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As Chardonnay’s star has dimmed, Sauvignon Blanc has stepped into the spotlight. Chris Losh identifies the key regions for a grape that delivers fresh, aromatic flavours in a range of styles that work well with food
The world’s ‘other big white grape’ after Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc has grown in popularity over the past decade, as wine drinkers move away from the big, lush, often oaked flavours of Chardonnay in search of something fresher. And fresh is one thing that Sauvignon Blanc most definitely is. It’s a lively sprite of a grape variety that delivers an intense aromatic explosion of flavours to your mouth before disappearing in a bright puff of acidity, leaving your palate tingling. Its homeland is France’s Loire Valley, where it makes fresh, rather beautiful wines. Sauvignon de Twouraine is one of France’s great bargain whites, with an easy-to-like flavour-mix of juicy limes, cut grass and blackcurrant leaves – making it the perfect wine for a hot summer’s day.
Made for food
On the limestone hill of Sancerre, though, the grape takes on a different character. There’s still a whiff of green fruit, but it’s subordinated to flint, gun smoke and crushed stones with a thrilling backbone of mouth-watering acidity. These intense, austere, minerally wines are, at their best, some of the greatest food wines in the world, perfect with simple white fish or seafood. Bad versions, however, are thin and aggressive, with all the charm of a glass of battery acid.
Nearby Pouilly-Fumé makes wines that are stylistically similar: intense, complex, structured – and variable in quality, though the genius of Didier Dagueneau remains a shining beacon for ambitious winemakers. Dagueneau, who died in a microlite accident last year and was known as the Wild Man of the Loire, was one of the few winemakers to experiment with barrel-ageing for a grape that very rarely spends any time in oak.
If you move further south in France, you’ll find good Sauvignon Blancs from Bordeaux, a region whose whites are strangely underrated. They’re crunchy and fresh and usually more approachable than Loire Sauvignons. Partly this is because Bordeaux is a bit warmer and sunnier than the Loire, and partly because many of the wines often have a dollop of the rounder, fruitier Semillon grape added to them. The best versions – usually complex, minerally beasts from Pessac-Léognan – can age for many years.
But for all that France is the grape’s heartland, Sauvignon Blanc is increasingly associated with Marlborough, in New Zealand. This region, at the northern tip of the South Island, has pretty much perfect conditions for good Sauvignon: there’s enough southern hemisphere sun to get the grape really ripe, but not enough heat to burn out its trademark aromatic flavours.
The result is one of the most distinctive wine styles in the world: full-on tropical mango, nectarine and guava flavours with a green-pepper streak in behind. Big and in-your-face, Marlborough Sauvignon is impossible to ignore, and not always easy to match with food, though it’s not a bad bet with spicier Asian dishes that are too much for the leaner French versions of the grape.
As the prices rise in New Zealand, so other countries have stepped in to offer cheaper versions of Sauvignon, with the best versions from cooler areas of South Africa and Chile offering a rather good (pardon the pun) Marlborough Light style that is halfway between those of New Zealand and France. These aren’t just hugely gluggable, they’re increasingly serious wines in their own right, and well worth a look.
Chile: Casablanca, Leyda; France: Bordeaux, Loire, Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre; New Zealand: Marlborough; South Africa: Darling, Elgin, Robertson.
Bordeaux: Château La Louvière, Haut-Brion; Chile: Santa Rita, Viña Leyda; New Zealand: Cloudy Bay, Jackson Estate, Villa Maria; Pouilly-Fumé: Didier Dagueneau; Sancerre: Henri Bourgeois, Pascal Jolivet; South Africa: Iona, Springfield.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Spring 2009