Sauvignon Blanc is such an interesting grape. While there is a very recognizable core character to wines made from it, there are a number of styles of wine that have markedly different personalities. What makes this particularly enjoyable is that you can easily find and taste wines that demonstrate these differences. I’ll explain what I mean.
The pictograph below tries to capture these ideas. At the core of Sauvignon Blanc — portrayed by the blue central part of the triangle — is a combination of fresh fruit, largely from the citrus and apple spectrum, that can sometimes move into stone fruit (peaches) and some tropical fruit. But it is almost always accompanied by an herbaceous element: at a minimum dried hay, but often cut grass, green asparagus and in some cases tinned peas. However, the nuances of that base of aromas and flavours shift and change depending on how and where the wine is made.
My interpretation of these nuances is captured by the three vertices of the triangle, reflecting the fact that I like to divide the styles into three main types (or even stereotypes) that are associated with three significant sources of Sauvignon Blanc-based wines.
Let’s start with the top vertex — New Zealand. Here my example is the 2013 Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, 12.5% alcohol, 100% Sauvignon Blanc (Vintages 316570, $18.95). The wine is pale lemon with green highlights. Take a sniff, and you find pungent high-intensity aromas: cut grass, some tinned peas, asparagus, along with lots of lemon and lime juice, green apples, and a hint of earthiness. The palate is dry though not austere, with high acidity, medium body and quite a long, fresh lemon-lime finish. (88).
This is a very pleasant wine. It has moved away a little from the very peak of the stereotypical top vertex of my triangle. When you taste a selection of modern New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, you now find fewer of the really strident and over-the-top herbaceous notes (sometimes reminiscent of cat’s pee), that can be quite unpleasant (or at least an acquired taste!)
The bottom left-hand vertex is where I place traditional Sancerre. This is wine from the Loire’s Central Vineyards, grown in variations of limestone-based clay soils. The aromas and flavours are usually less intense than New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but a standout feature of the best wines is an evident minerality along with high acidity.
My example is the 2011 Jean-Max Roger Cuvée les Caillottes, Sancerre, 12.6% alcohol, 100% Sauvignon Blanc (Vintages 65573, $24.95). The wine is pale lemon with green highlights. The nose is of medium-plus intensity, dominated by lemon and lime juice, green apples, lemon zest and white flowers, with a slight note of dried hay and fresh herbs that increases as the wine warms. But underlying these aromas is a distinct minerality of crumbled chalk and crushed rocks. The palate is dry, the acidity is high, and the finish is long and fresh. (91)
Generally speaking Sancerre and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are fermented and aged in stainless steel or other neutral containers, although there are exceptions in both cases. But traditional Graves Blanc, which may also contain Sémillon, along with California Fumé Blanc, are typically aged in French oak, in some cases with a significant portion of new oak. Usualy the more pronounced aspects of herbaceousness have disappeared, suggesting that in addition to oak aging, the fruit may be riper. These are represented by the bottom right-hand vertex of my triangle.
I wasn’t able to locate a good quality Graves Blanc in the $19-$25 price range that I was looking for, so my example is a Californian Fumé Blanc (a sample from Constellation Wines). The 2009 I taste here has sold out, and little of the 2010 remains, but I expect that the 2011 vintage will be in stores soon.
2009 Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc, 13.5% alcohol, 100% Sauvignon Blanc (Vintages 221887, $22.95). The wine is medium gold. On the nose you will find lemon juice, yellow apples, melon and some dried hay. There is also some oak spice, vanilla and a yeasty note from lees, but despite the exposure to oak there is still a real sense of freshness. The wine is dry, the acidity, alcohol and body are all more than medium. The finish is long and rich. (89)
I enjoy harmoniously oaked Sauvignon Blanc, and sometimes find that in blind tastings, good Graves and Pessac-Léognan can easily be confused with white Burgundy, if the herbaceous notes are muted. In a similar way, Sancerre can be confused with Chablis, again if the herbaceous notes are muted.
If you would like to try a comparative tasting at home, one good alternative to either a Graves Blanc or a California Fumé Blanc is a local Fumé Blanc from Jackson-Triggs: 2012 Delaine Vineyard Fumé Blanc, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($24.95 at the winery and Wine Rack stores). It is not as obviously oaked as the Mondavi, but is a fine representative of the bottom-right-hand vertex. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding examples of New Zealand and Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc, and at the time of writing both the wines I tasted were available in Ontario.