Sauvignon Blanc

#177 – June 24, 2011

As the erratic weather New York has been experiencing seems to be coming to an end, with classic summer days and nights making a welcome appearance, the time has clearly come for delightfully cold, crisp and refreshing wines to make their annual début.  While I tend to enjoy most wines 365 days a year, there are clearly wines that are more evocative of certain seasons / weather than others.  Port is a great companion to dark and dreary evenings, rich Cabernet Sauvignon is great for long leisurely dinners loaded with carnivorous treats and rosé is a great brunch wine almost any day of the year.

To me Sauvignon Blanc is a classic summer wine.  Crisp, clean and refreshing, it is a great match with many classic summer foods like poached salmon and cold chicken salad.  A good Sauvignon Blanc will actually taste like summer itself – loaded with fresh flavors of melon, citrus, freshly cut grass and sunshine.  While some folks prefer the grassy aromas and flavors to be muted, I prefer them to be bursting with summertime flavor.  When I crack open a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc at the end (or in the middle) of a hot summer day, one of the pleasures of the bottle includes escaping from the heat and humidity to a blooming green field covered in a fresh coat of summer rain.  Show me a brooding Cabernet that can do that for you!  The fabulous combination of crisp acidity, youth (always look for the youngest Sauvignon Blanc you can find) and grassiness make Sauvignon Blanc a delightful and refreshing summer quencher.  Less fat and more highly aromatic than Chardonnay, its high acidity makes it a much better accompaniment to food.  Good food pairings include fish (including the harder to pair oily fishes), grilled vegetables and cheese (Chèvre makes for a heavenly pairing).  In addition to the classic spicy Gewürztraminer pairing, certain Sauvignon Blancs also happen to be one of the few wines that pair well with sushi.

Sauvignon Blanc is a green-skinned grape variety which originates from the Bordeaux region of France.  The origin of the name is derived from the French words sauvage (“wild”) and blanc (“white); largely resulting from its early origins as an indigenous grape in South West France.  Sauvignon Blanc is widely cultivated in France, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, California, and South America.  Depending on the climate, its flavors range from aggressively grassy to sweetly tropical.  One of characteristics vintners most appreciate is the grape’s extreme versatility, resulting in the ability to produce a wide range of flavor profiles from the same grape.  As with most wines, in addition to the heavy terroir influence¸ the grape-making methodology has great impact on the variations in style.  Sauvignon Blanc wine that has been aged in oak takes on a creamy richness (similarly to Chardonnay) with quite a different mouthfeel than wines aged in stainless steel tanks which allow pure fruit flavors to shine through, resulting in a wine with more tropical notes.  Many winemakers utilize both methods and side-by-side comparison tasting of Sauvignon Blanc wines made using these different methods can be fascinating (and delicious).

While Sauvignon Blanc tends to take a significant back seat to Chardonnay and Viognier, a number of famous wines are made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape.  Many of the world’s greatest dessert wines from Sauternes and Barsac (including my personal kosher Holy Grail – Château d’Yquem) are made from Sauvignon Blanc as are Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre wines whose distinctive Sauvignon Blanc character is derived from the fabulous terroir seemingly made for growing wines and riddled with limestone and chalk.  Sauvignon Blanc sometimes goes by the nom de guerre Fumé Blanc or Blanc Fumé (the Dalton Sauvignon Blanc Fumé is a good example of this genre and used to be one of my all time favorite wines).

Below I have reviewed a number of (mostly) Israeli Sauvignon Blancs.  While New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is more famous, California Sauvignon Blanc tends to be somewhat “Chardonayized”.  Given Chardonnay’s massive popularity (notwithstanding the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) naysayers), many Californian winegrowers manipulate their Sauvignon Blanc wines to have a creamy and oaky feel to them in order to appeal to the Chardonnay-drinking hordes.

While I don’t usually put a whole lot of importance on vintage years with respect to Israeli wines (see #144) due to the relatively consistent weather in Israel year in and year out (other than to highly recommend drinking wines within their projected drinking windows), the Sauvignon Blanc grape flourishes in warm weather and the hotter the summer, the riper and juicier the Sauvignon Blancs from that vintage year will be, so the year actually matters more.  As always, an important thing to note is that, here in America, due to various importing laws, numerous white wines are sold past their peak and one should try to always purchase the latest available vintage of white (or rosé).

Yatir, Sauvignon Blanc, 2010:  The red wines of this winery get a lot of attention and justifiably so but Yatir’s Sauvignon Blanc should be a serious contender for some generous space allocation in your cellar as it’s easily my favorite Sauvignon Blanc wine (unfortunately extremely overpriced in the United States).  A superstar wine year after year, this latest vintage doesn’t disappoint.  Complex and layered with hints of green apple, tropical fruits and citrus, together with the varietal’s traditional grassiness and a flinty edge to it that makes your palate stand up and say wow!  A very brief stay in oak shows with light hints of wood and vanilla.  Plenty of bracing acidity to keep the fruit in check and amazing enough to make any self-professed “I only drink red wine” individual you may know change their tune.

Galil Mountain, Sauvignon Blanc, 2010:  As with almost every wine produced by the Galil Mountain winery, a great deal, YH Best Buy and delightful.  As with many of Israel’s better recent Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc wines, unoaked with a backbone of bracing acidity contributing to its versatility in many food pairings.  The lack of oak allows for a purer expression of the fruit flavors to shine through, in this case including guava, mango, melon, limes all on a flinty background.  A hint of cream makes this one an interesting treat.

Carmel, Appellation, Sauvignon Blanc, 2010:  As with the past years and following the recent trends away from oak, an unoaked wine increasing its refreshing factor significantly.  Bursting with citrus, melon and passion fruit tinged with a not unpleasant bitterness giving the wine just enough edge.  Slight hints of the traditional freshly mown grass that make this wine so evocative of summer.  A great match with food and an easy-drinking wine.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Sauvignon Blanc, 2010:  While almost everything the Golan Heights Winery produces is good, they have made so many “special” wines in the Yarden series that the more “regular” Yarden wines tend to get neglected including their Cabernet Sauvignon which remains one of the best deals around and this wine.  A classic example of Sauvignon Blanc – crisp, refreshing with loads of the characteristic grassiness, this wine is medium-bodied and delicious – a definite picker-upper for any day with more tropical notes than prior vintages.  Plenty of acidity makes the guava, limes, green apples, vanilla and freshly cut grass really dance in your mouth.  A medium length finish nicely rounds out this wine.

Ella Valley Vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc, 2010:  As with the 2008 vintage I last reviewed, the wine is blended with some Semillon which gives it a little more character and is loaded with the aromas and flavors of passion fruit, limes, grapefruit and kiwis and tantalizes with hints of freshly blooming flowers leading into a somewhat steely grassy finish.  A young, lively and fun wine, but with the complexity and class to be so much more than just an end-of-the-summer fling.

Tierra Salvaje, Sauvignon Blanc, Lontue Valley, Chile, 2010:  A great new arrival on the scene, not the least a result of its $5 price tag making it a YH Best Buy.  This Chilean wine is one of the latest offerings from Shimshon Welner (the former CEO of the Golan Heights Winery) and the current brain behind the Tierra Salvage brand which acts as a negotiant of kosher wines from around the world (focused on Chile, Spain and Italy).  Many of his wines are sold at bargain-basement prices at Trader Joe’s.  This wine is a simple but lovely wine that more than fulfils your $5 expectations with citrus, blooming flowers and enough acidity to keep the wine from falling flat.  Drink chilled and enjoy.