Green is a dangerous word in the wine world. Often it’s meant as an insult, an insinuation that the grapes used to make a wine weren’t quite ripe—resulting in unpleasant “green” flavors that are more vegetal than fruity.
But when it comes to sauvignon blanc, green is its identity, and—particularly in the summer, when all is verdant—it can be a wonderful characteristic. Sometimes the taste conjures a pale, gentle green, like the feathery tips of field grass. Other times it’s more strident, as bright as a lime or crisp, blanched asparagus. Or it’s guava-hued, soft and round.
To identify the various shades of green you might savor in a bottle, look to where the grapes were grown. The warmer and sunnier the climate, the riper the wines, so it follows that California tends to produce some of the fruitier, gentler sauvignon blancs of the world. Even in the cooler reaches of the state—say, Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, a stronghold for the variety—sauvignon blanc tends to be plump, more limey and smooth than herbal and sharp.
New Zealand has practically made its winemaking name with sauvignon blanc. Although it’s a relatively cool country, there’s an ozone hole above it, so vines there receive more UV rays (45 to 50 percent more, according to some studies) than most. The result is sauvignon blanc that’s pungently green, whether in a robust herbal vein or a rich kiwi and passion fruit style——try wines from Cloudy Bay, Kim Crawford, or Nautilus Estate to get the gist.
And then there’s the Loire Valley, widely considered the holy grail for sauvignon blanc. This is the land of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre, of cloudy gray skies and rolling hills. It’s damp and often chilly—though exceedingly pretty, with castles plucked from fairy tales and lush farmland for grazing goats.
Here, sauvignon blanc rarely reaches tropical richness; more often, it tastes of herbs, citrus zest, salt, and stone. It’s wine that plays exceptionally well with a wide range of food, from freshwater fish pulled from the region’s rivers and oysters shipped up from the cold Atlantic to Parisian bistro favorites like chicken paillard and vegetable flan.
It’s also a brilliant match with goat cheese, one of the trickier cheeses to pair with wine. Goat cheese has a particular trio of fatty acids—capric, caprylic, and caproic—that lend its essential, “goaty” flavor. Goaty is good, but it can get out of hand with red wine.
The tang in goat cheese also demands a wine with a good bit of acidity. At the same time, goat cheese has less fat than cow’s milk cheese, so it’s more delicate.
Cool-climate sauvignon blanc, with its sprightly acidity and herbal flavors, covers all these bases. It has personality in spades, yet it won’t overwhelm or overpower the cheese.
Of course, France’s Loire doesn’t have the corner on the market; you’ll find nervy, herbal sauvignon blancs in Chile’s San Antonio Valley and cool pockets of California, Northern Italy, South Africa, and New Zealand. Perhaps the best thing to do is follow the herd: Where there are vines and goats, sauvignon blanc is a natural.
Sauvignon Blanc for Goat Cheeses
- Abbazia di Novacella 2012 Alto Adige Sauvignon Blanc ($20)
- Ata Rangi 2010 Martinborough Sauvignon Blanc ($20)
- Pascal Jolivet 2013 Sancerre ($23)
- Domaine Laporte 2012 Quincy Les Niorles ($25)
- Domaine Roger Neveu 2013 Sancerre Clos des Bouffants ($24)
- Jean Reverdy 2013 Sancerre Les Villots ($24)
- Schug 2013 Sonoma Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($20)
- Viña Leyda 2013 Leyda Valley Single Vineyard Garuma Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($18)
Feature Photo Credit: Ata Rangi / Pete Monk