Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sauvignon Blanc - going back to its roots

Sauvignon Blanc is riding on a tide of popularity. It’s become the default “glass of dry white wine”, a safe haven for wine drinkers scrutinising wine lists from the biggest of chains to the most exclusive restaurants. This has led me to ponder on its popularity – what do we like about it so much?

My theory is that Sauvignon Blanc is a positive style of wine – it doesn’t lack personality, often has pungent, cut grass and gooseberry aromas and its crisp acidity makes it finish with a flourish. There’s an element of “you know when you’ve been Tangoed” about it.

It also suits the British style of drinking – and it won’t surprise you to learn that I have a theory about that too.

We may ape the sophistication of the warmer Mediterranean nations, with our (relatively) newfound love of wine and café culture; but underneath that civilised veneer we are Viking beserkers at heart, beating our chests, chewing on our shields and downing alcohol in copious quantity before getting stuck into battle. In France, the locals at a bar will make one drink last an hour or more (and at those prices, who can blame them?). Whereas you can always spot the Brits at the pavement cafés: they’re the ones downing those enormous litre-sized vases of beer, determined to make a night of it.

Anyway, back to the Sauvignon Blanc story. This most ubiquitous of varieties is nowadays best known in its New Zealand incarnation, as pungently fruity Marlborough Sauvignon. But ‘twas not ever thus, for Sauvignon Blanc has a long history behind it.

It seems to have its origins in the Loire Valley, first documented there in the 1500s. From there it journeyed south to Bordeaux, where it had a fling with Cabernet Franc which produced that region’s calling card variety: Cabernet Sauvignon. Later in its life it made the much longer trek to New Zealand and at Cloudy Bay winery produced a wine of such lusciously juicy fruit character that it spawned a whole new style of wine, Marlborough Sauvignon.

This style is not to everyone’s taste: Hugh Johnson, one of wine’s most acute and literary writers, described it as “Sauvignon with the volume turned up” and I don’t believe he meant it as a compliment. However, he also astutely noted that “It could recruit drinkers who had scarcely noticed wine before, and it has.”

If you like your wines to be a bit less strident and more restrained, then a (virtual) trip to the vineyards of the Loire will be rewarding. In the areas of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, which face each other across the Loire river due south of Paris, Sauvignon Blanc makes its most compelling argument to be regarded as a world class variety.

Recommended Sauvignon Blancs from Sancerre, Pouilly and around:

Domaine Franck Millet
Franck makes a very traditional style of Sancerre, focused on balance, aroma and elegance. The 2013 vintage is available at D&D wines (and other independent merchants) for £14. Aromas of damp earth, lemon and flowers lead onto a palate with a mix of tropical and citrus fruits and a whiff of elderflower.

Domaine Vacheron
This domaine, right in the heart of the dinky hill town of Sancerre itself, was one of the first I ever visited, many years ago. In the intervening years, not much has ostensibly changed in the rustic, sometimes downright grubby-looking cellars. In the vineyards, though, there have been changes: Jean-Dominique Vacheron is a passionately committed organic grower and, since 2004 all their vineyards are also biodynamic. Their wines could never be described as undersold, but even their “basic” Sancerre 2013 delivers the goods: aromas of elderflower and a hint of citrus pith and depth of flavour balanced with delicacy (£17.99 at Majestic, £19.99 at Waitrose). Also look out for Vacheron’s Sancerre La Reine Blanche 2013 ( £16.50 at The Wine Society).

Some branches of Majestic also stock Vacheron’s single vineyard Les Romains 2012 (£27), a seductive wine with rich aromas of peach and pineapple, broad and generous on the palate. Fantastic with seared scallops.

Domaine Seguin
Across the river from Sancerre is the village of Pouilly, surrounded by the vineyards which produce Pouilly Fumé – fumé means smoked and may refer to the smoky character that results from wines made from the flint-based soils which are highly prized both here and in Sancerre.

Domain Seguin’s Pouilly Fumé 2013 (£12.50 from The Wine Society, also at Lea & Sandeman) is a beautifully understated wine with mineral earthy notes, incisive acidity and lingering flavour – focused, textbook Pouilly Fumé.

Dotted around their more famous neighbours are a number of small, satellite appellations, where wines are also made from Sauvignon Blanc and where a rise in quality in recent years has resulted in good value for money wines. Look for white wines from Quincy, Reuilly, Menetou-Salon and Côteaux du Giennois.

Marc Thibault at Domaine Villargeau in Côteaux du Giennois is a case in point: his 2013 white, 100% Sauvignon Blanc with attractive floral character and a touch of the region’s minerality is £8.50 from The Wine Society.

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