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Find a Wonderful Food Partner in Crisp Sauvignon Blanc

Fine Cooking Issue 46
Photo: Scott Phillips
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When it comes to white wine, sometimes it seems like Chardonnay gets all the accolades and attention. But Sauvignon Blanc, another delicious white wine grape, often surpasses its more glamorous cousin in its versatility with food, its delicious flavors, and its affordability.

Sauvignon Blanc likes cool climates and chalky soil

Sauvignon Blanc, also called simply Sauvignon, does well in a variety of climates but thrives in those that are cool to temperate. While the vine isn’t exactly picky about which soil type to call home, it loves those based on chalk and limestone.

Sauvignon Blanc is also a winemaker’s dream. Once crushed and fermented (usually in stainless steel, as opposed to oak), it’s ready in weeks, as opposed to Chardonnay, which needs months of oak barrel aging, stirring, and fussing over.

Distinctively fresh, citrusy, and herbal

In a lineup of the usual white wine suspects, it’s easy to spot almost any Sauvignon Blanc by its standout grapefruit–citrus and fresh green-herb–grassy aromas and flavor—all framed by vibrant, sometimes bracing, acidity. The same “green” elements, though, can become pungent and unwieldy if the fruit hasn’t completely ripened (this happens in cool years). Those bright citrus notes can become rasping, stemmy, and unpleasantly vegetal.

To tame Sauvignon Blanc’s “veggie factor,” winemakers have long used two different techniques. They’ll often blend it with Sémillon, a rounded and nutty-tasting grape. In addition, Sauvignon—again, which is usually fermented and aged in stainless steel—can be fermented and aged in wood for a short time to give it roundness and more depth of flavor. While contact with wood does tend to mute some of that delightfully zesty fruit, it can add complexity to the finished wine, too, as long as the winemaker doesn’t overdo it. Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t take to prolonged oak aging as well as Chardonnay does.

Great matches for Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most food-versatile white wines around, with lively acidity and mouthwatering fruit that make it a welcome partner for a wide range of foods.

Try it with:
• Smoked trout or sturgeon on toast with crème fraîche and fresh dill
• Sole meunière
• Fillet of salmon with a chive or dill butter sauce
• Composed salads of ruby grapefruit slices, toasted walnuts, goat cheese, and a lemony dressing
• Grilled chicken breast with mango-cilantro chutney (especially good with oaked Sauvignon Blanc)

From France, benchmark Sauvignon Blancs

I think some of the purest examples of Sauvignon Blanc come from the Loire Valley communes of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre. Here the cool growing conditions and limestone-laden soils combine to create wines of unmatched citrusy, minerally character and vibrancy. For examples of Sauvignons possessing a stamp of identity and tasting of their origins, the wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are unequaled by any other Sauvignon Blancs in the world.

Great white Bordeaux are the world’s finest oaked Sauvignon Blancs. Low yields in the vineyard, blending with Sémillon (often 50% or more), and oak barrel aging result in age-worthy wines that leave a lasting impression. You’ll find two styles. At one end are the great estates that make rich (and costly) wines like Châ­teau Haut-Brion Blanc and Pavillon Blanc de Château Margaux. These are more challenging to match with food—they’re intensely flavored and need something just as intense right alongside, like veal with a mushroom cream sauce. At the other end are the bright, uncomplicated, and more affordable Sauvignon Blancs such as Châ­teau Bonnet and Château Launay, which are perfect for everyday enjoyment and a great match for shellfish.

But Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t begin and end in France (as the French would have us believe.)

Delicious Sauvignon from the southern hemisphere

Sauvignon Blanc has undergone a revolution in New Zealand during the last two decades. Wineries such as Cloudy Bay, Montana, and Allan Scott make delicious Sauvignon Blancs with full grapefruit and gooseberry flavors and snappy acidity. A bottle from the most recent vintage can often be jolting to the uninitiated palate, but it’s this sassy fruit buoyed by very high acidity that makes New Zealand Sauvignons such fantastic food partners. They’re the best possible contrast to fresh shellfish, tomato bruschetta, and a salad topped with warm goat cheese—all for less than an average California Chardonnay.

Chile is another recent convert to Sauvignon Blanc. While Chilean winemakers haven’t had the luxury of much time to work with Sauvignon, their learning curve has been impressively steep. Both the Rapel Valley and the Casablanca Valley are Chilean regions to watch.

California Sauvignons vary in style

Sauvignon is grown in every major wine region in California, and the wines range from bright and sassy to richer and oakier. They’ve been accused of an identity crisis because of not following one style or another, but the advantage is a wide array of delicious styles from which to choose.

Fumé Blanc is a California invention; it’s a marketing name for Sauvignon Blanc that has been wood-aged and is dry. Fumé Blanc is sometimes, though not always, blended with Sémillon. Robert Mondavi coined the term in the 1970s. He wanted to market his Sauvignon Blanc more distinctively, and the name has since stuck.

Sauvignon Blanc picks

Here are ten Sauvignon Blancs worth trying.

1999 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre
1999 Blanchet Pouilly-Fumé Cuvée Silex
1998 Domaine de Chevalier, Graves Blanc

1999 Handley Cellars Sauvignon Blanc
1998 Dry Creek Fumé Blanc Reserve

2000 Casa Lapostolle, Rapel Valley
2000 Veramonte, Casablanca Valley

New Zealand:
2000 Seresin Estate, Marlborough
2000 Villa Maria Sauvignon
1999 Allan Scott Sauvignon


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