- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
Sauvignon Blanc: Think Green
Like the rest of the white varietals in the wine universe, Sauvignon Blanc lives in the shadow of Chardonnay. But Sauvignon Blanc seems poised to make its move as the Next Big White, or at least to claim the respect it has earned as a strong supporting player on the world wine stage.
Think “Green.” Sauvignon Blanc at its best exhibits high acidity with flavors and aromas of green apples, green grapes, green herbs and a perhaps just a bit of green bell pepper. Lime, kiwi, green honeydew melon, and tropical fruits such as guava, papaya, and passion fruits make some Sauvignon Blanc-based wines, especially those from New Zealand and South Africa, smell and taste like a fruit salad in a glass, poured over calcium-rich stones.
Classic Old World Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley of France is far less obviously fruity and more grassy/herbaceous. These wines also exhibit a high degree of minerality – chalk, limestone, and the brininess of the sea and seashells.
There is a popular Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand called “Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush,” a joke of a label to be sure, but it’s a joke that Sauvignon Blanc-lovers will immediately “get.” Two classic aromas of Sauvignon Blanc are “cat pee” and “gooseberries,” but neophyte Sauvignon Blanc drinkers need not be scared; the aroma of cat pee does not carry through to the flavor of the wine (the gooseberries become part of the “fruit salad in a glass” referred to above). It may sound odd, but some of us who love Sauvignon Blanc are a little disappointed if we don’t get at least a whisper of cat pee in the “nose” of the wine.
In California, where Sauvignon Blanc is the second most important white varietal – Chardonnay, of course, is first - you may find Sauvignon Blanc labeled as “Fumé Blanc.” In the late 1960s, Robert Mondavi coined this name for a style of Sauvignon Blanc that is fermented and aged in oak barrels. The resulting wine is far richer – and far less “green” – than classic Sauvignon Blanc that is produced in stainless steel. Today, “Fumé Blanc” need not be oaked, but if the name appears on the label, it usually connotes that the wine is richer and fuller than a wine labeled “Sauvignon Blanc.” Fumé Blanc is often devoid of the aroma of cat pee, and the fruit tastes riper, the wine less acidic overall. Often, Fumé Blanc wines will undergo at least partial malolactic fermentation to tame the green (malic) acids in the wine. Some people prefer the more “sophisticated” Fumé Blanc style, while others much prefer the “wild” style of Sauvignon Blanc, and some wine drinkers enjoy both styles, depending on the food they are pairing with the wine.
In Bordeaux, France, Sauvignon Blanc is often blended with another grape, Semillon, to produce a distinctive style of white wine. These wines tend to be medium-to full-bodied and more restrained in their acidity and fruit flavors, as Semillon is more nutty and honeyed than the greener Sauvignon Blanc. The classic versions of these Bordeaux blends come from the districts of Graves, and within Graves, the more expressive and expensive Pessac-Leognan; some of these wines can be truly age-worthy. These days, white wines from Bordeaux labeled as Entre-Deux-Mers or simply “Bordeaux” tend to be more about the straightforward, crisp flavors of Sauvignon Blanc, and are meant for early drinking.
Sauvignon Blanc: A Survey
California produces some very good Sauvignon Blanc, with true-green aromas and flavors, and also produces the Fumé Blanc style. Sauvignon Blanc from the North Coast of California – Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake counties – is the antithesis of the Chardonnay produced in the same region. Rather than the rich, oaky, vanilla flavors of Chardonnay that can overwhelm simpler foods, the refreshing, straightforward fruity flavors of Sauvignon Blanc are just the thing for fish – from ceviche to a grilled tuna with a tomatillo salsa – or a fresh goat cheese, or tapas-style appetizers. California Sauvignon Blanc has emerged as a food-friendly wine, gaining more space on restaurant wine lists and more adherents among American consumers.
For years, and until quite recently, classic Sauvignon Blanc was defined by the wines of the Loire Valley of France – wines from the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, followed by the less exalted and less expensive Quincy, Reuilly, and Menetou-Salon. This being France, the name of the grape –Sauvignon Blanc - has never appeared on the labels of these wines. In an increasingly varietal-conscious world, these wines have begun to lose their status as classic Sauvignon Blanc, and there are many wines and wine-producing nations ready to take their place, chief among them is New Zealand.
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has, especially for many younger wine drinkers, become the classic expression of this varietal. Full of tart lime and tropical aromas and flavors, with grace notes of minerals, grass, and herbs, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is pure pleasure, an uncomplicated and fun wine; not a wine to exercise expertise, but a wine to enjoy with a myriad of tasty dishes. A great accompaniment to ethnic foods, especially spicy Asian and Latin American flavors, this wine is like a squeeze of fresh lime juice, awakening and brightening flavors throughout the meal. Once you start to enjoy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, it can quickly become a favorite.
The best examples of this popular white are sourced from grapes grown in the vineyards of the Marlborough region, located at the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. The wines are affordable, with many priced under $10, and some of the best available for between $15 and $20. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is consumer-friendly in another way, too. Most of the wines you will find in the US market feature screw caps, not corks, as closures, making New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc a perfect wine for the dinner table or the picnic basket.
South Africa’s best white wine is its Sauvignon Blanc. When sourced from low-yielding vineyards in the cool Stellenbosch region, the wines can be incomparable. Though wines from South Africa can be uneven in quality – the reputation of the producer is paramount in choosing the wines – Sauvignon Blanc seems to be among the most successful varietals exported to the US market. With thirst-quenching acidity, a healthy dose of minerality, and green, tropical fruits in the mix, the wines are more fruit-driven than the wines of the Loire Valley, but a bit more restrained in their exuberance, and slightly fuller-bodied than the wines of New Zealand.
Australia produces a wide range of Sauvignon Blanc wines, from simple summer sippers to more complex wines with rich, jammy fruit balanced by a vein of mouthwatering acidity. With Australian Sauvignon Blanc you usually get what you pay for, and it is easy to find wines for under $10, but even the most expensive and best wines are under $20.
Chile produces some delightful Sauvignon Blanc, very much in the California style, but with a bit more tropical fruit on the palate, especially from grapes grown in the cool Casablanca region. Currently, these wines live in the shadow of Chile’s red wines – especially Cabernet Sauvignon – and so Sauvignon Blanc from Casablanca tends to be a bargain-priced gem.
Although perhaps a bit hard to find, Sauvignon Blanc from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy is worth the search. Often just labeled as “Sauvignon,” these are some of the most elegant examples of Sauvignon Blanc produced anywhere in the world, with a grassy background and subtle fruit acids that refresh the palate. Sauvignon Blanc from Friuli can be moderately expensive, starting at about $15, with some as high as $25.
Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect antidote for a world awash in both mediocre and good but overpriced Chardonnay. It is easy to find delicious Sauvignon Blanc, and it is affordable. When you taste one you really like, Sauvignon Blanc becomes all but addictive, especially with spicy, lively foods. So, the next time you’re hankering for a white, think green.