Icons of Sauvignon Blanc

Icons of Sauvignon BlancIt’s a funny coincidence to have a Sauvignon Blanc tasting just when a mainstream wine writer is completely trashing the grape: “For years, this offensively inoffensive grape has escaped criticism while Chardonnay and Merlot have been scorned. The free ride ends here” rants Slate’s Mike Steinberger. It sounds like a joke but he keeps up the intensity of his tirade with a straight face throughout the article: “I'd have trouble coming up with a comparable list of great Sauvignon Blancs, because there aren't any” etc. etc. The article is fairly entertaining, definitely provocative and fightin’ words for hard core Sauvignon Blanc fans. And his extreme position actually articulates the current flak about the grape such as grumblings that all New Zealand Sauv. Blanc tastes the same and the stark reality that they never score nearly as high as varietal wines from the other big grape varieties. Should Sauvignon Blanc then be thrown out of the “big six” pantheon of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon? Does it really matter? Let’s face it; these are wine grape varieties and not countries in the G8! Now in the ever increasing world of wine criticism, only two of the “big six” grape varieties, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon have escaped derision: Merlot got it in the movie Sideways (I’m not going to drink any f****ing Merlot!) long before Randall Grahm declared his winery a Merlot-free zone; Chardonnay has been dodging the ridicule of ABC (anything-but-Chardonnay) fundamentalists since the early 1980’s (how about a lifetime of Ugni Blanc you ingrates?! ); Riesling’s star was dimmed by association with cheap Liebfraumilsh (ie Blue Nun, Black Tower, et. al); and now Sauvignon Blanc! We weren’t out to prove anything in our tasting, just to see what are the top Sauvignon Blancs out there today. I’ll have to admit there isn’t a lot to choose from in terms of iconic wines, which made it refreshingly cheaper than if we were tasting famous Pinot Noirs (big understatement – Berry Brothers and Rudd has a bottle of the1990 Romanée-Conti Domaine de la Romanée-Conti , which is drinking well-they-say-available for £6100/ $9070) And of the six wines we tasted, only 3 can be considered bona fide icons: Cloudy Bay, Didier Dagueneau’s Silex and Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc. We rounded out the list with a few worthy challengers from Leeuwin Estate, Jean-Paul Balland and Miani. Fully expecting the Silex to run away with top honors -- Didier dogsledding in (yes a central-casting winemaker eccentric who also dogsleds) and knocking ‘em all dead, I was completely surprised. 2004 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand 4 Stars This is the wine that put New Zealand on the map and is the model of the clean fresh zesty style that captivated people in the 1990’s. Before that the Kiwis only had the bragging rights to the world’s best Müller-Thurgau – a grape known best for producing boatloads of cheap Liebfraumilch – a little like saying that we make the world’s best potted meat product. Is it still captivating? It certainly was well liked in this group; very aromatic with grassy, floral, herbal, asparagus, gooseberry and citrus notes with lively acidity and more citrus and apricot on the palate. What’s there to complain about? Not a long finish but not short either. A very well made, delicious wine. £20/ $30 2003 Silex, Didier Dagueneau, Pouilly Fumé4 Stars The most famous, most acclaimed Sauv. Blanc on the planet, is named for the flint and clay soil of the vineyard. To ram the point home, Dagueneau puts a photo of a rock right on the bottle; make no mistake about it, this wine is about terroir. It certainly tastes different than Kiwi. Medium pale straw yellow. It has a great complex mineral nose of apricots, peach, fresh mowed grass, smoke and a in a good way cheese. It’s opulent and silky smooth on the palate, almost full bodied, and a little less complex on the nose with more peach, apricot, citrus and light vanilla notes. The only thing that seemed to be lacking was the zest of acidity. Unfortunately, 2003 is a strange year in France with extreme weather, temperatures etc., that probably doesn’t do this wine justice. All said, it’s hard not to like. £68/ $90 2000 Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc, Pessac-Léognan5 Stars The surprise winner of the tasting. Who knew? Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc? This, along with Chateaux Margaux Pavillion Blanc are the big Sauvignon Blanc varietals from Bordeaux, as the other great dry whites are usually blended with a substantial portion of Semillon. (The Smith Haut Lafitte also contains 5% Sauvignon Gris - a Bordeaux rarity that is now emerging in Chile - making it the only non pure Sauv Blanc in this tasting, but well above the threshold to consider it a varietal wine) The deepest colored wine of the group, a medium deep straw yellow. A very aromatic complex nose of gooseberry, vanilla biscuits, pineapple, peach and light spice. The palate is no letdown, full bodied and powerful, with ripe apples, gooseberry, vanilla and a long slightly pungent – in a good way - finish. A very classy wine with every element flawlessly integrated and drinking extremely well now. £43/ $50 2004 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Sauvignon Blanc, Margaret River, Australia3 Stars They’re famous for their Chardonnay, but also produce a very good Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. It was made in a similar style to the Cloudy Bay - surprise, surprise – very aromatic, zesty, fresh more asparagus but a little more grassy and a touch of pine tar on the finish. The palest wine in the group – very pale green-yellow to be precise - that perhaps paled in comparison to the rest. £16/ $25 2003 Grande Cuvée Jean-Paul Balland, Sancerre3 Stars Across the river from Pouilly Fumé there isn’t a producer who stands out like Dagueneau but many fine ones to choose from, including: Henri Bourgeois, Francois Cotat and Alphonse Mellot. The J-P Balland Grande Cuvée we tasted was a textbook example of Sancerre with lively acidity, medium body, gooseberries, apples, peach, flowers and a touch of cream cheese. I’m not exactly sure where the cheese in these Loire wines comes from as the Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé winemakers are known for their exceptional hygiene and cleanthliness (in contrast to most of France, no? ). Perhaps also suffering from the 2003 vintage, it was a good wine but not a standout. £14/ $20 2002 Miani Sauvignon, Colli Orientali del Friuli4 Stars Hand crafted by Friuli’s greatest winemaker, Enzo Pontoni. He’s another eccentric but in contrast to Dagueneau, he toils away in abject poverty concentrating only on producing the best wines from his small organically-grown holdings. It was a beautiful medium straw yellow, almost as deep as the Smith Haut Lafitte. Aromas of lemon peach apricot, nutmeg and sage. Very elegant peach, apricot, spice and fresh mowed grass on the palate with a long lightly floral finish. This was well liked among the group but not the favorite. £28/ $60 Everyone was pleasantly surprised by the distinctive differences in the wines tasted. The overall quality wasn’t a surprise since they weren’t exactly cheap but a mere pittance in comparison with the high flyers of the other big grape varieties. Particularly impressive was the Smith Haut Lafitte, a wine that doesn’t get a great deal of press. Let’s face it, dry white Bordeaux doesn’t exactly excite most wine lovers like the sweet stuff from Sauternes does. As for trashing grape varieties, it can certainly help to make a buyer’s market for some wines. Robert Parker’s wholesale rejection of Loire reds have made bargains of the best Cabernet Francs of the world: Saumur-Champigny, Chinon, Bourgeil and St. Nicholas de Bourgeil. So please members of the wine press, do your share to keep prices down by having a go at Sauvignon Blanc. In the meantime everyone should run -- not walk -- and grab a bottle of Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc.

