Drawing a Blanc

In this brief lull between lockdowns, as the days grow longer and the sun shines brightly, patio season is upon us, and I eagerly hosted the regular crowd for some backyard tipples as soon as the weather allowed.  I even made the seasonal switch from the rich and full red wines to the light and refreshing white wines, delighting the guests with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc to celebrate the almost-summerlike weather.

For those not familiar with the varietal, Sauvignon Blanc is a noble white grape from the famed Bordeaux region that has spread out to wine producing regions the world over, from its ancestral home in France to other European countries, as well as the New World, with plantings in the Americas, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and others.

The Sauvignon Blanc grape is one of the most widely planted varietals in the world, and is distinctive for its unique herbaceous flavour, caused by a natural organic compound called pyrazine, which gives the wine distinctive notes of green bell peppers and grass.

Sauvignon Blanc is much beloved by winemakers, partially because it is very expressive of terroir, meaning that its flavour profile changes based on the climate and soil conditions.  A vine grown in the Bordeaux region will produce a wine with a flintlike minerality on the finish due to the soils and cooler temperatures, while the same vine transplanted to New Zealand will have muted pyrazine qualities, but be bursting with gooseberry and passion fruit flavours.

Interestingly, the Sauvignon Blanc grape had a poor reputation up until the 1960s, as an overly sweet wine.  The stigma was so great that California growers took to calling the grape Fumé Blanc to hide its origins.

Yes, Fumé Blanc is the same grape as Sauvignon Blanc, just like Syrah from France is the same grape as Shiraz from Australia.  

Luckily, the arts of vinification have improved in the last sixty years, and Sauvignon Blanc has left behind its tawdry past as a cloying sweet wine, and is now a crisp and dry white wine, the equal of any Chardonnay or Pinot Gris.

New Zealand is largely to thank for rehabilitating the image of Sauvignon Blanc, although it did take a while.  The New Zealand wine industry got off to a slow start, as the population was made up of mostly beer-drinking emigrants from England, who didn’t care much for that hoity-toity wine.

Luckily, changing cultural norms due to increased international immigration and greater travel in the 1970s made the New Zealand wine industry grow by leaps and bounds.  By the end of the disco era, New Zealand was producing several red Bordeaux-styled wines.  However, Sauvignon Blanc plantings still made up the majority of all acres under vine, a trend which continues to this day.

We even have fairly sizable plantings of Sauvignon Blanc right here in Canada, with dozens of offerings from the BC wineries of the Okanagan Valley.  My preferred daily drinker is the Sumac Ridge Private Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, a budget-friendly option available for $15 at your friendly neighbourhood wine merchant.  Grapefruit and lemongrass dominate the flavours on the palate, with a minerality on the finish from the slate soils in the region.  

For special occasions, I splurge an entire $22 on the Reserve Sauvignon Blanc from Mission Hill, one of the largest and most established wineries in the Okanagan Valley, an establishment whose halls I have walked many times, in those carefree pre-pandemic days when a weekend getaway to Kelowna was a common occurrence.  A portion of this wine is fermented in oak barrels to impart a more sophisticated bouquet than can be achieved with 100% stainless steel fermentation tanks, giving it a more complex aroma and flavour profile of passion fruit and citrus, with a long and lingering finish.

Should your tastes veer towards the more international offerings, it is hard to go wrong with a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, with dozens of cheap and cheerful options available at your local bottle shop in the sub-$20 category, bursting with notes of gooseberry, tropical fruits, and freshly cut grass.  The flavours become a bit more elegant and subdued as the prices go up, reflecting the longer time the wine has spent aging before release.

From bone-dry and elegant, to fresh and fruit-forward, there is a Sauvignon Blanc to tickle your fancy, so pick one up at your favourite wine merchant today!

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