Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sauvignon Blanc - The Greatest Grape? (Part One)

A Three Part Series on one of the World's Greatest Wine Grapes

The title of my post is of course, debatable. It's simply impossible to name one grape as the greatest. Just to my own way of thinking, there are times when I think the finest grape is Gewurztraminer or perhaps I go with a red variety such as Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo. Others maintain that Riesling is the world's finest and you won't find much of an argument from me on this matter.

But I'm going with Sauvignon Blanc, if only for the fact that there are so many great examples from so many corners of the globe. Of course, the Loire Valley in France - especially with the marvelous examples of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé - is the reference point for this variety. Then you have Marlborough Valley in New Zealand with its gooseberry-laden versions; another great Southern Hemisphere zone for Sauvignon Blanc is the Leyda Valley in Chile - truly underrated wines!

California has some lovely examples from Sonoma and Napa that of course, take a back seat to the more renowned reds produced there, while South Africa is home to some notable Sauvignon Blancs that are truly vibrant. Let's not forget northern Italy, especially in Friuli and Alto Adige and there are also some expressive Sauvignon Blancs from Australia as well.

So I'll be celebrating the world's great Sauvignon Blancs in this three-part series, with this initial post focusing on France, with the remaining two posts dealing with California/Washington and then the rest of the world (New Zealand, South Africa, etc). There are several varieties that perform well in numerous countries, but I honestly don't think there are as many complex, beautifully structured wines from so many places as there are with Sauvignon Blanc. 

So on to France and its beautiful examples of this great variety. 

Mention Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé to wine lovers and there is an instant connection with the Loire Valley and the Sauvignon Blanc grape. These are the two most famous versions of this variety in the Loire and all of France and they care certainly among the most celebrated versions of this variety anywhere in the world. These two appellations are at the furthest eastern reaches of this region in eastern Central France (as a reference point, the Muscadet zone is situated at the western edges of the Loire Valley, near the Atlantic Ocean).

I find that these two wines are quite different in character, with Sancerre often being a cleaner, more "pure" expression of Sauvignon Blanc with Pouilly Fumé being a bit more aggressive in the aromas (Fumé means "smoky) and in the finish. While both offer traces of minerality, it is Pouilly Fumé that for me, has a more distinctive note of this trait, along with more of a wet stone nuance in the aromas. Depending on the vintage and producer, the best versions drink well for 5-7 years, though some lighter versions need to be consumed earlier, while other more powerful versions can drink well a decade after their release.

Other Sauvignon Blanc appellations in the Loire Valley include Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Touraine. These wines are not seen much outside of France, but there are a few importers bringing in these wines to America. I recently tasted very fine versions of all three (notes below); each has its own unique set of characteristics and make for a fascinating comparison of how Sauvignon Blanc performs in the Loire.

There are a few other areas in France where 100% Sauvignon Blanc wines are made (please note that I am not including Bordeaux in this study of the variety, as most of those wines are actually blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon - lovely wines, but quite different). In the western Rhone Valley, the appellation of Cévennes is home to medium-bodied, very distinctive 100% Sauvignon Blancs that fly under the radar.

A bit south of Bordeaux in the Southwest-Armagnac region, Sauvignon Blanc is one of several white varieties planted here; these are medium-bodied, elegant versions of Sauvignon that are simple and direct, offering very fine varietal purity.

Tasting notes (in order of suggested retail price; the first two wines are outside of the Loire Valley, while the final wines are all from the Loire).

2012 Domaine de Gournier Sauvignon Blanc (Indication Géographique Protégée Cévennes) - This wine is from the Southwest-Armagnac region in far southwestern France. Light yellow; aromas of melon, passionfruit, eucalyptus and freshly shucked corn. Medium-bodied with very good acidity and distinct herbal notes of basil and chervil in the finish. Clean, flavorful and well balanced over the next 1-2 years. I think this would pair beautifully with Oriental chicken or pork with peapods. At $12, this is an excellent value. (Robert Kacher Selections)

2012 Domaine du Tariquet Sauvignon (Cotes de Gascone)
The Cotes de Gascone is in southwest France in the Midi-Pyrénées region. Straw/light yellow; aromas of melon, a touch of mint and a hint of freshly cut grass. Medium-bodied, this has good acidity and is nicely balanced. Well made, this is a straightforward wine that is a nice introduction to the variety - I'd be quite pleased to be served this at a restaurant as a house white (what's also nice is the very reasonable 12.5% alcohol). $14 (Robert Kacher Selections)

2012 Domaine des Corbillieres (Touraine)
Light yellow; aromas of Anjou pear, chalk, wet stone, chamomile and a touch of eucalyptus. Medium-full with very good concentration. Richly flavored finish with very good acidity, a subtle note of minerality and notable persistence. Enjoy over the next 2-3 years. Excellent value at $17.

2012 Domaine de Cabotieres (Touraine)
Straw; aromas of freshly cut hay, lime, marjoram and even a touch of pastry cream. Medium-full with very good concentration. Very good acidity and persistence, this is quite stylish ( no oak aging, as with most of the wines here) and will drink well for three to five years. Quite a lot of character for only $18! (Robert Kacher Selections)

2012 Philippe Portier Quincy
Straw/light yellow; aromas of dried pear and dried herbs - a bit closed now. Medium-bodied with very good concentration. A bit lean and austere, this has good acidity and a distinct minerality in the finish. Give this a bit of time to round out - best in 2-3 years. For now, pair with a vegetable terrine. $22 (Robert Kacher Selections)

2011 Domaine Assadet Menetou-Salon
Bright, deep yellow; aromas of capsicum, passion fruit, wet stone and a touch of honey. Medium-full with very good concentration. Very good acidity and notable persistence, this is a very expressive wine that is old-fashioned Loire white at its best! Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. $25 (Robert Kacher Selections)

2012 Chateau de Sancerre Sancerre
Brilliant light yellow with golden tints; aromas of Anjou pear, a hint of gooseberry and a note of hay. Medium-bodied, this has good ripeness and is cleanly made; there is good acidity and the overall balance is impressive. Fairly straightforward, this is easy-drinking and will show well for 2-3 years. $29 (Terlato Wine International)

2012 Thomas & Fils Sancerre "Les Creles"
Straw; lovely aromas of Bosc pear, chamomile and elderflowers. Medium-full with very good concentration. Clean and very well made with very good acidity and beautiful balance. Lovely as a food wine or on its own. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. $30 (Robert Kacher Selections)

2012 Domaine Seguin Pouilly Fumé
Straw/light yellow; expressive aromas of lemon peel, chamomile and wet stone. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Rich mid-palate, excellent complexity and varietal purity. Lengthy finish with notable persistence and very good acidity. A classic styling of Pouilly Fumé - outstanding! Enjoy over the next 5-7 years. $30 (Robert Kacher Selections)

Next post: Sauvignon Blanc of California and Washington State

Text ©Tom Hyland

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