Monday, January 27, 2014

The noble grapes: sauvignon blanc

This is the grape of white Bordeaux, where it is blended with semillon ("the soul of white Bordeaux," according to The Wine Bible, although Frank Schoonmaker did not say that about semillon a generation ago in his Wine Encyclopedia), and may carry the name Entre-deux-Mers or Graves on the label. In Bordeaux the two wines will have spent time together in oak barrels as well, which softens acidities and adds a bit of sweetness.

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In France's Loire valley, sauvignon blanc is made, alone, into Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, Pouilly being the name of a village and fume deriving from the French word for smoke, referring to the "gunflint" or smoky flavor of the wine. Here, sauvignon blanc will usually live its pre-bottle life in stainless steel, which preserves the fresh-tart, fruity flavors of any wine.

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Sauvignon blanc is also vinified alone in California and especially in New Zealand, where winemakers produce wines that gleam like pale topaz and positively leap out of the glass with delicious grapefruit and lime aromas. According to legend, it was Robert Mondavi who invented the term "Fume Blanc" to stand in for the harder-to-pronounce sauvignon blanc on the labels of his (incidentally, oak-treated) California wines. He must have gotten the idea in the Loire valley, for there the grape is known as blanc fume; but as I recall reading somewhere, flipping the words around to "fume blanc" (white smoke) technically creates a misnomer because it implies that there must be a "fume noir" (black smoke) -- and there isn't.

A glass of sauvignon blanc is going to taste quite the opposite of a glass of chardonnay, if that is typically your white wine of choice. Chardonnay is rich, soft, golden, and opulent. It occurred to me as I sipped an example this week that if I were a winemaker, I would label my chardonnays "Butterwood." It sounds elegant, and it describes what they often are.

Sauvignon blanc is different. In The Wine Bible Karen MacNeil takes pains to point out that the word sauvignon is related to the word sauvage, meaning wild. Not only would the sauvignon vine grow madly if left unattended, it seems, the grape itself gives wines of high acidity and exuberant, aggressive smells and flavors, chiefly of the sort that wine writers call "herbal." Grass, hay, gooseberries -- European writers are kind enough to note that this adjective doesn't mean much to Americans unfamiliar with gooseberries -- green tea, and "meadow" "charge around in your mouth with wonderful intensity," MacNeil says. Grapefruit, citrus in general, and actual fish have come to mind for me when I poke my nose in the glass, especially into a glass from New Zealand. I have never smelled "cat pee," an aroma which, unless it is overwhelming, is not considered a fault in this wine.

Jancis Robinson in How to Taste explains that the sauvignon blanc grape thrives in a cool climate, which brings out its smells, its acidity, and therefore its "piercingly refreshing" qualities. The Loire Valley, New Zealand, and Chile are the coolest regions where the grape is grown. In warmer climes, even in Bordeaux, the grape will get more sunshine, ripen more, become sweeter, and you might say take on flab. Therefore it will need help to be its best -- a rich, bosomy partner like semillon, or the cloaking, you might say, of a sort of oak muu-muu.

Jancis Robinson speaks:

"The problem with Sauvignon Blanc in a warm climate is that it can rapidly lose its refreshing acidity and the zippy quality of the aroma. ... the nearer the Equator any sort of grapes are grown and ripened, the less acid and more sugar there will be in the resulting must, and the less acid and more alcohol there will be in the wine. ... The more acid a wine is, the less sunshine is likely to have ripened the grapes and the cooler the climate it is likely to have come from."

And what to pair with all that herbaceousness, not to mention cat pee? Hugh Johnson in How to Enjoy Your Wine notes that one classic accompaniment to an acidic and grassy Sancerre happens to be the region's "salty, crumbly, powerfully goaty cheese." Apart from that, the consensus seems to be with sauvignon blanc one wants salad perhaps, but certainly fish, fish, and more fish, in particular luscious shellfish or fish graced with cream or butter sauces.

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