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Drinking Out Loud

Is Sauvignon Blanc the World’s Most Reliably Good White Wine?

It sure is. Here’s why
Matt Kramer turns to Sauvignon Blanc for surefire quality and value.
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer turns to Sauvignon Blanc for surefire quality and value.

Matt Kramer
Posted: July 18, 2017

I am obliged, I feel, to preface all I’m about to say with the public confession that I once disliked Sauvignon Blanc. Its intrinsic herbaceous or vegetal notes irritated me. I have long since changed my mind—and palate.

So what changed? Well, obviously, me. But also, I like to think, Sauvignon Blanc as well. After decades of tasting and drinking Sauvignon Blancs from California, Washington, Oregon, New Zealand, France, Italy, Australia and Chile, I now firmly believe Sauvignon Blanc is the world’s most reliably good dry white wine.

Now, I’m not saying that Sauvignon Blanc is the world’s greatest white wine. Chardonnay and Riesling, at their best, vie for that title. And I’m not saying that Sauvignon Blanc is even the world’s most interesting dry white wine (whatever that means).

Jaded white wine drinkers can today find their palates perked by the intriguing likes of Spanish whites such as Godello, Verdejo and Albariño or Portuguese varieties such as Vosinho, Rabigato and Gouveio. Then there are Greek whites such as Assyrtiko and Moschofilero, among others. The list of “interesting” white grape varieties available to us today is impressive and growing.

That acknowledged, I have to say that if I’m in a restaurant and I want a white wine that’s almost guaranteed to be dry, has good, often brightly crisp acidity, partners obligingly with all sorts of dishes (fish, pork, chicken, Chinese, Mexican, etc.) and won’t cost me next month’s mortgage payment, then the choice is obvious: Sauvignon Blanc.

You know your wines. What are the odds of getting a really fine, rewarding Chardonnay today for less than, say, $40 a bottle? Not terribly good. Some exist, to be sure. But they take some looking, even almost insider knowledge, to find.

Now, what are the odds of getting a really good Sauvignon Blanc for less than $40 a bottle, even if you know nothing about wine? Why, it’s a slam dunk.

Actually, the odds are good of getting a fine, rewarding Sauvignon Blanc for half that price. And it’s not just a matter of one underpriced source such as Chile (which creates excellent Sauvignon Blanc) skewing things. Instead, nearly every wellspring of Sauvignon Blanc in the world offers truly fine versions that limbo under the $20 bar.

If the price bar moves up to that $40 mark, hell, even Napa Valley, which is nobody’s idea of a wine-value haven, delivers the goods.

With everyone chasing Chardonnay (which for Napa Valley producers mostly means sourcing from Carneros), it’s easy to forget that Napa’s true, homegrown, actually-in-the-valley white wine star is Sauvignon Blanc. You’ve got Spottswoode’s superb Sauvignon Blanc ($38), Spring Mountain Vineyard ($40), Ladera ($30) and a clutch of different offerings from Robert Mondavi Winery, to name but a few among dozens of Napa Valley contenders.

Not to be forgotten are the host of impressively high-achieving Santa Barbara County Sauvignon Blancs from the likes of Brander, Gainey, Margerum, Rusack and Vogelzang, among others. Nearly all the Sauvignon Blancs from this oft-overlooked area are reasonably priced.

Why is Sauvignon Blanc so worldwide-reliable? Partly it’s a matter of universally good, and cross-border knowledgeable, winemaking. Once a winery has decided upon its intended style, which is usually a consequence of whether its grapes are cool-climate (New Zealand, Chile, Loire Valley) or warmer-climate (Napa Valley, parts of Sonoma County), then winemakers everywhere know how to proceed.

Cool-climate Sauvignon Blancs tend not to see much, if any, barrel-aging. They feature zingy acid and bright citrusy and tropical fruit flavor notes. New Zealand’s Marlborough district at the northern tip of South Island pioneered this style and rode it to vastly profitable victory. Wineries everywhere took note and copied accordingly, if they could.

Warmer-climate Sauvignon Blanc trades on a rounder, riper, fig-scented fruitiness and denser texture. Here, barrel-fermentation and barrel aging is rewarded. Often, producers will treat part of their harvest only in stainless tanks and blend that with barrel-treated wine, in the process delivering both freshness (stainless steel) and winemaking-influenced (barrel treatment) flavor complexity.

Everywhere, producers of Sauvignon Blanc know what they’re doing. Not least, unlike with Chardonnay, they also know their limits. Precisely because there is no temptation, as there is with Chardonnay, to rival a scale-the-summit monument like Montrachet—because no such equivalent exists with Sauvignon Blanc—producers of Sauvignon Blanc have no delusions of grandeur.

Consequently, they’re free. Winemakers everywhere accept the grape both for what it is and, more important yet, what it isn’t—and can never be.

For example, you never hear anybody saying that you absolutely must cellar Sauvignon Blanc for its greatness to be revealed. You don’t even hear much about terroir, except in a broad-scale climate sense. Since winemakers have no illusions that their Sauvignon Blanc child is—or even could be—a genius, they are good parents. They allow, even encourage, the grape to be what it is.

For us drinkers the result is exceptional reliability. Most Sauvignon Blancs taste like one. Above all, they consistently taste good, almost without regard to price or source. Most Sauvignon Blancs, even in the lower price range, are anything but bland. When you think about it, that’s pretty remarkable right there. (Of course, you do have to like the distinctive taste of Sauvignon Blanc.)

