Wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape are perfect for hot Houston summers. Generally lighter, crisper and more aromatic than Chardonnays, they can be a great match for grilled foods, lighter Asian fare and bright chutneys. Sauvignon Blancs are also great for sipping poolside while trying to ignore the mosquitoes. The best are made in the Loire Valley in France, Bordeaux, California and lately, New Zealand.
The Loire Valley has long been the summer playground for French nobility and a source of some of their favorite summer wines. As is typical with French wines, you won’t find the name of the varietal, Sauvignon Blanc, on the label. Instead you’ll find the names of the places where Sauvignon Blancs are produced: Sancerre, and Pouilly Fumé. Both wines are very similar to each other. They are the prototypical bracing, high acid, no oak, aromatic Sauvignon Blancs of the world.
Domaine Thomas Sancerre La Crêle, 1999 ($17.50) is one of my favorites. Clean and crisp, with a totally pleasant citrusy finish, it is a perfect aperitif any time of the year. It will actually rouse one’s appetite, even when the weather has been over 100º for a week. Lucien Crochet Sancerre La Croix du Roy, 1999 ($29.00) is very special. On the nose it is minerally and clean, like wet rocks. Its palate is austere, with fresh herbs, lemon grass and a steely backbone. It is great with grilled shrimp and lemon butter.
Betrand Jeannot Pouilly Fumé, 1999 ($25.00), like most Pouilly Fumés, is cut from the same cloth as the two preceding Sancerres. It is clean as a whistle, high in acidity, aromatic and very food-friendly. Think of these wines as a squeeze of fresh lemon on your raw oysters or seared snapper. Another similar and equally satisfying, widely available wine is La Doucette Pouilly Fumé, 1999 ($26.00). Be careful not to confuse Pouilly Fumé with Pouilly Fuissé, which is a white Burgundy made from Chardonnay.
The other region of France famous for its Sauvignon Blancs is Bordeaux. Here they blend their Sauvignon Blanc with a little Sémillon and often include oak barrels in their vinification. The Sémillon grape usually displays a ripeness and richness of fruit, as well as a smoothness, absent in Sauvignon Blanc. This, coupled with the vanilla extract flavor and complexity of oak, offers a very different interpretation of Sauvignon Blanc than is offered in the Loire.
Some of the great Bordeaux Châteaux, such as Haut Brion, Domaine de Chevalier and Laville Haut Brion, make exquisite, very expensive wines which, especially if someone else is buying, are absolutely worth trying and are always a treat. More down to earth but still worth trying, even if you are buying, is Château Bonnet, 2000 ($10.00). This wine is from a sub-region of Bordeaux call entre-deux-mers. It is very pleasant, smooth and quaffable. With nice, light, toasty oak on the nose, it tastes clean and minerally, with a fine acid backbone and a smooth, fresh finish. It is great with crab tostadas or trout with beurre noisette. More in the style of a heavy-hitting white Bordeaux, and from their same sub-region, Graves, is Château Beauregard Ducasse, 1998 ($14.00). The nose is redolent of vanilla extract, and on the palate, it’s rich, full, smooth and complex – for a Sauvignon Blanc. It also has great acidity and is a great match for poached salmon with fresh mango chutney.
California’s Sauvignon Blancs run the gambit from clean, no oak, aromatic, Loire-style wines to fuller, smoother oaked examples, like you find in Bordeaux. In the former camp is Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc, 2000 ($14.00). Back home in California they put the name of the varietal right on the label. This wine is very clean, crisp and the perfect match for a nice cup of gumbo. It is also a great bargain on many local wine lists. I drink it a lot at lunch. Caymus Sauvignon Blanc, 1999 ($18.00) is modeled after a big Bordeaux. With lots of oak and vanilla extract on the nose, it sacrifices fruit and crispness for wood and fullness on the palate. This wine is a good way for people who don’t like Sauvignon Blancs as much as rich Chardonnays to experiment with a new varietal.
New Zealand is a relative new comer to the fine wine scene. Large scale wine production started here in the 1970’s and although they have experimented with several varietals, Sauvignon Blanc holds the most promise. Goldwater Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc, 1999 ($17.50) is fairly typical. It is a fun wine to drink. Aggressive, grassy, fresh and lively, with a smooth mineral finish, it can hold its own with hot dogs and sauerkraut, sea scallops in a tarragon beurre blanc, or vapid beach conversation with equal aplomb.