An otherwise respected wine writer has a problem with sauvignon blanc.
Beginning a decade ago and continuing to today, he has roundly and consistently rapped the grape and the wines it makes, calling it in various diatribes a dud and saying it makes wines that have nothing to say. It seems to be his one major hang-up with wine.
Confession: I was once as blind to the truth as he is. I once hated pinot gris in all its forms, and didn't mind saying so. It was clear that the grape usually has little to offer and that most attempts to make it more complex (like aging it in oak) are often a failure.
So let's bring in a third-party arbitrator here: chenin blanc. It is a simple grape and at its best (perhaps from the Loire Valley, perhaps from South Africa), it can make a delightful sipping wine without much fanfare.
But when you get to know any grape variety by lots and lots of tastings, and from various areas of the world, your opinions can change. Chenin blanc from great vineyards can make a great white wine. Visit Vouvray and see what I mean. And then taste older ones!
I now see pinot gris in a different light as well, and can make quality distinctions based on a number of factors. Same with sauvignon blanc.
So those who know only what they see on the surface of an argument, and don't dig further, are doomed to repeat the error of their ways. Where the sauvignon blanc hater has it wrong is in not seeing what it is and can be.
It's his never having thought it could be sublime, so his gut reaction to it is related to his prejudice.
Truth: Some sauvignon blancs are blah because they are made from poor-quality fruit. Sure, the aroma may be OK, varietally distinctive and all that, but the poor fruit eventually dooms the wine. This can happen with expensive wines.
Truth: Some sauvignon blancs are bad simply because the winemaking decisions were odd (to say the least!), even if the fruit was excellent. I have had many SBs that smelled great, but had the worst mid-palate or aftertaste due to what I'd charitably call curious decisions in the winery. This can happen with expensive wines.
Two decades ago, a friend, Robin Day, then president of Orlando Wines in Australia, told me the secret to the greatest wines: "Get great grapes and don't trip on the mat."
At its best, sauvignon blanc is no dud. It is a sublime, rarely flashy white wine that shows its terroir through minerality and herbalness, both of which give the diner a superb companion to the victuals.
Indeed, if anything top-rate SB should be seen as anti-chardonnay -#8212; a 180-degree alternative. Where chardonnay can be rich, SB is lean; where oak enhances most chardonnays, oak challenges and eventually robs sauvignon blanc of its natural rigidity, which is one of its charms.
Moeover, that hardness can be ameliorated through careful aging. Aging?
Some years ago, the estimable Dry Creek Vineyards in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley staged a tasting of several of the winery's old sauvignon blancs. Included were three from the 1970s.
The wines were a revelation, showing elements that we never saw or even imagined decades ago. Some people might say these wines were just old. But almost everyone at the event was awed by the experience. And many vowed to begin aging a few SBs.
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