So there you have it. It partners well with many dishes, from mild to spicy. It’s reasonably priced. Not least, you don’t need insider knowledge to come up with a winner.

Sauvignon Blanc really is the world’s most reliably good white wine.

Don M Singleton
Naperville, IL —  July 18, 2017 10:22am ET
Matt, unlike you, I have been drinking Sauvignon Blanc for the better part of 40 years. I cut my teeth (the ones that are left - kidding) on them and THEN moved to reds. Love just about any and all; oaked, unoaked or amphora those domestic and foreign. It has been my "go to" wine in so many ocassions. Thank you for your insite and blog on this topic. Don
Philip A Chauche
Germantown, MD —  July 18, 2017 2:36pm ET
If you look at what's broadly available, I have to agree with your thesis about Sauvignon Blanc.

Less broadly available is Viognier, which I also find to be well-made or not bothered with at all, and usually at a good price.
Ricardo A Maduro
Panama —  July 18, 2017 3:52pm ET
Hi Matt,
I say this to your highest merit:
I find that your articles are very simple and yet very reasuring and to the point - like this one - in the sense that you just efortlessly (seems to me) enlighten us readers with things we probably knew but were not sure how to describe them or explain them in so many words.
Even to our own selves, mind you.
So yes, I agree with you and thank you for your always entertaining thoughts.
One of my favorites is the always reliably good Cloudy Bay.

Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  July 18, 2017 5:04pm ET
Mr. Maduro: Thank you so very much. It's both kind and generous of you to say this and I'm most grateful.
Regina M Lutz
Napa Valley —  July 18, 2017 6:53pm ET
Hi Matt,
Thank you, thank you, thank you! I confess I am a unabashed lover of Napa and Sonoma Sauvignon Blancs and for the very reasons that you point out. Great value and true to its varietal nature, nuanced by terroir and winemaking.

My favorites: Napa Valley's Provenance Wildwood Vineyard and Honig, and Rochioli and Merry Edwards in Sonoma.

And I so agree with Ricardo Maduro, you have a unique and direct wine writing style that is enlightening -- and appealing!

Keep it up!
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  July 18, 2017 9:09pm ET
Ms. Lutz: Thank you for your kind words. They mean a lot. And please do try, if you haven't already, some of the Sauvignon Blancs from Santa Barbara County. Collectively, they're awfully good. And thanks again.
Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA —  July 19, 2017 11:27am ET
Matt, not sure I can go along with you on this one. Here are a few friendly quibbles:

1) It is exactly the distinct styles (cool climate, vegetative, acidic vs. riper, melony, oak treated) you mention that makes buying, ordering SB a bit dicey, particularly if one likes one style and not the other. I have a strong aversion to the grassy, “cat pee” types of SB and therefore will avoid selecting SB at a store or off a list unless I know for sure the wine’s style.

2) As the Bordelais have taught the world, SB shines much better when blended with other grapes like Semillon and Muscadelle. Wines from Graves or Pessac-Leognan serve as standard bearers for these type blends, offering a consistent and predictable style. Incidentally, Delille and Buty are two producers (among others) in Washington State who make top-shelf wines in this vein.

3) Following your criteria for the “World’s Most Reliably Good White Wine”, I would like to submit Chenin Blanc. From Loire to South Africa to Washington, from dry to sweet, Chenin Blanc wines provide a consistent structure and flavor profile. One can confidently select these wines without reluctance, knowing exactly what to expect in the glass or bottle. Two favorites in Washington (again among others) are L’Ecole 41 (who also make a very nice SB blend) and Waitsburg Cellars.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  July 19, 2017 12:22pm ET
Mr. Olszewski: Thanks so very much for your comments. I do understand absolutely your preference (or distaste) for one style of Sauvignon Blanc over another. In that regard you are correct: If you really don’t like that higher acidity, zingy, intense style of Sauvignon Blanc then, yes, Sauvignon Blanc would not for you be utterly reliable.

Happily, a little knowledge can go a long way here. If one knows the climate of the area in which the Sauvignon Blanc was grown (warmer or cooler), then the odds are very good of finding a Sauvignon Blanc to your taste--or avoiding one that you won’t like.

As for Chenin Blanc, please do count me as a big fan. But reliable it ain’t. Too many Chenins can be bland, almost devoid of flavor, let alone character. Its relative flavor neutrality (compared to Sauvignon Blanc) works against it unless grown in just the right soils and climates.

Not least, with Chenin Blanc you can’t know—until the bottle is opened—whether the Chenin Blanc is dry, slightly sweet, moderately sweet, very sweet or botrytised. (This, of course, is one of the major consumer complaints about Riesling, as well.)

This, by the way, is one of the reasons Sauvignon Blanc is so reliable. You almost never see a sweet Sauvignon Blanc. (They exist, but they’re rare.) And as I mentioned in the column, they are rarely bland although—let’s be honest—the taste of Sauvignon Blanc, in whatever style, is not for everybody.

Whether Sauvignon Blanc is, as you assert, better when blended with Semillon, à la Bordeaux, is open to discussion. It sure can be good that way. But whether it’s essential, ah, that’s another matter. It’s one of those “your mileage may vary” things, I suspect.

Thanks again for your good thoughts.

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