There’s been a cultural shift and the unimaginable has happened; at many of our restaurants Sauvignon Blanc has surpassed Chardonnay in popularity. At others, it’s trending upwards so quickly that it figures to be number one later this year. How did this occur? Why? Call it “The Flavor Explosion,” the same preference that has our collective palate exploring ever hoppier Imperial IPAs, intensely smoky Mezcals and dishes accented with habanero pepper. This take-no-prisoners, no-compromise approach is what Sauvignon Blanc is all about: a wine prized for its hard core citric personality. Extreme, edgy, vigorous and wild, the grape is called Sauvignon (or “savage”) for a reason.
Perhaps it should be expected that diners would crave lemony flavored Sauvignon Blancs with our fish and seafood. The grape variety is not, however, simply an undifferentiated taste bud-searing high acid monolith. Just as with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, significant terroir differences impact Sauvignon Blanc’s flavor profile. In fact, I’ve noticed that wine drinkers are now beginning to dial specifically into the exact style of Sauvignon they prefer based on geographic origins.
The strongest category in the market remains Marlborough, New Zealand, where the modern Sauvignon Blanc craze originated in the 1990’s. The region’s cool growing conditions and very long hours of sunshine enabled it to pioneer a stainless-steel fermented 100% varietal style that exudes profuse grapefruit notes. The iconic producer is and has been Cloudy Bay, whose Sauvignon Blanc is an exemplar of purity and balance. About ten years ago I found that many Marlborough producers had begun to incorporate tropical mango and guava melon notes that often result from extended sunlight exposure, and had even started to push the envelope of residual sugar upwards in order to soften perceptions of acidity. In response, we at Legal partnered with a famous Marlborough producer to make a proprietary Sauvignon Blanc that tastes bone dry, is lighter in body than the luscious Cloudy Bay, and more moderately priced. That was the birth of Manawa, which is now our single best-selling white wine. It’s more about green herb and lemon peel than exotic fruit, characteristics that suit it well to most of our food, but especially fried fish.
The most classic pure Sauvignon Blanc expression originates in northern France’s Loire Valley from vineyards a few hundred miles east of the Atlantic. The area’s quintessential wine is Sancerre, named after an historic hillside village that makes Sauvignon Blanc with considerably less overt ripeness and more finesse than Marlborough. The estate-bottled Domaine Fournier “Les Belles Vignes” is a marvel of chalky minerality, with lean, slightly vegetal spicy tones and tart lemon flavors that linger on your palate. A frequent blind tasting winner, it’s delightful with grilled arctic char in our lemon chive butter.
Coastal Chile is a fantastic source of Sauvignon Blanc that is somewhere between Marlborough’s ripe opulence and the Loire’s understatement. Overall, the country continues to impress me with the purity and depth of its finest wines. From grapes grown within a few miles of the Pacific in Chile’s windswept San Antonio region, Casa Marin “Cipreses Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc has got it all: a terrific dill, oregano and grapefruit aroma, pinpoint acidity, crisp saline minerality and a long finish. This is a Sauvignon Blanc that makes your mouth water for some raw clams or oysters.
Among our ripest and richest Sauvignon Blancs are those from California. Cakebread Cellars in Napa provides a less pungent, silkier style wine with a bit more body and some vivid peach notes. Somewhat bolder in personality, the Knights Bridge “Pont de Chevalier” originates in Knights Valley, Sonoma’s warmest climate appellation. This mountaintop parcel is oriented due north, so the vines experience slow, even ripening and an extended growing season. The Knights Bridge shows nuanced citrus blossom and honeysuckle flavors along with vibrant acidity and mineral notes. It’s a lovely match for spicier flavors.
If you’d like to experience Sauvignon Blanc in action, we are proud to be hosting Jim Bailey, proprietor of Knights Bridge, to conduct a winemaker dinner at our Legal Harborside 2nd floor dining room in Boston’s Seaport District on February 27. The menu for this fabulous dinner is posted on our website. If you can’t make this, or even if you can, I invite you to stop into one of our restaurants soon and sample one of our “Terroirs of Sauvignon Blanc” tasting flights so you can savor three contrasting tastes of this wonderful, vibrant grape. If you haven’t already, it’s time to get in on “The Flavor Explosion!”
Sandy Block, Master of Wine