If you've ever drunk a white Bordeaux, Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé, then you already know the seductive charms of sauvignon blanc. The French have never found it necessary to point out what grape you were consuming—only that you enjoyed the village name and the crisp, fresh results. This nomenclature was enough to entice generations to sip and enjoy these magical wines—wines that placed summer doldrums into the back seat.
Nowadays, who doesn't make this wine? New World versions have, in the last 30 years, put their own mark on this sassy thirst quencher with a myriad of styles emerging from the Earth's four corners. America, Australia and, more recently, South Africa and New Zealand have put the grape name center stage on their labels and on consumers' lips. Its brilliant flavor profile has entered the mouths of eager imbibers with increasing frequency.
I recently blind tasted 48 examples from eight countries. Immediately noticeable was that one-third of them used screw caps. Interestingly, three screw capped bottles were off and had gone bad—the contents being oxidized and spoiled. (Two of the corked bottles were found to be faulty as well.) This is an interesting conundrum concerning arguments pro and con alternative closures. The ease and simplicity of the screw cap is tempting, yet somehow it's not as foolproof as some would have you think. This jury is definitely out.
One wine, the ZD Rosa Lee ($20, 90 points), was topped with a glass stopper that was aesthetically most attractive and preserved the wine perfectly. The fact that this wine was the best of the tasting is certainly the result of superior winemaking, but its top has awakened a larger interest in me concerning this pleasing new closure.
Here are the best examples that I tried:
2005 Redwood Creek, Frei Brothers Vineyard $8
Simple, very clean with lemon-tangerine notes and a touch of cardboard on the nose (possibly excess filtration). Ripe fruit flavors. Soft and not totally dry. A quaffable sipper. 84
2006 Rosemount, S.E. Australia $10
"Oily," tropical flowery nose. Ample with a slight diesel note. Clean flavors—even and smooth. Lacking refreshment zip but a pleasant sipping wine. 85
2006 Harras Estate, Maipo Valley $10
This Chilean entry has sweet pea and grass in the balmy attractive nose. Apple and pear flavors are rich but clean. A lobster's friend. 86
2006 Geyser Peak Winery, California $12
Straw, bright silkiness with rounded lanolin impressions and a touch of alcoholic heat. Drinks easily, well balanced and refreshing. A touch flat on the finish yet still enjoyable. 86
2006 Kendall-Jackson, California $11 (often discounted)
Clean, alive grassiness. Dry nasal sensations with a nose that shouts sauvignon blanc. Very true to type. Solid, un-showy, crisp refreshment. 86
2006 Starmont, Merryvale $18
From Napa Valley, a slightly honeyed white. Round, nicely varietal nose with energy penetrating the sinuses. Flavors are perky with excellent acids and refreshment. Screams out for food. 87
2006 Bonterra, Lake/Mendocino $13
Full of minerally peach and apricot. Persuasively fragrant and alluring. Clean, lean without being thin (100 percent organic grapes). A slight end bite actually will enhance a moderately spicy dish. 87
2006 Te Kairanga, Martinborough New Zealand $18
Sweet grass, spicy apple and pear. Clean mouth-quenching flavors. Brisk and dry (not all New Zealand sauvignon blanc is a tropical fruit basket). Exemplary choice for sea bass or salmon. 88
2005 Fortress Vineyards, Red Hills $18
Good depth with terrific purity. Long, well melded orange-tinged nose. Made from the sauvignon musque clone, known for its overt fragrance. A fresh, delightful mouthful—alive and tasty. (Lake County) 88
2006 Saint Clair Marlborough $15
Subtle, wispy, fresh and outdoorsy with a whiff of new mown hay. Substantial but lithe with refreshing citrus flavors. Like lemon on your scallops. (New Zealand) 88
2006 Geyser Peak Winery, River Road Ranch $21
Russian River fruit provides a direct, soulful and lithe bouquet. Has a vanilla pudding quality, yet a finish of apple-y lemon zest. Round, elegant mouth feel that's alive, yet generous and fulfilling. Excellent in a chardonnay-like style. 89
2004 Spring Mountain, Napa Valley $30
High toned, lean, crisp green apple. Slinkily sexy with balanced acidity and wonderful fruit and texture. Faultless balance. 89
2006 Eleven Tongues, W.O. Western Cape $10
From South Africa, a full blown, tropical extravaganza. Excitingly attractive and inviting. Full mouth texture with brisk finish. May be too much wine for some. It really takes center stage. (Low alcohol, 11.5 percent, may actually contribute to its freshness.) "Eleven Tongues" refers to the 11 languages spoken in South Africa. 89 BEST BUY
2006 Rosa Lee, ZD Winery $20
An overt, floral delight. Delicate roses surrounding a very long, bracing bouquet. Striking flavor components, bright and randy. Just delightful. 90 BEST OF TASTING (Unfortunately, only available at the winery. Try zdwines.com.)
Commenting on the art of wit, the French philosopher André Maurois wrote: "Analyzing wit is like dissecting a frog. When you take it apart you find out what it is made of, but the subject is killed in the process."
As someone who dissects wine all the time, I must heartily agree. We are all aware of the person known as the classic wine bore. The person who goes on and on smelling, tasting and pontificating about absurd elements like magnolia resin or guava bean cake. This kind of fussy, "I can smell something that you can't" attitude makes you either want to kill the messenger or kill the bottle as soon as possible!
It's my good fortune to be blessed with an ability to pick out details of a wine's character and makeup. But it serves neither author nor reader if I start to describe such esoteric scents and flavors that the description is more laughable than informative.
So you'll seldom see my descriptions laden with notes of "a hint of Ethiopian Harrar" or "reminiscent of Guatemalan peyote." I'll never shirk the obvious allusions to apple, fig, plum or new mown hay. But I try to lay off of words that appear snobbish or foolishly far-fetched. Some reviewers make you wonder whether that writer has a bottle of coriander, or sage, or a whole spice rack by his side in the faint hope that a wine will smell like a spice. I can't prove it, but I'd bet the farm that some people do this.
But the downside to simpler nomenclature is that it can lead to repetitive reviews. Many of the sauvignon blancs reviewed in today's column have crisp, grassy, citric or tropical notes about them. This is the nature of the grape. So, should I get upset if almost every sauvignon blanc review I write contains similar words repeated ad nauseam? If that's what's there, then shouldn't I say so? To me, it's the balancing of these elements, combined with the excitement that certain soils and winemakers bring to the wine, that make it special. That's why there was a range of 59-90 points in this tasting. (I spared you the miserable.) What makes it all work still borders on the magical and mysterious.
My hope is that you'll glean information from my adjectives and be pointed more closely to what your instincts seek. A certain excitement interspersed in my phrases is a dead giveaway to my preferences (and is meant to be). But I am not a fan of going back and back again, retasting simply to find the mot juste. This leads to dumb or dumber (or ludicrous) descriptors.
Wine primarily smells and tastes like wine. If we want apple juice or tropical fruit punch, then that's what we should drink. But wine does include reminders of other things that can be gleaned by sniffs or sips. I think the ones I tell you about are pretty obvious. There will never be an overly clinical dissection in my descriptions. The wondrous combination of refreshment, fascinating flavors, heavenly mouth feel and, perhaps, an intangible beauty is what makes us all look forward to that new glass of wine when we get home.
More than anything else, I hope that certain exhilarating elements in my review will make you want to run out and try that bottle of wine. Then I will have done my job.
To expound my own philosophical bit—while paraphrasing Mark Twain: If Heaven does not allow wine, then I shall not go....
Arturo can be reached at email@example.com for comments, suggestions, kudos or complaints.