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Often made in a bold and flavourful style, sauvignon blanc can be a love-or-hate prospect for many. Fans of the zesty and fragrant versions made in New Zealand know what they like – and enjoy knowing what to expect when they open a bottle of wine.
“A bungee jump into a gooseberry bush” is how Bob Campbell, one of New Zealand’s foremost wine writers, once described its thrill ride.
Fans of more restrained models from France’s Loire Valley appreciate its herbal and citrusy flavours and invigorating, mouthwatering acidity. Producers in other parts of the world, especially wineries in Chile, South Africa and here in Canada mostly strive for the provocative style popularized by New Zealand’s Marlborough region.
I’ve frequently heard wine agents explain that consumers attracted to the bold sauvignon blancs made in Marlborough aren’t brand-loyal. Comfortable in the knowledge most commercial brands at the liquor store are more similar than different, they’ll purchase whichever label is on sale.
That predictability has also helped sauvignon blanc become a staple on by-the-glass wine lists. It’s seen as a safe bet for those declaring “they don’t know much about wine but know what they like.”
So while there are many alternatives to the style, the enduring success of sauvignon blanc in Canada and around the world is built on a single-minded determination to continually revisit an old favourite. Any fans looking to branch out should begin with these three styles that share sauvignon blanc’s signature traits: freshness and savoury complexity.
The crowd-pleasing wines coming from Spain’s Rias Biaxas region and Portugal’s Vinho Verde appellation (where the grape is known as alvarinho) just to its south have brought global attention to this fragrant and fruity white. Marked by a sweet and sour mix of peach, melon and citrus fruit flavours and zesty acidity, this is a terrific match for seafood and salad courses. It’s refreshingly tasty on its own, too. Producers to look for include Martin Codax, Paco & Lolo, Pazo de Villarei from Spain and Anselmo Mendes and Quinta de Soalheiro from Portugal.
For a brief moment in the early 2000s, Austria’s most famous grape variety seemed well-positioned for superstardom. Leading sommeliers and critics were singing its praises and comparing the best examples to top-quality white burgundy. Unfortunately for the premium estate wineries in the Wachau and Kamptal regions, that fame and fortune never truly materialized. That’s good news for wine lovers looking for a new thrill. The best wines, while admittedly difficult to source, aren’t impossible to find. Similar to sauvignon blanc in refreshment and body, grüner offers complex flavours that suggest white pepper, dill, grapefruit, green apple and citrus peel that are pure and delicious. Wineries to watch for include Bründlmayer, Domäne Wachau, Emmerich Knoll, F.X. Pichler and Rabl.
Native to the Rueda region, which is Spain’s leading producer of white wine, this distinctive grape variety is commonly compared to sauvignon blanc. It has a similar flavour along the lines of zesty citrus fruit combined with tropical, floral and grassy notes. The Rueda appellation celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, which has spurred interest in these bright and usually affordable wines. Winemaking rules for the appellation allow for blending with the viura grape, which can tone down the brightness and intensity. Look for wines that say Rueda and Verdejo on the label for the best expressions. Producers of note include Bonhomme, Garciarévalo, José Pariente, Marqués de Riscal and Menade.