Saturday, April 07, 2007

Wine School! (Class #4 -- Sauvignon Blanc)

Sauvignon Blanc, the light white.

Of the six major varietals, Sauvignon Blanc is the most delicate. Sauvignon Blanc follows only Chardonnay in domestic U.S. production -- although the difference between first and second place in that comparison is a factor of six or seven. That said, as people have become somewhat "chardonnayed out" in the last decade or so, Sauvignon Blanc has stepped up to please curious palates.

Sauvignon Blanc's origins are usually traced to the Bordeaux region of France. The grape is actually the parent varietal of Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes tends to be light in body with a fragrant, usually fruity, nose. The taste is normally somewhat fruity and tart, and the finish is normally fairly crisp. "Old World" Sauvignon Blancs sometimes have a mineral character, as well. (Though not like the Grüner Veltliner from earlier.)

Among areas growing Sauvignon Blanc, the best known wines are from Bordeaux -- since, well, they came up with it. California, Australia, and New Zealand started creating quality Sauvignon Blanc in the 80's and 90's. South America, other areas of the U.S., and various other European countries now harvest this grape in ever-increasing amounts. You may see wines labeled "fume blanc." Same grape -- just a different style. (Chenin Blanc, however, is a completely different grape.)

Sauvignon Blanc is an extremely food friendly wine, largely because of its acidity. The acidity of the wine cuts through flavors that can be real wine killers. Some see "acidity" and think "sour." "Tartness" is a better synonym. Imagine lemon juice or lime juice -- very acidic and sour on its own. But if you put a splash of either in some club soda or tonic water, the tartness is pleasant.

I'll discuss more specific food pairings below, but hot peppery foods go exceptionally well with Sauvignon Blanc. Why? The chemical compound in pepper that creates heat is called Capsaicin. If you sift through some dusty memories to high school chemistry class, Capsaicin is a strong base. Sauvignon Blanc is acidic, and acids and bases neutralize each other. Sauvignon Blanc paired with spicy food tames both the tartness and the heat, allowing the food's flavor and the wine's fruit to shine through.

As I discussed with the pinot noir, the terroir of this wine has a major effect on the flavor. For comparison's sake, I chose three very different versions of this most refreshing grape:

Veramonte 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Chile) -- $10-12
Yvecourt 2005 Bordeaux (France) -- $9-11
Villa Maria 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand) -- $13-15

When looking at the three glasses, even with a wine as light as Sauvignon Blanc, there's a difference. The Veramonte is the lightest -- a very pale yellow. The Yvecourt is a little darker. The Villa Maria has the deepest yellow color.

The contrast continues with the noses. The Veramonte was the fruitiest smelling with a very distinct scent of grapefruit and tropical fruits like mangoes. The Yvecourt's nose was somewhat fruity, but was much more floral and had a little bit of that herbaceous scent. The Villa Maria had the most complex nose. The herbaceous scent was very strong at first, but mellowed after another good swirl into pineapples and vanilla.

The tastes were strikingly different. The Veramonte was a bit tart and very crisp. The finish was tropical and a little peppery. The Yvecourt was the lightest tasting with a little citrus flavor, but quite gentle. The finish was extremely dry with some of that mineral flavor I mentioned earlier. The Villa Maria, again, was the most complex and full-bodied of the three. The mouthfeel approached chardonnay range. The fruit was certainly there coupled with vanilla flavors. The finish was the least dry and was the longest, gradually getting tarter as drank more.

When would you drink each of these? The Veramonte was probably the most drinkable on its own if you need something refreshing. It also pairs well with almost anything spicy, and it went especially well with Thai food. The Yvecourt goes with any kind of shellfish. Crab, scallops, shrimp, calamari -- anything along those lines and you've got a winner. The fullness of the Villa Maria made it very interesting. It's full enough to pair with chicken, pork, and some cream sauces -- basically anything you'd pair with a chardonnay or pinot noir.

Sauvignon Blanc is my favorite white varietal of the moment, especially as the weather warms. (Although you wouldn't know it from the snow on the tulips here currently.) As winter turns to spring and stews yield to pastas primavera, the crispness of a Sauvignon Blanc becomes an ideal choice. As summer approaches, Sauvignon Blanc is the quintessential "pool wine" -- a revitalizing sipper on a hot day. Enjoy.

Next up, the grandpappy of the reds -- Cabernet Sauvignon.

Class dismissed…

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