Sauvignon Blanc

Burgundy’s Most Unusual White

13 November 2013

Simonnet-Febvre Saint-BrisWhen you think of white wine from Burgundy, if you think of anything, you likely think of Chardonnay. This is the variety that goes into the region’s greatest whites such as Meursault, Montrachet and Chablis. Certain pedantic types might also point to the lesser Aligoté grape, an acidic variety often found in Crémant de Bourgogne, the local sparkling wine. But even the most over-educated wine geek would be unlikely to think of Sauvignon Blanc.

It was thus with equal measures of confusion and excitement that I discovered a bottle of 2012 Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc, which declared itself in no uncertain terms to be a “Grand Vin de Bourgogne.” Not quite believing my eyes, I asked a Whole Foods employee who was stocking wines nearby if this wine was indeed a Sauvignon Blanc (the label said only “Sauvignon”). “Yes – it’s a Sauvignon Blanc,” she replied, pointing out the word and probably wondering why this over-excited idiot needed her to read the label to him.

“But it’s from Burgundy,” I explained.

“Umm, yes – it’s from Burgundy,” she confirmed, patiently pointing to the relevant word on the back label.

Semi-convinced I’d passed through a wormhole into some sort of alternate universe, I bought the wine and turned to my trusty reference library for some answers. It turns out my wormhole theory was incorrect. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, little Saint-Bris overcame “Burgundy’s Chardonnay-chauvinism” only in 2003, when it was finally granted full AOC status, a designation retroactively applied to the 2001 and 2002 vintages as well. Sotheby’s argues that “This wine is as good as most Sauvignon Blanc AOCs, and considerably better than many other white AOCs made from lesser grape varieties.”

Saint-Bris, located southwest of the famed wine town of Chablis, has only about 250 acres of Sauvignon Blanc vines, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. That is one small AOC. It goes on to say that Saint-Bris “is too obscure to be made with anything other than artisan passion, but it lacks the breed and concentration of great Loire Sauvignon made to the southwest.” It also lacks the price tag of the great Loire Sauvignon made to the southwest. I paid only $12 for this bottle of wine (on sale), whereas a Sancerre can easily cost two or three times as much. Frankly, Companion, I don’t think the comparison is fair.

Let’s concentrate instead on the “artisan passion” aspect. In addition to making the obscure Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc and various other Chablis wines, the Simonnet-Febvre winery also vinifies the only Crémant de Bourgogne produced in the Chablis region. This is a winery not afraid to go out on a limb. And its willingness to take risks pays off amply in the bottle.

Barley risottoThe 2012 Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc had my undivided attention as soon as I took a sniff. It had the classic Sauvignon Blanc aroma — green and juicy, with an unexpected and very enticing floral note on top. The flavor profile was absolutely fascinating. On one plane flowed the wine’s sweet, floral and elegant fruit, and on a parallel plane ran the very tart, pointy acids. These two planes battled it out for dominance in a most exciting fashion, but they didn’t feel integrated until I tried the wine with some food. Paired with a barley risotto studded with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and bacon, the Saint-Bris’ two planes came together beautifully, balancing each other and cutting right through the richness of the dish. What a value for $12!

The Companion is probably right that the 2012 Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc does not rise to the level of France’s greatest Sauvignon Blancs. But for those of us whose budgets don’t allow the purchase of the greatest, this merely excellent wine is quite a fine substitute.

Find It: I purchased this wine at the Whole Foods on Halsted and Waveland in Chicago on sale for $12. It usually retails for $15, which is still a great value.

A Formerly Unusual Sauvignon Blanc

16 October 2013

Chilean Sauvignon Blanc may not sound especially unusual, but the story of this wine is surprising indeed. For many years, it turns out, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t Sauvignon Blanc at all.

According to The World Atlas of Wine, much of what was sold as Sauvignon Blanc “was actually Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse” (The Oxford Companion to Wine considers these two varieties to be synonymous). Despite their names, they have little in common with Sauvignon Blanc. The Oxford Companion notes that “wines produced from Sauvignonasse are much less crisp and aromatic than those of Sauvignon Blanc.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia has less patience with Sauvignonasse, simply stating that it’s “not related to Sauvignon and has no Sauvignon character whatever.”

