Tasting Feature: Sauvignon Blanc A World of Difference

Sauvignon Blanc comes in a wide range of styles, produced all over the globe. For $20 and up, what can consumers expect?


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Sauvignon Blanc comes in a wide range of styles, produced all over the globe. For $20 and up, what can consumers expect?

 

 

About The Tasting:
Wines for this tasting were tasted blind in flights of five from Riedel stemware at our Westchester offices. Wines were grouped by vintage but not origin, so as to avoid prejudicing the tasters. Senior Editor and Tasting Director Joe Czerwinski, Senior Editor Daryna Tobey and Contributing Editor Michael Schachner tasted all the wines; Schachner wrote the reviews, based on the trio's compiled notes.


No less an authority than Master of Wine Michael Broadbent recently said, "I guess it is horses for courses, but I, for one, am not interested in writing about Sauvignon Blanc, for example. These wines are for drinking, not writing about." By and large, our editors agree. Prior to this year, only 36 dry Sauvignon Blancs out of 1,200 (three percent) reviewed by members of the Wine Enthusiast tasting panel had scored 91 points or better on our 100-point scale.

Knowing that, it was with some trepidation that we prepared for this tasting feature. Would the wines impress our group of three tasters? What was the story that would emerge? In the end, seven wines out of the 146 reviewed rated 91 points or higher (five percent), while 12 other wines reached the 90-point level that delimits "Excellent" on the Wine Enthusiast rating scale.

While these results may appear modest, leaving us without a sexy coverline that reads "100 Great Sauvignon Blancs," the real story was the journey. This was the most divisive and controversial tasting our tasting panel has experienced since we began tasting features back in 1999, with at least one wine—often more than one—in almost every flight engendering heated discussion.

The loudest debates focused on style and palate preference. Sauvignon Blanc is a grape variety that undergoes dramatic changes in its flavor profile as it ripens, shedding early aromas and flavors of green vegetables and high acidity in favor of stone fruit and melon notes later in the season. As California winemaker Mia Klein of Selene puts it, "Sauvignon goes through stages as it ripens—from lime popsicle to melon and citrus and then to tropical fruit." Although all three of our tasters were somewhat tolerant of green or herbal flavors in Sauvignon Blanc, we often differed on how much green we could stand.

Fast Fact:
The first commercial release of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, by Bill and Ross Spence of Matua Valley, dates back only 30 years.

"How can you guys like this green-bean juice?" questioned Contributing Editor Michael Schachner on more than one occasion, while on others I questioned his high scores for "fat, flabby, soft" renditions. In a slightly different vein, Senior Editor Daryna Tobey showed a clear preference for fruit-forward versions of Sauvignon Blanc, finding some of the Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés "lacking fruit," while other tasters found them "restrained and minerally."

As a result, these ratings, more than usual, should be taken with a grain of salt. Read the reviews carefully, as Schachner, who wrote them, tried to capture the impressions of all three tasters, particularly when our opinions varied. Extreme styles, whether vegetal and redolent of cat pee or high in alcohol and heavily laden with oak, suffered because at least one reviewer would invariably object to them.

But that doesn't mean that this tasting feature rewarded mediocrity. On the contrary, the best wines—those we could all agree on as being exemplars of Sauvignon Blanc—are truly excellent, and as close to universal recommendations as we can possibly make. Pleasing one discerning wine critic is hard enough, but pleasing three disparate palates…if a wine can do that, it's worthy of special notice (see the sidebar on page 41 for our absolute faves).

Sauvignon Blanc appears to have its origins in the Bordeaux region of France, where it now (with Sémillon) is the workhorse white. Much of the Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux goes into light, grassy Bordeaux blanc or Entre-deux-Mers, but it has also experienced a renaissance in the Graves and Médoc—the white wine of first-growth Château Margaux is Sauvignon Blanc. However, many of the best white Bordeaux continue to be blends that contain too much Sémillon to be included in this tasting (wines had to contain at least 75 percent Sauvignon Blanc to qualify). One exception, Château Smith-Haut-Lafite, produced a wonderfully rich, barrel-fermented 2002 made from 85 percent Sauvignon.

Fast Fact:
In 2002 and 2003, California-grown Sauvignon Blanc grapes sold for more than Chardonnay.

In France's Loire Valley, the famous appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are required to be 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc; the bulk of the French wines in our tasting come from these two regions, which practically face each other across the upper Loire. The soils are generally quite rich in limestone, with the occasional outcrops of flint considered especially favorable for viticulture. The Loire's enfant terrible, Didier Dagueneau, has taken his name for his top cuvée from the French term for flint, silex.