11 Comments

Carol Carr
Carol Carr

June 16, 2014

I am a huge Sauvignon Blanc fan and loved your comments on the subject. I am in Colorado and own a small winery, Garfield Estates Winery, and we have produced an excellent Fume Blanc from our estate grown grapes for several years now. We view Sauvignon Blanc as our “signature” grape! I would be happy to send you a bottle to sample—I think you will be surprised by the quality from our little vineyard. Keep up the crusade!
Regards, Carol Carr

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

Hi Marcus,

Thank you for the comments and the recommendation and nice blog. As is typical, I can’t find the Château Haut-Bertinerie using wine-searcher.com in the UK! I guess I’ll just have to go to the vineyard myself!

Cheers,

Steve

Marcus
Marcus

June 16, 2014

Nice reviews. There are great Sauvignon Blancs are out there and somebody is missing out. I tasted one with more depth and intrigue than a very reputable 2002 Langlois Chenin Blanc: http://weingolb.blogspot.com/2006/02/lots-of-red-hearts-two-elegant-whites.html

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

Hi Eric,

Well spotted, however, varietal is the proper usage since they are predominantly made from one grape variety. Touche, fellow pedant! Wait, the wines are not named for the grape variety, however, so you’re right. Please don’t tell Jancis!

Eric Lecours
Eric Lecours

June 16, 2014

Steve,

Did you actually write this: “This, along with Chateaux Margaux Pavillion Blanc are the big Sauvignon Blanc varietals from Bordeaux…”? I’m going to tell Jancis!

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

Hi Carol,
Thanks for you comments. You may have noticed that there weren’t any US Sauv. Blancs in the tasting. The ones that make it to the UK are usually of indifferent quality. I’ve never tried wines from Colorado but Sauvignon Blanc seems to make sense with the cooler climate. I’ll have to try one the next time I’m in Denver but if you get the chance, please send one my way.
Cheers,
Steve

Tyler Colman
Tyler Colman

June 16, 2014

A very odd position for an established wine writer like MS to take. Has he never tried Chateau Haut Brion blanc? Perhaps not—it’s about $250 a bottle. Laville Haut Brion? Ch Pape Clement? Or how about one of those with age on it? Mmmm, delicious.

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

Yes that’s it with the exception that varietal can be used as a noun to describe a wine made predominantly from and named for a single grape variety. It’s just a common shortening of varietal wine. I think I’ll just use varietal wine from now on to make it as simple as you describe above. Also, looking forward to seeing you in the clubhouse!

Eric Lecours
Eric Lecours

June 16, 2014

I believe your contention is that “varietal” should not be used as a noun, that “variety” is the noun form:

variety – noun
varietal – adjective

This is your position, right?

PS: I’m up to ~90 varieties tasted, closing in on earning Century Club membership.

Backpackers Brisbane
Backpackers Brisbane

June 16, 2014

If you don’t have any interest in giving up double cheese supreme pizzas or going running instead of sitting on the sofa- then you’re wasting your time

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

To go on a rant like that he needed to leave out anything that would weaken the tirade.

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