Cool Down with Crisp Wines

In an earlier article, Syrah, the Grapes of Warmth, I examined the effects of the winter season on our culinary needs. The warmth and comfort we find so desirable in our cuisine during those cold, stern months contrasts sharply with what we find splendid in the summer. And “sharp” is a good start for this discussion. Brightness and warmth naturally lead us to foods and wines with a refreshing edge to them; fare that is lively, delicious, but not too serious. We tend to want to chat rather than brood over serious matters. Exit Charlotte Bronte’; enter Jane Austen.

While there are certain foods and preparations (red meat, primarily) that even in summertime warrant a red wine, the most satisfying wines of the warm season are whites, along with some wonderful rosés. And of course, Champagne is an unbeatable choice for almost any summer meal. However, meriting substantial attention for its vibrancy and its range of flexibility with food is an old standby, Sauvignon Blanc.

For years in this country, while we developed our tastes, Sauvignon Blanc served as the unglamorous stepchild of California Chardonnay. It was perceived as a quaffer for picnics and rock concerts, and a cheap alternative for routine meals at home. However, along the path of culinary sophistication traveled by many over the past decade or so, it was discovered that several prominent characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc were generally more favorable to food pairing than the traditional Chardonnays they had almost automatically opened with anything requiring a white wine. A more discerning palate and exposure to Sauvignon Blancs produced in cool climate regions around the world has created a justified elevation of this varietal in the minds of many Americans.

Perhaps its most alluring quality, particularly in the summer, is the crisp vitality which envelops the flavors of citrus, fresh herbs, and grass. In warmer vintages, and frequently in the California version, when the grapes fully ripen, we sometimes find rich flavors of melons and floral aromas.  Nevertheless, at its best, this wine is linear and sharp, but not austere.

The vibrancy is a function of this grape varietal’s light body and high natural acidity, both of which contribute to its ability to marry so well with an array of cuisines. It cuts through the richness of both shellfish and cream sauces, while refreshing the palate between bites. For such dishes, it furnishes a delightful pairing of contrasts, rather than the complementary richness of Chardonnay, which can be equally delicious, albeit providing an altogether different experience. For the extreme succulence of lobster, for instance, there is nothing better than a high-classed, well-balanced Chardonnay. But for other shellfish, particularly if using lemon and some herbs, such as thyme, dill, or oregano, I much prefer the Sauvignon Blanc, the grassy herbaceousness of which seems right at home. It can make sautéed scallops sing.

While there are some wonderful Sauvignon Blancs being made in this country and New Zealand, the mecca of Sauvignon Blanc devotees is the Loire Valley of northern France. The most famous vineyards and vintners are located around the towns of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire, and their wines are labeled with the name of the town rather than as Sauvignon Blanc. Thus, you would ask your sommelier or retailer for a Sancerre or Pouilly Fume, as the latter wine is called; it will be a Sauvignon Blanc (although there is a small volume of Pinot Noir in this area, they will know what you want).

These wines of the Loire are a clear reflection of their cool climate and limestone-based soil: crisp, citrusy, and grassy, with a marvelous minerality that penetrates every taste bud in your mouth. The chalky limestone imparts a taste and texture to the wine that makes it a perfect partner for oysters. In some areas around Sancerre, the limestone is mixed with flint, which produces a marvelous flavor and mouthfeel referred to as gunflint. There are a number of excellent vintners in the region (see sidebar), but if you can find the wines of Francois or Pascal Cotat (cousins making wines separately in Sancerre), or of Didier Dagueneau (Pouilly Fume’), they, especially, are worth the search for a special occasion.

The newest player on the world stage is New Zealand, and their styles are evolving. The Kiwi standard bearer is Cloudy Bay, which took the wine world by storm several years ago with its prominent multiplicity of vibrant flavors, medium body, and excellent balance. It continues to produce delicious fine wines that are extremely popular in the U.S., and rightly so. Following in Cloudy Bay’s substantial wake are a large number of very good Sauvignon Blancs from the large Marlborough region of the South Island. I expect these wineries to continue to improve in quality as they identify their stylistic signature and focus on refining it. In the meantime, they are exporting to America a lot of delicious wine at very attractive prices. The Spy Valley version can be had for about $13 and is worth more.

America’s Sauvignon Blanc is also in a bit of transition. Early on, many producers tried the techniques used to make Napa’s big, fruit-forward, buttery Chardonnays in an effort to appeal to the nascent tastes of the domestic market. They used very ripe fruit (unavoidable to some extent in the warm climate), barrel fermentation or even oak chips, and put the wines through malolactic fermentation (converting the harsh malic acid to the softer lactic acid). Those who did so produced wines that only vaguely resembled Sauvignon Blanc. Over time, this style of wine gave the region a bad reputation among serious wine people who wanted the wine’s true varietal character to show through.

Notwithstanding this large number of mediocre wines, wineries like Cakebread, Duckhorn, Selene, Joseph Phelps, and Matanzas Creek (currently making a comeback) have made superb Sauvignon Blanc for years and sold it at very reasonable prices. They have been among the best value wines in America and deserve a place at the table with any level of cuisine. Many other California wineries are reverting to a more basic style, and there is an increasingly good selection from this region.

Another exciting source of excellent Sauvignon Blanc is the state of Washington. Its cool climate and serious interest in this varietal is resulting in some delicious, well-balanced offerings. Some of their best is patterned after the traditional Bordeaux blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, the latter varietal adding some roundness and depth of flavor. DeLille and Buty wineries are making excellent wines with this blend. Most of the Washington wines listed to the side may not be readily available around the country, but I expect they will be in the near future and are worth asking about with your local retailer. One that you are likely to find now is by Chateau St. Michelle, one of the best large-scale wineries in the country.

While the local availability of wines from around the world continues to improve every year, there is nothing quite like tasting them in their region of origin with the cuisine for which they were developed. I encourage you to make this an integral part of your culinary travels. The experience will remain with you forever.