A recent tasting with international winemakers featured notable examples of sauvignon blanc. (Lyle Norton/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A recent tasting with international winemakers featured notable examples of sauvignon blanc. (Lyle Norton/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Sauvignon blanc has appealing global presence

Varietal provides a refreshing, food-friendly alternative to chardonnay

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Diversity of styles and expression of terroir are strong factors in the worldwide surge of sauvignon blanc production. New Zealand is often credited with pushing it to the forefront, but Italy, South Africa, Chile and California have expanded plantings and production of the once obscure grape with origins in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux regions of France.

Sauvignon blanc is vibrant, fruit forward and accessible to most palates and pocketbooks. For white wine preferences, it can provide a refreshing, food-friendly alternative to chardonnay.

I hosted a tasting of California sauvignon blanc for friends that included wines ranging in price from $12 to $45 per bottle. Each of the five wines tasted were terrific, but it was difficult to distinguish between them.

Lack of distinction was not an issue at a recent sauvignon blanc tasting and discussion with a diverse panel that included Craig McAllister/La Crema(Sonoma County), Daniele Vuerich/Attems (Italy), Warren Ellis/Neil Ellis (South Africa), Nikolai Saint-George/Cloudy Bay (New Zealand) and Xavier Barlier, representing Ladoucette from the Pouilly-Fumé region in France.

Pouring each wine side-by-side, I was taken back by the diversity of aromas from subtle and steely to intense and fruity. Again, the flavor profile of each wine was exceptional, but unlike the California releases, very distinctive.

Craig McAllister is winemaker at La Crema in Sonoma County. (Courtesy photo)

Craig McAllister is winemaker at La Crema in Sonoma County. (Courtesy photo)

The tasting began with the first sauvignon blanc vintage from a known producer of Sonoma County pinot noir and chardonnay. After winemaker McAllister, with roots in New Zealand, joined La Crema, it was only a matter of time. Sourced from the warmer north County vineyards, the 2020 La Crema Sauvignon Blanc Knights Valley is partially barrel-fermented in neutral oak for 28 days, which gives the wine, according to Craig, more texture with minimal oak notes. A vibrant bouquet of tropical and stone fruits with floral hints carried through the flavors and a long finish. Craig pairs this wine with oysters, ceviche and fried fish.

From the Venezia Giulia region in northeast Italy where stony sandstone soils abound, the Attems Sauvignon Blanc 2019 represents a wine and varietal that, according to winemaker Vuerich, is vital to the region. The wine is terroir-driven and balanced with steely, mineral hints on the nose and crisp stone fruit and green flavors throughout. Moving away from exclusive use of stainless steel, Daniele revealed that oak and concrete egg formats are increasing in the region. He pairs his wine with roasted trout and risotto.

Daniele Vuerich is winemaker at Attems in Italy. (Courtesy photo)

Daniele Vuerich is winemaker at Attems in Italy. (Courtesy photo)

Neil Ellis is a pioneer among South African wineries and has been a top producer since 1993. The Neil Ellis Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc 2019 is sourced from bush vines (non-trellised) in the hills that run parallel to the Atlantic Ocean, where the evenings are cooler. According to winemaker Warren Ellis, the added sun exposure provided by the bush vines and use of wild yeasts promote an array of tropical and stone fruit flavors with green, herbaceous and mineral elements throughout. Warren generally pairs his wine with grilled fish.

Warren Ellis is winemaker at Neil Ellis in South Africa. (Courtesy photo)

Warren Ellis is winemaker at Neil Ellis in South Africa. (Courtesy photo)

Cloudy Bay and New Zealand’s Marlborough region are credited with sparking the global surge of sauvignon blanc. Although they began to produce the varietal in 1985, the 2020 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc is the first vintage of new winemaker Nikolai Saint-George. Balanced intensity is what best describes this wine, beginning with vibrant aromatics of citrus and passionfruit. The distinctive flavor profile consists of a concentrated stone fruit foundation with subtle mineral elements through a lingering finish. Nikolai spoke to the ageability of this wine and his preference to pair it with buttered scampi briefly cooked in a pizza oven.

Nikolai Saint-George is winemaker at Cloudy Bay in New Zealand. (Courtesy photo)

Nikolai Saint-George is winemaker at Cloudy Bay in New Zealand. (Courtesy photo)

I had an opportunity to visit the Pouilly-Fumé region in 2018. It is located at lower elevations across the Loire River from the bluffs of Sancerre. On terroir exclusively committed to sauvignon blanc, the rich limestone soils produce a rounder mouthfeel than those of Sancerre. We marveled at the view of the elegant Ladoucette Estate, but did not visit. To that end, I was excited that the 2018 Ladoucette Pouilly-Fumé was part of the tasting.

Described by Xavier Barlier as a sauvignon blanc without make-up, it is created with minimal intervention to the grapes, which are gently gravity-flow pressed, producing 80% free juice. It is fermented in stainless steel, then aged on lees in concrete tanks for six months, resulting in complex tropical fruit aromas and a rich mouthfeel. This wine is a sublime expression of the region, and Xavier likes pairing it with Sancerre goat cheese.

These expressions of sauvignon blanc are distinctive, global and readily available.

Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 20 years. Visit his blog at lifebylyle.com or email mourvedre sfewine@gmail.com.

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