Sauvignon blanc has lost its sex appeal. Like an aging actress, the newness has worn off, exposing her raw talent and potential. I adore wines at this stage; it’s when winemakers begin to experiment and let the grapes perform vinous magic.
Of course, the grape has been around for eons in the “Old World,” growing heartily in the pastoral French countryside. But regions that have been cultivating the fruit the past half century or so have just begun to realize its possibilities. In France, sauvignon blanc tastes super dry and flinty, reflecting the soil and climate (aka “terroir”) where it’s raised. But take it to South Africa, California or New Zealand on holiday and, like drag-queen Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria, it transforms into something almost unrecognizable that can tickle your toes.
Consider the earth 100 million years ago. Volcanoes bubbled, rains poured and oceans brimmed. When nature’s chaos subsided, all that silt, sand, clay and mineral settled into the various landmasses, creating a wide variation in soils across the globe. The topography influences the way the fruit tastes, resulting in sauvignon blancs that can vary drastically from place to place.
But terroir is only the beginning. Winemaking techniques, from new technology to old-school practices, affect your favorite beverage. Yet one truism remains: “You can make bad wine from great grapes, but you can’t make great wine from bad grapes.” Essentially, vineyard matters. And now with grape-growers identifying the best planting locations, sauvignon blanc is playing leading roles, no longer forced to take bit parts in blends or relegated to big jugs.
New Zealand, the first New World region to re-emerge with unique sauvignon blancs — grown only since the 1970s — carries such a deliciously tart reputation now that one sniff and your nose knows. The massive Marlborough region, which grows the majority of the vines, enjoys a cooler climate and stony soils, creating wines with bracing grapefruit, green grass and lime aromas that soar out of the glass. Wildly popular, the crisp, herbal style has become the benchmark for the variety, and many envious wineries around the world have tried to supplant it but have failed. Much like the successful sitcoms that followed Seinfeld, they had to forge their own definitive character.
South Africa, a formerly disrespected wine region, has emerged in recent years with soothing, suave sauvignons that feature stereotypical tartness but also fresh peaches and red apples. Its juice remains one of my go-to choices — crisp, refreshing and elegant, all at the same time.
In the 1960s, California’s sauvignon blanc gained the nickname “Fumé Blanc” from Robert Mondavi. Originally a reference to Pouilly Fumé in France’s Burgundy region, “fumé” (translation: “smoked”) indicated oak usage in the wine. Now, however, marketing has undermined its original significance, much like brazen commercialism has taken the luster off the Academy Awards. Today, stainless-steel fermentation, imbuing a crisper flavor profile, is frequently used in California sauvignon blancs, but every so often, fragrant vanilla and toastiness emerge from a glass. It softens the oft-biting acidity like a long, romantic Hollywood kiss. This girl’s favorite part.
Clayhouse 2007 Sauvignon Blanc Paso Robles (California) Mmm … tropical fruit and orange blossom aromas. Soft, luscious sips with mango and peach, a sweet influx of toasted almonds and a lime finish. Excellent complexity. $14. 4.5 stars
Robertson 2007 Sauvignon Blanc South Africa Exceptional quality for the price. Soft and citrusy, with ripe red apple and a crisp, steely, flinty aftertaste. $10. 3.5 stars
Spy Valley 2007 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Classic New Zealand style: dry, crisp and clean, with bracing lime and grapefruit, and some softening ripe apricot and honeydew melon. $14. 3 stars