Sauvignon blanc is like summer in a bottle with its racy freshness, citrus and herbal notes, and the best of them are rounded out with a nice layer of fruit that makes them easy to drink and takes the edge off the grape’s more aggressive qualities.
That assertive character is best expressed in New Zealand sauvignon, and it provokes equally strong feelings in wine drinkers, who seem to either love or despise it. When I opened a bottle recently and poured a glass for a friend, he took one sip, turned to me with one of those half smiles of resignation and pronounced the wine “cat pee.” He is not the first to use the description.
Fortunately, I’ve tasted quite a few American sauvignon blancs in recent weeks, and I think I can safely say that my friend would approve of most of my top choices. I call them American sauvignons because, while most are from California, one of my favorites is from South America — Argentina, to be precise.
These sauvignons as a group are medium-bodied wines that tend to have alcohol levels under 14 percent and are usually made without aging in oak (or with short exposure to it). This last quality preserves their fresh character and distinguishes them from American chardonnays, which are almost always made with oak, often too much of it.
And unlike chardonnay, which benefits from a year or so of aging, sauvignon blancs are released and can be enjoyed young; all the wines I tasted were from the 2008 vintage. They are also reasonably priced. While sauvignon prices have been edging up in recent years, the wines that made my cut were all under $20.
One of the things to remember about sauvignon blancs is that they are essentially food wines. With their herbal quality (some liken it to cut grass) and high acidity, they will complement most seafood, including shellfish and sushi, will hold up to salads and can be served with lighter meats such as herbed grilled chicken. (I wonder what my friend would have thought had he sampled that New Zealand wine with clams or oysters on the half shell?)
With all that in mind, here are some top sauvignon blancs that should be widely available:
- Two wines tied as my favorites. The first is the 2008 “Magnolia Lane” Sauvignon Blanc from the Kunde Family Estate in the Sonoma Valley. To me, this $17 wine has it all — refreshing crispness, complexity, pretty fruit and a long, memorable finish. It has fragrant aromas of apple and melon, joined in the mouth by notes of strawberry, grapefruit, honeysuckle and mint. Two things add to the complexity: The wine is actually a blend of 91 percent sauvignon blanc, 6 percent semillon and 3 percent viognier, and 5 percent of the blend was fermented in oak.
- Famiglia Bianchi’s impressive 2008 Sauvignon Blanc is from the San Rafael area of Mendoza, Argentina’s main wine province, and is also marked by a lingering, minerally finish. This $16 wine receives four months of oak aging, which accounts for a hint of vanilla that combines with its dominant lime and honeysuckle notes. Alcohol is a modest 12.5 percent. Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Calif.
- Other notable California releases include Charles Krug’s 2008 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, $18, elegant and fresh with grapefruit, lime, vanilla and herbal notes; Dry Creek Vineyard’s 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County, $16, slightly herbal with lime and grapefruit and a touch of raspberry; and Hanna Winery’s 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, $19, with notes of pear, melon, vanilla and a touch of bell pepper.
With the warmer weather here, now is a great time to try these outstanding wines that seem just made for summer and the season’s simple, relaxing meals.
Edward Deitch is the recipient of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Best Multimedia Writing. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at email@example.com
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