A Wild One
Vibrant, zingy and bracing, the adjectives describing sauvignon blanc are anything but shy. It’s name alone, which is derived from the word “wild,” is a fair clue this is an in-your-face wine, make no mistake about it.
The classic home for this green-hued grape is in northwestern France, where the Loire River lazily snakes across a flat verdant landscape polka-dotted with 16th century chateaux. While most were constructed as summer homes for Parisian fêtes élégantes, others were strictly revenue generating enterprises designed to extract tolls from the many boats transporting freight through the calm Loire waters.
The two Loire districts that produce the region’s finest sauvignon blanc are Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé and in keeping with French tradition, these geographic designations are proudly displayed on bottle labels. Decades ago Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé had distinctive personalities, with the Pouilly Fumé offering a smokier profile, hence the name fumé, which means smoke in French. These days the wines are virtually indistinguishable. Sancerre is available at most Hong Kong wine shops and is an attractive summer wine due to its crisp acidity and modest alcohol levels (12.5%).
While Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé have long held sway with cosmopolitan Europeans, it is New Zealand that put the variety on the global map. In the mid-1980’s wineries such as Cloudy Bay produced a zinger of a wine that knocked the socks off the Loire Valley and it has never really recovered from the jolt. When pouring New Zealand sauvignon blanc, expect an herbal, grassy character and brisk acidity.
South Africa is making a name for itself by producing a sauvignon blanc that eschews the blatant green edge of New Zealand’s style. Basking in the sunny South African climate, the contented grapes are much riper when harvested, resulting in a softer wine with tropical fruit nuances and high alcohol levels matched only in California production. South African Sauvignon blanc is greatly admired, but in Hong Kong one rarely sees it elevated beyond the lowly wine-by-the-glass lists.
California produces its share of sauvignon blanc, but hasn’t developed a distinctive regional style. Perhaps that is because one of the first major producers of Sauvignon Blanc, Robert Mondavi, chose to produce the wine in the manner of Bordeaux, while others chose to emulate the Loire or New Zealand styles. In the 1970’s, Mondavi was concerned that unrefined Californians would balk at pronouncing sauvignon blanc, so he labeled the wines the more easily pronounceable Fumé Blanc.
The Bordelaise have long served sauvignon blanc at the dinner table, but until recently, few producers took the grape seriously. Speak with a gray-haired Bordelaise winemaker and they’ll give it only a touch more respect than their garden weeds. Known to yield large crops, the grapes were usually planted in lesser quality sites and rarely harvested at optimal ripeness. In Pessac-Leognan, a top quality white Bordeaux district, the grapes are fermented and matured in oak barrels to mute its brash herbal character. The quality of white Bordeaux is increasing in leaps and bounds, but prices haven’t caught up yet, so bargains abound.