Summer's Best Sauvignons: California’s 2010 Vintage Proves Just How Blessed this Blanc Can Be
Sauvignon blanc is back. Not that it really ever disappeared, but in California it hasn’t been much of anything to write home about since Robert Mondavi stuck some of his into oak barrels and anointed it “Fumé Blanc.” That was in the late 1960s, and that bigger, richer style—an echo of the classic sauvignon blancs from Pouilly- Fumé in France’s Loire Valley—inspired a planting craze that didn’t end until the mid-1980s.
By then the damage had been done: Sauvignon had been planted in all sorts of places, including many it never should have been. And when sauvignon isn’t done well, it can taste more like bell pepper juice than wine.
Now, after a decade of smarter planting and a covey of winemakers dedicated to the grape, as well as the long, cool 2010 vintage, California sauvignon blanc is ready to return to the spotlight. And summertime is the perfect time to crack a few bottles.
The same greenness that can be its downfall can also be its most attractive feature. With some restraint, that hallmark note can evoke a field of freshly mown grass or cold greengage plums. It can enliven a wine like a dusting of fresh snipped herbs does a plate of food and heighten its crispness. Sometimes a little vegetal note isn’t a bad thing, either, adding savory depth in combination with fruit.
There are ways, too, to soften its expression, without losing varietal character. In warmer areas (say, Santa Barbara or Napa’s valley floor), the grape can take on a tropical fruitiness that recalls guava and kiwi. A winemaker can also choose to put the wine in oak barrels with its lees (the spent yeast and other stuff that precipitates out of a wine after fermentation) to pick up a creamy, brioche-like richness. Even so, sauvignon blanc never reaches the busty proportions of a fruity chardonnay; it’s just not in the grape’s DNA.
What this means for wine drinkers is that it’s perfectly pitched for summer dining. It’s light enough to whet your palate before dinner; it’s sturdy enough to stand up to the tang of the goat cheese topping your salad. It won’t weigh you down if you drink it throughout dinner. And with its acidity and herbal notes, it has a fabulous felicity for all sorts of curdled milk products, the fresher, the better. You could forget about dinner and simply go straight to the cheese course.
If you do, a few pointers: Sauvignon blanc loves fresh goat cheeses, from simple logs to compact crottins. It’s not just a matter of matching a light wine with a delicate cheese; there’s also a lively synergy between the tang of the milk and the herbal notes in the wine. They taste as if they were meant for each other.
Richer styles can step up to some bloomyrind cheeses, too, as long as the edge isn’t too funky. (One definition of heaven: a silken, oozing carré de chèvre with a snow-white rind and an Elizabeth Spencer sauvignon blanc from Mendocino. More challenging? The downy-gray, ash-coated shell of a Bonne Bouche from Vermont Creamery.) They also tend to get on really well with herb-paved cheeses such as Capriole’s Julianna, a subtly rosemary-scented raw goat round reminiscent of Corsica’s Fleur du Maquis.
This isn’t to say you can’t do a cow’s milk cheese: A young, vibrant sauvignon blanc can zing its way through a sweet young version of a cow’s milk cheese, the acidity and herbal notes playing the part of edible knife. It can be an invigorating combination, particularly when summer’s heat challenges your appetite. But fresh goat cheese also has the advantage of being more versatile in the kitchen. If the sauvignon blanc you’ve toted home is richer than expected, adapt the fresh goat cheese by baking it: Slice the log into rounds, roll in bread crumbs, and toast until brown, or crumble the cheese onto a sheet of puff pastry, drizzle with honey and herbs, and bake until puffy. Let the wine lead. Sauvignon blancs are up for the spotlight.
Written by Tara Q. Thomas