percent, and Pinot Grigio/Gris by 1.1 percent. This trend is continuing in 2005, with Sauvignon Blanc outselling Pinot Grigio by a factor of three. “At the core $9 to 12 price point, Sauvignon Blanc is the star,” said Barbara Insel, managing director of research at MKF.
As far as star power goes, Chardonnay is still the number-one white wine by far, but its growth is slowing. Now, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, two higher-acid and crisp alternatives to Chardonnay, are fighting for clear title to the number-two spot. In my opinion, Sauvignon Blanc is the wine that new wine drinkers, finding their way, should try. Sauvignon Blancs are more flavorful and complex than most of the value-priced Pinot Grigios we see here. Sauvignon Blancs have real fruit, character and style. It is an ideal bridge from Pinot Grigio to more complex wines.
Because so much Sauvignon Blanc is produced in New Zealand, and because New Zealanders are so pro-screwcap, their SBs are a great choice. The wines have real nuance and flavor, and are easy to open and easy to drink.
At the same time, in many ways it’s a serious wine, at least at the higher price points. In this issue, we present a tasting of 150 Sauvignon Blancs with retail prices of $20 or more, from all over the world. As Joe Czerwinski indicates in his article, this was a tasting that was marked by divisiveness. In practically every flight, there were wines that one taster loved and others didn’t. Sauvignon Blanc can be green and vegetal in some bottlings; in others, its fruit flavors can be restrained by mineral accents. Depending on your preferences, any given bottle can be sheer pleasure or a challenge to your preconceptions.
At any price point, SB’s crispness and acidity can make it an ideal food wine. If you want to field-test Sauvignon Blanc’s food friendliness and versatility, check out this month’s issue for Melanie Barnard’s article on lobsters and shellfish.
Also in this issue, Monica Larner has cited three routes that take you to the heart of Tuscany, which is in many ways the heart of Italy. Drive the Via Aurelia and you’ll find the estates that produce super Tuscan wines; the Via Cassia will lead you to great Brunello; and La Chiantigiana that takes you to Chianti Classico. The article offers a wealth of tips on tasting rooms, restaurants, hotels and much more.
Michael Schachner travels frequently to wine country in South America. Since the mid-1990s, a number of wineries from France, Austria and California have launched ventures or formed joint partnerships in Argentina, and many winemakers have gone to Argentina to consult. The results have been dramatic and impressive.
I was recently in stunning, gorgeous and hospitable New Zealand, and had an opportunity to sample Sauvignon Blancs within view of some of the most beautiful vineyards on earth. And it’s gratifying to me that, not only did the New Zealand SBs score well in our tasting, which was predictable, but that New Zealand wines lead the surge in sales in the U.S. (a 56% uptick in dollar sales in 2004 alone). Pop a cork or twist a screwcap and settle back with this quintessential summer wine.