IN THE WORLD OF THE SOMMELIER-where blind tasting becomes an art form-there is one wine that is most recognizable. To me, this varietal has an unforgettable aroma of grapefruit, kiwi, Poha berry and tart green apples that mingle with minerality, while unobstructed by and absent of new wood aromas. Some cite notes of grass, as other say gooseberry, white flowers or even some strawberry guava and nectar, depending on where the taster was raised. Yet, it is always light bodied and crisp with a special zing of acidity that leaves you smacking your lips wanting either another sip or a bite of food. This grape is none other than Sauvignon Blanc.
With its roots firmly entrenched in France’s Loire Valley (more specifically in the Central Vineyards, succinctly named because it resides in the center of the county), the river valley boasts two appellations that have produced the finest Sauvignon Blancs known to the world. The two sister AOCs of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume lie just across the river and face each other. The prior lies on the East side and the latter on the West. What makes these two regions so special for Sauvignon Blanc is a unique combination of soil and climate. Although they are on opposite sides of France’s longest river, their soils are similar: limestone and some clay mixed with gravel give more amplitude to the wines, where trace sand and flint (locally known as “silex”) lend minerality and finesse.
The climate can be severe with short, hot summers and longer, cold winters. This combination gives Sauvignon Blanc its ripeness and fruitiness yet allows it to retain the signature acidity that it is known and loved for. Stylistically the two areas overlap quite a bit. Even the finest palate could be fooled into identifying one as the other. One of my all-time favorites is the Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre. The winemakers here use a simpler philosophy: Let the vineyard speak and don’t get in the way. They strive to grow the perfect fruit and to express it in its simplest and most beautiful form. It is perhaps the purest undecorated version of Sauvignon Blanc in the world. It is ethereal from start to finish with piercing aromas of fruit and stone gained from the flinty, chalky soils. It gains nerve on the palate with pinpoint acidity, but never lacks for flavor or deliciousness. It is like a cool breeze on an early morning hike: vibrant and refreshing. There are other famous names: Dageneau, Jolivet, Vatan, but to me, none is as drinkable and satisfying.
For decades France’s Sancerre and Pouilly Fume have been the King and Queen of the Sauvignon Blanc drinking world. But now there is another area of the world vying for the throne: Marlborough, New Zealand. Located on the northeastern point of South Island, Marlborough is home to the not-sonew “gold rush” (as locals refer to it) of Sauvignon Blanc. First planted in the ’70s, Sauvignon Blanc has exploded onto the NZ wine scene with a flurry. Cloudy Bay may not have been the first one produced from Marlborough, but it is certainly the first to get international recognition from critics and magazines- the region has become synonymous with the production of Sauvignon Blanc.
What sets the region apart is the confluence of soil and location. With the Southern Alps acting as a barrier to the southerly winds and inclement weather, the valley enjoys some of the world’s finest growing climate. It gets more sunshine hours than any other region in New Zealand. Combine this with the well drained stony soils along the Wairau River that extend further south toward the Awatere Valley with increasingly rich fertile soils, Marlborough is a virtual “heaven” for Sauvignon Blanc. In light of the Old World versions, Sauvignon Blanc from here can be almost as mineral, but it plays its own tune when it leans toward the more tropical essences and honeyed nectars. It can be plumper than Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, but still no flab on this baby-it retains plenty of acidity.
What also makes Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc so renowned is its accessibility and value. You can find delicious labels at almost any price range. There are a few top-end examples alongside Cloudy Bay, such as Isabel, Kumeu River and Seresin Estate, that are remarkably refined and pedigreed. But you can also find extreme values, like Villa Maria and Brancott.
With food, Sauvignon Blanc acts almost just like a squeeze of citrus. Have it with seafood, shellfish and salads. Don’t be afraid to use it with high-acid vinaigrettes, ceviche and of course, it is essential when pairing with goat cheese. I can recall a dinner with steamed Dungeness crab and a bottle of Reverdy Sancerre making an utterly unforgettable pair.
Sure, there are other pockets of Sauvignon Blanc in the world that on occasion can be exceptional. Graves in Bordeaux, Santa Ynez in California as well as Walker Bay, South Africa, come to front of mind, as does Adelaide Hills of South Australia. But Sauvignon Blanc’s mark is truly made in the triumvirate of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume and Marlborough. If you were to try to pick one up blindly without knowing any of the players, even for a master sommelier, it would be best to stick to these.