Summer Sauvignon Blanc
Pitting New Zealand against other New World picks
With these warm spring days we all can’t help but think that summer is right around the corner. And with those summer days come the cool, crisp whites that make for some memorable, if not well remembered, summer nights.
I’ll be taking a look at all of my favorite summer whites, new and old, but will make sure to hit on some of the most popular wines a few times — and lately, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has been about as popular as things get.
I put together a small set of wines featuring a trio of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and pitted them against a sampling of other New World Sauv Blancs, one costing twice the price. How did the New Zealand wines stack up?
Sauvignon Blanc has had a long, if sometimes tumultuous, relationship with the American consumer. First there was white Bordeaux: that sometimes-crisp alternative to white Burgundy. Slowly there was a growing awareness that wines coming from someplace called the Loire Valley with names like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume were delicious summer wines, and they were made from a grape called Sauvignon Blanc, as opposed to the blends that were simply referred to as white Bordeaux.
In due time people like Robert Mondavi worked to popularize the barrel-aged, lightly smoky style of wine that emulated the wines of Sancerre to a certain extent, with one decisive difference. California is no Loire valley. The differing climates simply produced different fruit and much of what came out of New World vineyards showed a ripeness and softness, that the wines of the Loire thankfully lacked. Instead of being a true alternative to wines like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc was increasingly pushed to resemble, at least texturally, these most popular wines in America.
There were outliers of course. Producers who established vineyards in cooler regions and worked to craft something elegant, fresh and bright; but the wines generally were more boring than not. And then it happened. New Zealand exploded on the scene with snappy, vibrantly bright wines that poured forth aromas of pineapple, cut grass, green chilies and the always fun to saw gooseberries, asparagus and cat pee!
Not only were the wines fun (and let’s admit it, the first time we tried one we all went “Wow”), but they were fun to talk about. The offhanded nature of the New Zealanders who made and promoted these wines somehow made its way into the bottles, and out went the vinous lexicon. Quite simply, they were the right wines at the right time.
Predictably, vineyard planting in New Zealand and in particular the prime Marlborough vineyards that provide most of this magic, exploded. Not only did supply quickly exceed demand, but vines were planted on sites that were less than ideal, which may not have any impact on these wines, but maybe there was something there. Something that not only saw the prices for most of these wines drop, but also — and counterintuitively — saw demand fall away at the same time.
To be sure, the lesson of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was well absorbed the world round. A nd these last few years (lets call it a decade) have seen wineries the world round clean up their acts and join the ranks of world-class producers. So what happened to New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc? There’s only one way to find out: taste a few and pit them again some stiff competition!
The truth is, great Sauvignon Blanc is made in every major wine-growing region and which one is best can only be determined by each individual. Do you prefer the cut and aromatics of a green Kiwi version, or the citrus and mineral of Sancerre? Then of course there’s the rounder, riper versions from Northern Italy, all types from California, South Africa, Australia and of course they make this little white wine over in France called white Bordeaux. I’ve heard it’s not bad. Thinking I need to get me some of that.
—Gregory Dal Piaz, Snooth