Tom Stevenson, the author of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, was frustrated by Chile’s unwillingness to distinguish between Sauvignon and Sauvignonasse, and he made a trip to the vineyards himself. In addition to plenty of Sauvignonasse, he discovered acres of confusing mutations and crosses: “Sémillon with Sauvignon, Sauvignonasse with Sauvignon, and Sauvignonasse with Sémillon.” Separating the Sauvignon Blanc from the Sauvignonasse turned out to be not so simple after all.

But in the 1990s, Chilean vintners began a serious effort to replant vineyards with true Sauvignon Blanc, and today any reputable winery that labels its wine as Sauvignon Blanc is indeed bottling wine made entirely (or almost entirely) from true Sauvignon Blanc. One Chilean Sauvignon Blanc particularly worth seeking out is made by Casa Lapostolle, a critically acclaimed 19-year-old winery founded by the owners of Grand Marnier.

I had the opportunity to sample a glass of the 2012 Lapostolle Casa Grand Selection Sauvignon Blanc over dinner with winemaker Andrea León Iriarte and Liz Barrett, Vice President of Corporate Communications for the wine’s U.S. distributor, Terlato Wines. It put to rest any remaining doubts as to whether Chile can make world-class Sauvignon Blanc.

The grapes for this wine come from the stony Las Kuras Vineyard in the Cachapoal Valley (south of Santiago), a former riverbed, and the vineyards are certified as both organic and biodynamic. Iriarte also noted that the grapes are harvested by hand at night. This practice helps preserve some freshness in the fruit as well as reduce energy costs. Because the grapes come in already cool from the night air, the winery expends less energy bringing the grapes to the correct temperature for fermentation.

The aroma was very reassuring, the rich lime and chalk notes already indicating a wine of fine balance. Iriarte and Lapostolle sought a round Sauvignon Blanc, in contrast to the sharp wines this variety sometimes produces. They succeeded — this Sauvignon Blanc had creamy fruit and focused, limey acids kept well in check. After a lift of white-pepper spice, the stone in the vineyards became apparent in the long finish. Complex and delicious.

What leaves me practically cross-eyed with disbelief is that this wine, which exhibits no small amount of finesse, can be had for less than $10 at Binny’s. It could stand toe-to-toe with Sancerres which cost more than twice as much. I can’t think of a better Sauvignon Blanc value to be had anywhere.

This wine, it should be noted, isn’t 100% Sauvignon Blanc. The 8% Sémillon and 2% Sauvignon Gris surely help round out the edges. Iriarte confided that there likely is just a touch of Sauvignonasse in the blend as well, from “just one or two” old vines that weren’t removed from the vineyards. “It adds to the complexity,” she said. It’s also a subtle nod to Chilean wine history; a faint whisper from another era.

The Unusual Whites Of Uruguay

20 July 2013

Don Pascual ViognierOne could be forgiven for imagining that all South American wine comes from Chile and Argentina, so successful have their export campaigns been. But Uruguay, that diminutive country northeast of Buenos Aires and south of Brazil, has also started to make its mark, producing whites and reds of real quality. Though it’s easier now than ever to find Uruguayan wines, “easier” is a relative term — few American wine shops carry more than one or two examples, if even that. And that’s not the fault of the shops.

The problem is the Uruguayans. They simply love wine, if The Oxford Companion to Wine is to believed. “Domestic wine consumption is high,” according to the Companion, “and rising, currently standing at 32 l/8.45 gal per person per year.” For comparison, in France, domestic wine consumption stands at about 56 liters per person per year, and in the U.S. it’s about 10.5 liters per person per year. Uruguayans may not be total winos like the French, but their consumption is formidable nevertheless, sucking up about 95% of Uruguay’s wine output.

That leaves a scant 5% for export, and 60% of that heads across the border to Brazil (Source: The Oxford Companion to Wine). That doesn’t leave very much for the rest of us. And yet another problem, according to The World Atlas of Wine, is that most of Uruguay’s wineries are small, family-owned ventures, only 10% of which export any wine at all. The rest of Uruguay’s producers simply don’t have either the ability or the need to sell their wines outside of Uruguay.

All of which means that when you do see a wine from Uruguay on the shelf, you’ve discovered something rare, and it’s worth inquiring about. As the Atlas notes, Uruguayan vineyards benefit from cool Antarctic ocean currents, which usually fosters an ideal gradual ripening of the grapes. “The conditions and the will to produce both elegant and characterful wines are evident,” the Atlas goes on to say.

