Tasting wine: Tis’ the season for sauvignon

Sauvignon blanc must be in Scorpio this week, as everywhere I turn I seem to be getting a reminder that this grape not only remains popular but also still has merit. About a month ago I wrote a column complaining about how most sauvignon blancs were pretty uninteresting, but I managed to find a few from unsuspecting places that are worthy.

In the past four days, I’ve tried several sauvignon blancs from the usual suspects that were good enough to buy for my restaurant (and I’m tough), was told by one presidential candidate that sauvignon blanc is his favorite wine, and received a random e-mail/newsletter from the Sauvignon Republic that started off, “Dear Sauvignon Lovers.” I don’t know how I got on this e-mail list, but granted, I’ve been unknowingly put on worse.

I’m often told, “I don’t like chardonnay, I prefer something like a sauvignon blanc.” Fair enough, but to think of sauvignon blanc just as the anti-chardonnay doesn’t really do the grape justice, as it has its own personality.

Sauvignon blanc usually has a pronounced grapefruit character that is often complemented by peach and melon, and it is highly influenced by terroir, tending to be more fruit-driven in warm areas and more grassy and minerally in cooler spots. It is also a high-acid grape, and as such is very food friendly.

Sauvignon blanc can stand up to oak but like any other grape it has its limitations. Sometimes it takes a couple of years for the oak and fruit to marry, but most people who are drinking sauvignon blanc are not looking at it as a wine to hold for more than 20 minutes.

That doesn’t mean winemakers who take this grape seriously shouldn’t use any wood at all, but consumers should be aware that they may not get the pronounced fruit quality that they are hoping to find in the bottle. In other words, ask a salesperson about the wine to make sure you are getting what you want.

Here are three sure bets.

Morton Estate Sauvignon Blanc, 2005 (Marlborough, New Zealand)

Morton Estate was imported throughout the ’90s but at some point disappeared, yet now they are back. I’ve tried several vintages of their Hawkes Bay sauvignon blanc and always enjoyed it, and I was just as pleased when I tasted the Marlborough rendition for the first time the other day.

Light-bodied with peach and tropical fruit, and mineral, grassy, herbal notes, it is just as delightful as the Hawkes Bay rendition.

Suggested retail: $15

Vavasour Sauvignon Blanc, 2005 (Marlborough, New Zealand)

The Vavasour family came to the Awatere Valley in Marlborough in 1890 and were the first to plant vines here in 1985. They’ve more than doubled their production but still make fewer than 20,000 cases.

2005 was a cooler than usual vintage, and this wine is acidic in a major way, yet it has plenty of pineapple, peach and gooseberry fruit to balance it and grassy tones that add another dimension.

Suggested retail: $17

Schweiger Sauvignon Blanc, Uboldi Vineyards, 2005 (Sonoma, California)

At long last, a California sauvignon blanc that knocked my socks off. This family-run winery is based in Napa but sources the sauvignon blanc from Kenwood in Sonoma.

While it is barrel-fermented there is very little toast and the oak seems to only impart body, letting the guava, pink grapefruit and gooseberry character shine through.

Suggested retail: $20

Pamela S. Busch is the proprietor and wine director at CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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