One of the joys of spring

Sauvignon grapes

Sauvignon grapes

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The changing weather demands the crisp taste of Sauvignon Blanc. Christine Austin offers a guide to this grape.

As spring reluctantly drags itself from behind the winter cold my thoughts automatically turn to crisp white wines. Even if I am still serving up winter-weight food, it is always good to have a glass of something bright and refreshing in the glass as an aperitif when I get in from a long day’s tasting or for just sipping as I wander round the garden checking on what has survived the winter.

Sauvignon Blanc has become the go-to grape for refreshment. Its green herbaceous flavours act like a cold shower on the tastebuds, instantly reviving the spirits and polishing the appetite for supper. Its popularity has been fuelled by New Zealand Sauvignon which set the benchmark for zest and flavour and challenged traditional Sauvignon producers in the Loire to lift their game and drop their prices.

Now we can get Sauvignon from all around the world. Each country has a slightly different slant on those flavours but they still muster zest, nettles, lime and passionfruit in various proportions and they all provide a sure-fire match 
for many spring-time foods.

Here’s the run-down on this vital grape.

How to say it?

Sew -vee-nyon Blahk is about right for pronouncing Sauvignon Blanc although there is an increasing trend to call it Savignon which is plainly wrong. The name is probably derived from the French word Sauvage – meaning wild – because its leaves look similar to a wild grapevine. The shortened version of the grape name – Sav Blanc – is as irritating as it is wrong and while Savvy may sound trendy, it acts like a signpost indicating a relatively new wine drinker rather a long-established one.

Where does it come from?

Essentially this is a Loire grape which has been written about under various names since 1534. It seems to have settled in the Sancerre region in the late 1700’s where it thrived. It is related to the Savagnin grape which grows in the Jura and produces totally different-tasting wines, so that is another reason why its pronunciation as Sauvignon should be maintained. It is also one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon, with Cabernet Franc providing the other half of the genetic make-up. That such a vibrant, lively white grape could be a parent of such a dark, structured black grape is puzzling until you think about that note of green leafiness in some Cabernet Sauvignons and the resemblance becomes clear.

Of course the real start of the Sauvignon Blanc story is in 1973 when New Zealand planted it in the Marlborough valley. Until then the grape had been hidden behind French regional names of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. Now 50 per cent of all the Sauvignon Blanc we drink comes from New Zealand. From a standing start that is quite an achievement.

Sauvignon Blanc buds late and ripens early so it doesn’t need a great deal of heat. It likes cool areas, especially if there is a sea breeze or high altitude to keep flavours fresh. Those fabulous aromatics develop just before the grape is fully ripe and disappear rapidly so many winemakers spend their time in the vineyards assessing the aromas of the grapes as they ripen, deciding exactly when to harvest, not by the sweetness of the grape but by its sheer aromatic quality. Some also do a rolling programme of picking so some grapes are picked are early to catch the aromas, then others are picked later at full ripeness to capture more tropical fruit flavours.

What does it taste like?

That depends on where it is grown but the essential notes are gooseberries, green capsicums, hedgerows and lime. There can also be nettles and blackcurrant leaves and if it is grown in a warmer climate it can have tropical fruit notes of passionfruit, nectarine and melon. What makes one Sauvignon Blanc rise head and shoulders above another is the presence of minerally flavours which are difficult to describe but they are the taste equivalent of walking along a gravel path with sea spray in the breeze.

Sauvignon is rarely oaked although there are some sensational wines that have spent time in oak and which have lost their fresh herbaceous notes and acquired another layer of complexity and texture. Te Koko from Cloudy Bay was one of the first New World oak aged Sauvignons, and now Greywacke Wild Sauvignon (£27 Harvey Nichols) sets the standard for this style of wine.

Does it keep?

I love fresh and juicy new vintage Sauvignon Blanc, the kind that jumps out of the glass and gives my brain a jump-start but you don’t need to throw out last year’s vintage or even bottles from the year before. I have discovered five and 
six-year-old quality Sauvignons from 
New Zealand that have softened, become more elegant and smooth. They are great with food.

Wines to try

The Ned Waihopai River Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Marlborough, Majestic £7.99 when you buy two bottles.

Don’t just buy two bottles of this because you will only have to go back for more. This wine delivers the best flavours for money, capturing all the required bright zesty fruit but underpinning it with terrific minerals and texture. Made by Brent Marris at his spectacular custom-designed new winery alongside the sparkling Waihopai River this is Majestic’s best-selling Sauvignon. For real excitement try A Sticky End 
Noble Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (£12.79 for 37.5cl on multibuy) which oozes marmalade and crème brulée notes 
shot through with vibrant acidity. 
Perfect with a summer fruit meringue dessert.

Sauvignon Blanc Vin de Pays du Val de Loire 2012, Marks and Spencer, £6.49.

From the original heart-land of the Sauvignon grape, this has the texture, zest and depth of flavour of a much grander wine. Well worth a try.

Iona Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Elgin, South Africa, Waitrose, £11.99

I can confirm that this is grown on a really chilly part of the Cape. A clear, lemon and lime version of this grape, with depth of flavour and minerally bite. A wine to match with fish.

Simply Sauvignon Blanc, Chile, Tesco, £4.79.

A good value introduction to this grape, with passionfruit and pineapple flavours leading the palate and a lime-edge finish.

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