Alas, the Atlas also notes that the humid climate makes organic viticulture “virtually impossible.” Only a handful of winemakers make the effort to do without herbicides and fungicides, which are “generally very widely needed and used to counteract rot and mildew.” This assertion seems to be in direct conflict with a presentation about Uruguayan wines I attended during this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference. There, the presenter cheerfully claimed that “Uruguay has the third purest environment in the world, after Finland and Norway, except [Uruguay has] grapes!” My suspicion is that the environment of Uruguay as a whole may be unsullied, but that the vineyards, most of which are clustered around the capital, are less than chemical-free. (Update: See winemaker Daniel Pisano’s comment about this issue following this post.)

I prefer viticulture to be as organic as possible, but that’s not make-or-break for me when I select a wine. If I had to choose between an organic wine and a higher-quality non-organic wine, all else being equal, I’d buy the better non-organic wine. For those also willing to overlook the organic issue, here are four tasty Uruguayan whites I had the chance to sample during the conference. In the unlikely event you see one of these specific wines, that’s great, but since all of them were enjoyable, I recommend keeping your eye out for any whites from Uruguay.

2011 Don Pascual Viognier Reserve: The Don Pascual label falls under the umbrella of Juanicó, which The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls “One of Uruguay’s fastest-rising wineries.” This Viognier had a rather rubbery aroma, a lush texture, tart acids and notes of wood and green herbs. It’s not what I would expect from a Viognier, but then again, Uruguay isn’t the Rhône Valley!

2012 Bouza Albariño: The family-owned Bodega Bouza focuses on small production and low yields, according to its website. The Spanish Albariño grape variety has thick skins which help it withstand rot in humid climates, according to the Oxford Companion, which would seem to make Albariño an ideal choice for Uruguay. And indeed, I very much enjoyed this wine’s fresh and spicy aroma and its sharp, attention-grabbing flavors. After a start of juicy fruit, zesty acids kicked in, followed by a thrust of gingery spice and a finish of aspirin-like minerals. No one could accuse this wine of being wimpy!

2012 Dante Irurtia Km. 0 “Rio de la Plata” Gewürztraminer Reserva: The Irurtia Family winery is one of Uruguay’s oldest; it harvested its first grapes a century ago in 1913. The Km. 0 brand indicates that the grapes were grown near the wide Rio de la Plata estuary, which creates a “unique microclimate,” notes the winery’s website. This wine had exactly the sort of aroma I like from my Gewürztraminers: perfumed, floral and minerally. Fruity and aromatic at the start, this wine desiccated into bone-dry minerals on the finish. Quite an enjoyable expression of the variety.

2013 Castillo Viejo Catamayor Sauvignon Blanc: Founded in 1927, this winery started the “fine wine” Catamayor label only in 1993, hoping to create world-class wines which would break into international markets. Certainly the Catamayor Sauvignon Blanc satisfied this international consumer. It reminded me of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with a grassy-green aroma, juicy fruit and bright, citrusy acids. This wine was fun, and perfect for a hot summer day. Which rather makes me want to crack open a bottle right now…

Up next: To Tannat? Or not to Tannat?

Postcard From Germany #2

15 May 2013

Sauvignon Blanc from Freiburg

One of the best times of my life was the year I spent studying in Freiburg, Germany’s “sunniest” city, according to the slogan. I drank a lot of wine there, and I must say little of it was any good. But then what can you expect for $4 a bottle?

It was thus with intrigue and delight that I received the news from the sommelier at Residenz Heinz Winkler that they had a 2011 Weingut Landmann Sauvignon Blanc from Freiburg by the glass. A German Sauvignon Blanc? From my own little Freiburg?

I’ve been seeing a surprising number of Sauvignon Blanc-based wines here in Germany on this trip. They’re becoming quite the fashion, according to one winemaker I spoke with, especially after the hot vintage of 2003. It also helps that German wine law now allows Sauvignon Blanc to receive a Qualitätswein classification.

Sunny Freiburg certainly came through with this Sauvignon Blanc. It had a soft, green aroma with some stone, soft fruit, and subtle but pointy acids. It wasn’t especially big, but it was focused and it held my interest from start to finish.

So many interesting things I’ve tasted so far, and I haven’t even made it to a wine region yet!

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