Sauvignon blanc is best known for yielding light, dry white wines with loads of fruit on the nose and bracing acidity on the palate. Depending where in the world it’s grown, you’ll get grapefruit, passion fruit, mango, ginger, grass, stone, smoke, or even—yes, it’s OK to say it sometimes—cat piss in different proportions. No matter the form and dominant flavors, its crisp citrus is what makes it such an easy-drinking summer favorite. As a bonus, it’s remarkably easy to find a good bottle in the $10-25 range. May 1st marks the 11th celebration of International Sauvignon Blanc Day.
This unfussy wine is grown nearly everywhere in the world, but its best known iterations come from New Zealand (mainly Marlborough), France (from the Loire Valley), and the United States (primarily California.) If you like SB and want to explore more of it, don’t be afraid to look for bottles from Australia and South America, too. Serve them cold and drink them young. They’re often under a screw cap—especially those from New Zealand—and won’t need any special treatment.
Sauvignon blanc production is the king of the Marlborough region, producing 62 percent of all of the wine in the country. Look for passion fruit and guava on the nose of a classic New Zealand sauvignon blanc, with a grapefruity citrus zest on the palate. These wines are just a touch sweeter than their French counterparts, which is perfectly fine especially for enjoying on a warm patio or porch. Most are made in steel tanks, accentuating their snappy acids and tangy fruit, though in the past few years some excellent oaked sauvignon blancs have been making a positive impression in the wine world. These wines are incredibly accessible in the U.S. so if you find one and the price is right, you’ve found your house wine for summer drinking. (Most wine shops offer discounts for buying wines by the case.)
French sauvignon blanc is primarily from the Loire Valley, and more specifically from the appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. While France’s wines mirror New Zealand’s in terms of lightness, dryness, and acidity, from France you’re going to get more vegetal flavors (like grass and peppers) as well as intense minerality (like slate, flint, or limestone) leading many to describe these wines as “dry as a bone.” Sancerre is more likely to have you tasting lime than grapefruit. Sauvignon blancs from this part of the world are easy to drink, although there are quite a few expensive and age-worthy examples out there. Loire SB are great food wines as they can stand up to herb-y vegetables, sauces, and even lighter fish dishes. You should be able to find some good Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés for $20-35.
Most sauvignon blancs from the U.S. come from the northern coast of California, where growing conditions are a little cooler, and there is a smattering from Washington State and elsewhere. You’re likely to see a few SBs from California on oak, which gives the wine unique characteristics including spice and lemon. Others are steel tank-fermented, bringing juicy brightness, rich red stone, and tangy orange to the table. Where French sauv blanc offers you more minerality, the California version can have a briny quality unique to wines from this part of the world. Many of these SBs are special offerings and sell out quickly, so make sure to check with your favorite winemakers. Otherwise, there are some good ones on the market in the $18-25 range.
White Bordeaux and Blends
But wait, you say—haven’t you forgotten Bordeaux Blanc? Mais non. An assertive grape, sauvignon blanc makes for a useful blending tool, especially in use with rich semillon. That’s the basic secret to success of the famous dry whites of Bordeaux, and the secret, also, behind the great Sauternes dessert wine—a topic for another, glorious day.
Most modern white Bordeaux sold in the States will tell you the blend on the back label—usually between 40 and 60 percent. It turns up in plenty of other odd places as well, so if you’re getting a lot of citrus, herbs, and stone notes, check the blend. You’re probably not crazy.
Sauvignon blanc is grown all over the world, so don’t discount those from Australia, South Africa, and even Eastern Europe. At a less risky price point than many chardonnays, these wines are worth a try. At the worst, it will be an interesting conversation piece with your wine friends; at best, you’ll have discovered a unique bottle that can become a centerpiece of your summer table.