Sauvignon Blanc
The Reluctant Diva

by Greg Morago


California’s two best-selling grape varietals, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, behave less like sun-kissed allies and more like air-kissing adversaries. Think of them as the Rhoda and Phyllis of the wine world; the Betty and Veronica of the vines.

Actually, a better comparison of these grape sisters would be Ginger and Mary Ann. Imagine Chardonnay as Ginger — the aggressively ripe voluptuary; all big, loud, oaky indulgence; a pampered goddess spilling out of a beaded second skin. And then there’s Sauvignon Blanc’s sweet Mary Ann ways — soft, light goodness; a bite of apple crispness and purity; a freshly-mowed expanse of mineral-fed grass.

Chardonnay is definitely the more expensive date, satisfying if you can put up with a temperament that swings from honeyed contract player to demanding, perk-fed diva. Me? I’ll always opt for Sauvignon Blanc — good manners, stability, one hundred percent cotton.

photograph by Janjaap Dekker

Not to paint Sauvignon Blanc as boring. Hardly. For generations the noble grape has been an elegant player in France, specifically Bordeaux and the Loire Valley (the latter the birthplace of the tangy, flinty Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé). Today, Sauvignon Blanc’s magic has spread to Australia, New Zealand, Chile and, of course, the United States where it is widely planted in California but also in Washington State and New York. In California, it is the second only to Chardonnay as the best-selling grape varietal.

Sauvignon Blanc has been described as a love-it-or-hate-it wine whose brisk acidity and unapologetically herbaceous nature rubs some white wine lovers the wrong way. Fans of floral, woody Chardonnays may find Sauvignon Blanc too austere, too crisp and dry, a tad too wanting in nuances of nectar, perfume, spice and oak.

But that is exactly why Sauvignon Blanc, perennially in the wide shadows of Chardonnay, is such a refreshing, versatile and, admittedly, challenging white wine. Its pronounced flavors — ranging from nettles to asparagus, gooseberries to green olives — are popular with experienced wine lovers. The wine marries well with grilled fish and poultry as well as pastas lightly sauced with cream or tomato. It doesn’t stand up well, however, to rich, spicy fare.

Obviously, Sauvignon Blanc is a perfect summer sipper. “It’s a very light wine. Really very, very good with simple fish, steamed seafood or grilled chicken,” said Andy Kormendi, general manager of the recently relaunched Placido Domingo Restaurant & Tapas Bar in New York. “Unfortunately, the trend in America is very much to Chardonnay. But Sauvignon Blanc is becoming more popular. It’s a light, summery wine.”

Domingo’s restaurant is newly infused with Mexican flair, importing cookbook author Patricia Quintana to marry flavors of Oaxaca and Tehuantepec with traditional Spanish fare. The kitchen’s grilled salmon with poblano sauce or chicken brochette with avocado and tomatillo salsa makes a good match for Concannon Sauvignon Blanc from California’s Alameda County.

At the venerable Border Grill in Santa Monica, the Too-Hot Tamales Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger pair their Mexican ceviches with Sonoma’s Davis Bynum Fumé or Napa’s Honig Sauvignon Blanc or Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc. (If you enjoy Mexican food, you should know that some Sauvignon Blancs give off a nose of cilantro!)

In the United States, our Sauvignon Blanc cravings owe much to the wine craft and marketing genius of Robert Mondavi. It was Mondavi, displeased with the reputation of American-bred Sauvignon Blanc, who set out to reinvent the wine category. He took Sauvignon Blanc, blended it with a little Semillon (6-10 percent) for richness and aged it in French oak for roundness. In 1968 he rechristened the wine Fumé Blanc (taking the “smoke” tag of Loire’s Pouilly-Fumé) to play up the Sauvignon Blanc’s inherent smoky, flinty character.

A star was born. Today, Fumé Blanc — Sauvignon Blanc proper, but often with a splash of Semillon — outsells Sauvignon Blanc. Americanized Sauvignon Blancs and Fumé Blancs are often graced with melon and grass flavors — pleasing characteristics however you cut it.

Mondavi, at 87 still presiding over the prestigious Robert Mondavi Winery in the heart of Napa Valley, knew the glorious potential of American Sauvignon Blanc. “He never treated it as a stepchild of Chardonnay. He treated it as a true, noble grape variety,” said Robert Campbell, a spokesman for the Robert Mondavi Family of Wines. “Mr. Mondavi has always said that Sauvignon Blanc is the most versatile white grape variety with food. It has a beautiful, bright acid that’s paramount with food.”

Campbell said that one of Sauvignon Blanc’s triumphant culinary pairings is oysters. And, surprisingly, tomatoes: “It’s one of the greatest, magical harmonies: a good Sauvignon Blanc and tomatoes.”

Mondavi produces two fine versions: 1997 Stags Leap District Sauvignon Blanc, a 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc with lush notes of melon and wildflowers, and 1997 Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc Reserve, a French Oak-aged beauty with six percent Semillon that gives off silky tropical fruits and a hint of black tea and star anise. Premier California producers include Chalk Hill, Ferrari-Carano, Grgich and Spottswoode.

Other good Sauvignon Blancs include Cakebread Cellars’ 1998 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc with green aromas of kiwi, melon and mint and Simi Winery’s 1997 Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County, a classic interpretation with a fresh, citrus tang and spice (Simi’s 1997 Sendal is a Fumé Blanc with a whopping 25 percent Semillon). Californians are more readily able to get their hands on 1997 Honig Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, with its ripe melon and creamy vanilla flavors; 1998 Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County, which sports brisk melon and grapefruit qualities; and 1997 Fiddlehead Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Ynez Valley, a luscious version with waves of peach, melon and grapefruit.

With flavors galore, Sauvignon Blanc is also easier on the wallet than premium Chardonnays. A very nice Sauvignon Blanc or Fumé Blanc sells for between $14 and $20.

See? Mary Ann doesn’t sound like such a bad choice after all.

Greg Morago is a food writer and pop culture reporter for The Hartford Courant, Hartford, Conn. A restaurant critic, he also is a member of The James Beard Foundation and a judge for the society’s annual national restaurant awards. As the Gregarious Epicure, Morago writes about food, cooking, travel and wine and spirits on line at www.ctnow.com.

© 2000 El Andar Magazine