Sauvignon Blanc: the White Wine World's Wild Younger Sister
- by Anna Speers
When my younger sister turned 21, I flew her down to Mississippi, gave her a $200 limit at the local wine store and cut her loose.
The goal? Start her on her way to developing her wine palate. We spent the next few days staying up way too late (as sisters do) and sampling everything under the sun. We began with beginner-friendly Riesling - universally palatable and sweet, moved through Pinot Grigio and then entered my wheelhouse: Sauvignon Blanc.
She was in love, and I could not have been more proud.
The name Sauvignon Blanc translates to "wild white"; long ago, it grew native in the hills of southwest France. Today, it is grown in maritime and continental climates, with a total of over 275,000 Sauvignon Blanc acres planted worldwide. That's almost 430 square miles, y'all. This is a very popular varietal. Most famous are the Sauvignon Blancs coming out of France, New Zealand and California. The growing climates there create longer growing seasons, which allow for slow ripening, flavor concentration and appropriate sugar/acid balance.
That balance is a delicate tightrope to walk. Ask any Sauvignon Blanc critic and they will almost always claim that these wines are too 'pucker'-y for their palate. This is why I love the wine world. They aren't wrong; the acid in some SB's can be assertive. The trick, as with any wine in any category, is to find the ratio that appeals to your individual palate.
Luckily, these 'wild white' wines range in flavor profile from strongly herbaceous and grassy to richly tropical and round. Cooler maritime climates like New Zealand, Bordeaux and coastal California create fruit forward wines with brilliant, zesty acidity. These wines burst with grapefruit, lime and green apple notes. They are youthful, playful and clean, and are one of the only wines out there that truly pairs well with sushi.
A note on French Bordeaux: Sauvignon Blanc-based wines from Bordeaux are traditionally called White Bordeaux. While White Bordeaux can be 100% Sauvignon Blanc, there are three primary grape varietals that are allowed to be used to make White Bordeaux: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. When shopping this category, note that blends primarily featuring Sauvignon Blanc will be more bright and citrusy, whereas Semillion-based blends will be richer and creamier.
Back in the USA, in warmer continental climates such as central California, Sauvignon Blancs take on flavors of ripe peach and passion fruit. Some of these New World wines have taken on the name Fume Blanc, referring to the smokey notes added to the wines by the slate and limestone soils. In my experience, these rounder, more full-bodied Fume Blancs tend to be more appealing to those consumers who typically go for Chardonnay.
Time to address the elephant in the room: many Sauvignon Blanc wines are sealed with screw-tops. Some consumers dismiss any wine with a screw-top as inferior. This is a mistake. Screw-tops act very similarly to mason jar tops: they create a tight, reliable seal that preserves the wine up to three times longer than a traditional cork. Additionally, a cork tree takes 31-43 years before the bark can be harvested to make decent wine corks. Screw-tops provide an environmentally friendly alternative, particularly in areas where recycling the bottle is an option.
Here's my pitch, guys: it's hot. It's really, really hot. When a lemonade won't cut it and a beer is too heavy, Sauvignon Blanc is here to save the day. It has the acid to cut through the richness of trout almondine, the citrus to accent charbroiled oysters, the crispness to highlight clean sushi, and it's amazing on its own, no cellaring required. From tacos to shrimp po'boys, you simply cannot go wrong with this wine.
My own wild little sister agrees with me. When she got married, it was 110 degrees outside. We sweated our way through set up and rehearsal, watched the lovely couple say their vows and then broke open several cases of, yep, you guessed it: Sauvignon Blanc.
Steal: SeaGlass Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Barbara, CA. Complex tropical flavors, crisp acidity.
Deal: Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, NZ. Zesty, aromatic grapefruit; elegant.
Splurge: Chateau Haut Rian Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon, Bordeaux A/C. Crisp minerality; balanced.