In typical vintages, these are wines of great zest and minerality that pair wonderfully with seafood. But in the torrid summer of 2003, vintners in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé seem to have struggled with the heat. Many of the wines lack the minerality and acidic cut of 2002, a more balanced vintage, without achieving the same flamboyant fruit expression found in the best New World Sauvignons. Unfortunately for partisans of French wines, the ripe, opulent 2003s are the wines most likely to be found in the market, while the soon-to-appear 2004s may lack some of the concentration and balance that made the 2002s so thrilling. We'll have a better picture of this vintage later this summer, once more of the wines arrive.

From its roots in France, Sauvignon Blanc has spread across the globe; this tasting included representatives from 12 different countries. Besides France, we received submissions from Sauvignon Blanc powerhouses South Africa and New Zealand, but also from countries less known for their Sauvignon Blanc: Canada, Germany, Greece and Slovenia.

The bold, fruit-forward flavors of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc have become almost emblematic of the grape and the tremendous success of this style has led many other producers to emulate it, regardless of their location. Certainly this was the case with many of the South African wines, as well as one entry from Canada and even some Italian examples. With their bright personalities and obvious herbal overtones, these wines pair well with many of today's assertively seasoned dishes.

Fast Fact:
The compounds that give Sauvignon Blanc its distinctive herbal-vegetal aromas are called methoxypyrazines.

When it comes to United States Sauvignon Blanc, it's not as easy to make generalizations about style. Some winemakers seem to be aiming for the brisk New Zealand style, while others persist in crafting "Chardonnay lite," complete with barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation and lees stirring. Others fall somewhere in between. With such a mishmash of styles and an overall lack of emphasis on Sauvignon Blanc in the U.S., it was something of a surprise that two of the top three wines in the tasting turned out to be from California.

Likewise, with all of the emphasis on Sauvignon's freshness and fruit, it was startling to find that all three of the top wines were made utilizing varying percentages of French oak. Klein uses 40-50 percent French oak in her Selene Sauvignon Blanc, while top-rated Robert Mondavi Winery's 2002 Reserve Fumé Blanc is 100 percent barrel-fermented, then aged in wood for 10 months, yet doesn't seem overoaked. Instead, the smoky, toasty notes gently cradle a powerful core of stone fruit.

Indeed, it is this intensity of fruit, not wood, that truly marks all of the top-scoring wines on our list. Cantina Tramin's 2003 Sauvignon from Alto Adige (91 points) sees only stainless steel under the sure hand of winemaker Willi Stürz, named winemaker of the year for 2004 by the Italian wine publication Gambero Rosso. The trio of Kiwi 91-pointers (Amisfield, Isabel Estate and Seresin Estate) are almost entirely fermented in stainless steel, although all use a tiny percentage of barrel-fermented wine, multiple yeasts and lees stirring to add complexity.

It is this added layer of attention to detail and resultant complexity that sets the best of the wines in this tasting apart from most of their less expensive counterparts. The odds of finding a top wine improve if you're willing to spend more than $20 on Sauvignon Blanc, but not dramatically. Following a trusted critic's recommendations is still a better bet than throwing money at the problem. With that in mind, thrifty readers may want to check our sidebar featuring less expensive alternatives.

Best Sauvignon Blancs Under $20
So far this year, we've reviewed 138 Sauvignon Blancs priced under $20. For consumers who don't want to go past a double sawbuck, here are our 50 (okay, 49) favorites. If you shop around, you may even find some of the wines tasted for this story under $20.
Score Wine Price Reviewed
AUSTRALIA
87 Fox Creek 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (South Australia) $13 3/05
AUSTRIA
87 Terra Gomeliz 2003 Sauvignon Blanc (Südsteiermark) $17 5/05
CHILE
88 Veramonte 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Casablanca Valley) $10 2/05
88 Viu Manent 2004 Estate Bottled Sauvignon Blanc (Colchagua Valley) $8 7/05
87 De Martino 2004 Legado Reserva Sauvignon Blanc (Maipo Valley) $15 7/05
87 Errazuriz 2004 Estate Sauvignon Blanc (Casablanca Valley) $11 2/05
87 Viu Manent 2003 Secreto Sauvignon Blanc (Colchagua Valley) $12 7/05
NEW ZEALAND
90 Allan Scott 2004 Vineyard Select Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $15 7/05
90 Borthwick Vineyard 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Wairarapa) $18 7/05
90 Kathy Lynskey 2004 Vineyard Select Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $19 7/05
90 Matariki 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Hawkes Bay) $18 7/05
89 Seifried 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Nelson) $17 7/05
89 Seven Terraces 2003 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $14 7/05
88 Kim Crawford 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $17 7/05
88 Marlborough Wines 2003 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $16 7/05
88 Mount Nelson 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $16 7/05
88 Mount Riley 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $16 7/05
88 Origin 2004 Reserve Series Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $14 7/05
88 Pheasant Grove 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $15 7/05
88 Two Tails 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $9 7/05
87 Huia Vineyards 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $18 7/05
87 Kumeu River 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $19 7/05
87 Monkey Bay 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $10 7/05
87 Ngatarawa 2004 Glazebrook Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) $14 7/05


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