If you want a wine you can trust, it has to be Sauvignon Blanc, says Christine Austin.
I loved having my Australian friend to stay this summer but having waved her off at the airport I returned home and realised that during her two-week stay we had polished off every bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in my house. Bearing in mind that I keep fairly generous stocks of wine about the place, this was no mean feat but to be fair, we did not do this alone. Most evenings had fallen into a fairly predictable pattern where various friends dropped by to catch up with my visitor who had spent several years living in Yorkshire while her husband worked here.
The simplest and most acceptable wine to pour while we sat outside, on a long, warm evening was Sauvignon Blanc. Universally liked, crisp and refreshing in taste, it oiled the wheels of conversation, while its lively flavours pepped up tastebuds and happily accompanied the usual array of salads and nibbles put out on the table. As the evening progressed, and even when the barbecue got going it was simpler to stick to the same grape theme so as not to interrupt our conversation with chat about the wine. The crisp, herbaceous flavours of Sauvignon may not have been the ideal match for chicken kebabs and chunky beef burgers but with spice, chilli, sauces and relishes getting in on the act, Sauvignon wrapped its flavours around the food and managed a happy marriage.
So what is it about this grape that makes it such a favourite?
To begin with it is easy to say and remember. “Soo-vin-yon Blonk” is the correct way to say the name but many people, including winemakers, call it “Sav Blank” which means that it is snappy and easily identifiable. And while Soo-vin-yon is grown around the world, there is nothing on earth that would permit a Frenchman to refer to his beloved Sancerre or Bordeaux Blanc wine as “Sav”. So that means if someone calls a wine Sav Blank they really mean a New World wine, probably from New Zealand.
Accessibility is another reason to favour this wine. They all come with screwcaps which means there is no hunting for the corkscrew mid-conversation when the bottle runs out. You can twist off the top and pour without missing a beat. And the real reason that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has done so well is its consistent, zesty, refreshing flavours. Various brands may come with increasing degrees of green leafy flavours, with different layers of tropical fruit and minerally crunch, but to be honest there are hardly any that I would find undrinkable. After a fortnight of mainlining on Sauvignon I was desperate for a glass of Syrah, Sangiovese or Chardonnay but my gang of friends were not. On a warm summer night they were not so keen on reds, they didn’t want bubbles and they really didn’t want to swap flavours in their glass, mid-conversation.
For the chattering drinker, Sav Blank has become the default drink, to sip on its own, with nibbles and with food, and for sheer availability with a fairly consistent style, New Zealand is the place to head for. Most of New Zealand’s Sauvignon comes from the Marlborough Valley at the top end of the South Island. Planted around 40 years ago, this former sheep country is now wall-to-wall vines, with regimented rows stretching into the distance. The soil is stony and the weather is cool, all of which helps to preserve Sauvignon’s green, leafy flavours and lively acidity. At various points around the valley they make use of increased breeze, even stonier soils and the angle of the sun to develop various characteristics in the grapes. By picking grapes in successive weeks across the region they can capture fresh, herbaceous tones first, building up more melon, peach and mango notes as the grapes ripen. Blending these together builds complexity and house style.
Here are the top five New Zealand Sauvignons enjoyed in my garden over the last few weeks.
Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2012, (Halifax Wine Co, £15.95)
If the last few weeks of warm weather drinking is anything to go by, this would be my desert island wine. Lively, refreshing but not so green and piercing that it dominates food. Some tropical fruit notes soften the profile and the flavours are mouthfilling and balanced.
Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (Field and Fawcett, York, £15.35)
Instantly refreshing with lively, zesty flavours, ripe citrus notes and underlying melon and guava notes. Crunchy minerally flavours and keen freshness on the finish make this a wine to enjoy, not just in a summer garden but throughout the year, with grilled fish, asparagus and goats’ cheese.
Villa Maria Reserve Clifford Bay 2010 (Hoults, Huddersfield, £14.99)
Rummaging at the back of the wine rack I came across this older vintage (current release is 2012) and it was fascinating to see how it was ageing. Fresh as a daisy and intense with a steely, gravelly backbone.
The Ned Sauvignon Blanc, Waihopai River (Majestic, £9.99)
It is just so easy to drink this wine. Clean and lean with just enough chopped, green grassy herbal aromas, a touch of gooseberry and a long, refreshing finish.
Jackson Estate ‘The Stitch’ Sauvignon Blanc 2012, (Waitrose, £12.79)
Named after John Stitchbury, owner of Jackson Estate, this is a complex wine with the aroma of crushed blackcurrant leaves, citrus on the palate and white peach notes adding texture and balance. Capable of ageing and building on these flavours without losing freshness.
To be Avoided
There is one wine on the shelves which pretends to be from New Zealand. You might imagine that Kiwi Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc (Asda and others) is from New Zealand, but because this French producer used to have a New Zealand winemaker (they don’t any more) and because it used to be made in a lifted, green-edged style, the producers got away with the name. But if you are looking for good straightforward New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc stay well clear of “Kiwi Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc”. Dull, flat and frankly, pretending to be something it isn’t, this is one to avoid.