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Putting Flinty Sauvignons To Work

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Aug 4, 2006 3:04pm ET

A couple of weeks ago, during one of those July heat blasts, I went to a poolside potluck and opted to shuck a few dozen Kumamoto oysters as my contribution to the day’s spread.

I made a couple of simple vinaigrettes, with lemon, vinegar, horseradish and the like, and decided not to grill the oysters due to the heat.

I like crisp, flinty, minerally Sancerre or Muscadet-style whites for fresh chilled oysters on the half shell.

At the last minute, I opted for a few California Sauvignon Blancs I tried this summer, remembering that a few of the wines I’d liked were marked by strong lemony flavors and nervy acidity.

I gave them good marks, in the 82- to 85-point range (you can read about California Sauvignons and find reviews in our August issue), but I recalled thinking this style might work perfectly with oysters.

And it did. Chilled and refreshing, the acidity sliced right through the earthy, briny oyster meat.

We all know wines taste better with food. Most of the time, it’s a matter of finding the right match, and when you do, even simpler wines often shine brighter with an entrée than on their own.

Atlanta, Georgia —  August 6, 2006 12:38am ET
I applaud you for celebrating the beauty of "simpler wines." I agree that they "often shine brighter with an entr¿than on their own." Even more importantly they are often more likely to create a genuine food and wine synergy, with the sum being much greater than the total of its parts.What does this say about the WS rating system? I am hardy being profound or original when I ask, why culinary utility is does not compose a greater part of the WS scoring system? After all, don't we usually drink wine as part of a dining experience? By your own admission these wines merit praise when you enjoyed them with "the right match," yet would not even make it into your summary of recommended wines because the did not score the magical 85 point minimum. What a shame so many of your readers wont have the name of these simple beauties to seek out as the shop their local wine store or peruse a restaurants wine list. Meanwhile I have a feeling that some of the higher scoring wines such with their "Rich, creamy flavors" or "Floral honeysuckle, cream, fig, lemon-lime and green apple aromas, with ripe, concentrated flavors" would have decimated your delicate Kumamoto oysters. Yet you awarded these wines with the higher scores?How about awarding a few extra points to those oft under appreciated yet highly food friendly wines?
John Wilen
Texas —  August 6, 2006 2:32pm ET
I realize this post has nothing to do with Sauvignon Blancs. But I am going to leave it anyway because it is timely.JL, I want to congratulate you for your courage, for once again sticking your neck out, not once, but twice regarding the Napa landscape. Of course I am referring to your two recent mag articles: the first calling ¿a spade a spade¿ vis-¿is high-end CA wineries that are woefully underperforming. And second, that the 2005-barrel samples suggest an early yellow (caution) flag. Neither of these muses will ingratiate you with the Valley elite or the retail community. And I for one am glad about that. A big friggin thank you from your readers for taking names and kickin¿..The underperformers on your list are well known to those of us who have made Napa cabernets a big part of our life. My tasting group of 11, down to every last man (and woman), agreed to the list. Our list is virtually identical. The nitpickers among us would have put Nickel & Nickel in bold type, making Far Niente only guilty by association, and we would asterisk just one exception, but in one year only (!): 2002 Quintessa. Otherwise these 10 ugly ducklings represent the worst face of Napa. They are much more dangerous than, say, Napa¿s mass produced low priced, low quality swill. I say that because less knowledgeable wine drinkers continue to buy these 10 ¿special¿ wines based on reputations only --- or give them as gifts. Inevitably, many are disappointed. They retreat to the mass market saying they can¿t tell the difference between cheap and expensive cabs. Others feign enjoyment and adulation --- the Emperor¿s New Clothes.We support the Mostly New Guard that has taken over: Switchback Ridge, Behrens & Hitchcock, D.R. Stephens, Delectus, Etude, Hobbs, Portfolio, Merus, Lewis, etc. Fortunately, the Burgundy model of small artisans pushing the creative envelope is at work in Napa, not the Bordeaux mega-chateaux one.As for the 2005s, my wife and I were somewhat under whelmed on our recent Napa barrel sampling tour. We thought it was just us, or the fact that our sample set so far has been small. The wines have been good but not the rich, concentrated cuvees that make you want to just purchase the whole darn cask on the spot. It sounds like you¿ve sensed the same thing. It takes courage to say so. Thanks.
Scott O Neil
UT —  August 6, 2006 3:56pm ET
Great topic! Last night I had a 2001 Felsina CC Ris Rancia, which is great on its own, but the smoked-shrimp pizza (public dinner) we had with it made it sing like a coloratura. It was fantastic!There is most definitely another dimension to be experienced with wine when paired well with food. However... fwiw, I hope you don't change the scoring system now in place. I (and I'm certain that many, many others) have learned what to expect from the scores, namely that I'm not necessarily going to enjoy a 95-point wine better than a 92-point wine, and that the descriptors are just as important as the number. If you changed now, you would throw us off, so that we can't use your reviews as effectively. 'Love you just the way you are; never change.'
Rick Klotz
Lake —  August 7, 2006 9:17am ET
While in most respects the polar opposite of oysters, simple fare like BBQ ribs or Tex-Mex goes great with a quality CA Zin from Rosenblum or Seghesio. We've also enjoyed during the warmest months some of the better Rose's (or Rosado's) with a wide variety of summer backyard spreads.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  August 7, 2006 1:04pm ET
John, thanks for your kind words and I'm simply doing what I believe is right, calling them the way I see them. Bottom line is I care about the wines and wineries and many can and should do better. Too many wineries are coasting...
James Laube
Napa, CA —  August 7, 2006 1:26pm ET
Scott, thank you too for your note. No intention of changing the scoring system, though most of us believe that wines in the 80-84 (good) and 85-89 (very good) are underappreicated. I know how people shop, but for us these numbers, 82s, 84s, etc. are still pretty good wines. Dan's point about underappreciated wines has merit too. No rating system is perfect. You just have to learn how to use them and find their strengths and weaknesses.
John Danza
naperville, il —  August 7, 2006 3:01pm ET
James, you've hit it right on the head. Food is extremely important to the taste of the wine. As the Cellarer for the Northern Illinois branch of the International Wine & Food Society, I get involved often in making sure our wines work with the food a restaurant is going to serve in our dinners. A case in point is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Personally, I don't like the taste of them on their own. However, pair them with some seafood that has a good fat content such as salmon, and they really take on a different taste and are quite good. This happens with many wines. Again, kudos!
Vancouver BC —  August 8, 2006 4:21pm ET
This is an interesting thread of comments. I agree that some wines seem much better with food pairings (Muscadet being a good example). I also agree that the comments are at least as important than the wine score.

Perhaps a good development for Wine Spectator evaluators to: (1) provide more systematic information on tannins, acidity, body, intensity, finish etc. The WS note on the 2005 Nobilo Sauv Blanc says "mouthful of lime juice ..." That might sound like full body, but it probably means high acidity. (2) provide potential food pairings.I think these 2 adjustments to comments would be much more useful to readers than tweaking scores, etc.

I think those of us who have studied wine through WSET and such courses would appreciate more systematic tasting notes. I also think it would help those less familiar with wine and would help educate them too. Thoughts?

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