Zest is best

WINE Elderflower, grass, nettle, basil, even tomcat, or, less politiely, cat's pee, are among the giveaway odours which make sauvignon blanc a blind taster's dream
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The Independent Culture
Few wines have been more evocatively exploited in words than those made from the sauvignon blanc grape. "Sauvignon has a very specific smell, floral, musky, smoky with a slight raw herbaceousness suggesting bruised leaves," wrote Emile Peynaud, Bordeaux's grand old man of wine. That was back in 1983, when the Loire Valley's Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, along with Graves from Bordeaux, represented the peaks of the sauvignon blanc's achievements.

The rapid worldwide spread of the sauvignon blanc grape since then has been as dramatic as the development of the vocabulary used to describe this most popular of refreshingly aromatic, summery wines. Elderflower, grass, nettle, basil, even tomcat, or, less politely, cat's pee, are among the giveaway odours which make sauvignon a blind taster's dream, not to mention gooseberry, asparagus or green beans.

Since Cloudy Bay was sprung upon us ten years ago from Marlborough in New Zealand, the sauvignon grape has never looked back. Typical of Marlborough's ripe and pungent asparagus, gooseberry and grapefruit style, the 1993 Montana Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 11.49, Greenalls Wine Cellar, Oddbins Fine Wines, is powerfully aromatic. In similar vein, the asparagus whiff of the 1994 Grove Mill Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 6.99, Sainsbury's (top 20 stores) is complemented by plump fruitiness, while the zippy fruit in the Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, pounds 5.95, Waitrose, Sainsbury's; pounds 6.29, Safeway, is amplified by 1994 vintage ripeness.

Sauvignon was never Australia's strong suit, but the Aussies' recent assault on cooler climate wines has brought some engaging examples. From Macedon in Victoria, the Hanging Rock winery's 1994 Jim Jim Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 9.99, Thos Peatling, Suffolk (01284-755948), is crisp and gooseberry- scented. From Margaret River, Cloudy Bay's Western Australian counterpart, the 1994 Cape Mentelle Semillon Sauvignon, pounds 7.49, Tesco, Majestic, is a zesty grapefruit and passion fruit blend.

Chile is the New World country doing most to address sauvignon's value- for-money challenge, although much of what passes for sauvignon is in fact the inferior sauvignonasse. But Asda's 1994 Chilean Sauvignon, pounds 3.49, is clean-cut sauvignon, and the aromatic, grapefruity 1994 Caliterra Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 3.99, Victoria Wine, Somerfield, Davisons, Oddbins, testifies to Chile's new confidence with the variety, as does the 1994 Villard Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 4.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up.

France's warm south is the region most obviously influenced by the New World, with styles such as Jacques Lurton's gooseberryish 1994 Domaine des Salices, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 3.99, Oddbins, Thresher Group, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up; and the 1994 Domaine St Francois, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 3.29, Asda.

From Bordeaux, the fresh 1994 Bordeaux Sauvignon Cuvee VE, pounds 2.89, Kwik Save, and the spearminty 1994 Bordeaux Sauvignon, Yves Pages, pounds 3.79, Marks & Spencer, display the aromas associated with better Loire sauvignon, such as the nettley, almost Sancerre-like 1994 Sauvignon de Touraine, Jacky Marteau, pounds 4.99, Marks & Spencer. Where Bordeaux really scores is in fermenting or maturing sauvignon in oak barrels. You have to pay through the nose for top Graves (or Pessac-Leognan), but for a taste of the style at a fraction of the price try the 1994 Chateau Haut-Bonfils, pounds 4.59, Victoria Wine, the 1994 Blanc de Bordeaux Oak-aged, pounds 3.99, Safeway, or the 1994 White Bordeaux, Matured in oak, Joanne, pounds 4.99, Marks & Spencer.

Top Italian sauvignon is normally confined to expensive restaurants, but there are exceptions. Geoff Merrill has produced a fragrant, lemon- zesty Sauvignon delle Tre Venezie, pounds 4.25. In Spain, the northern Rueda tablelands are the most promising source of quality sauvignon. The best examples here are the fresh, citrusy and sophisticatedly dry 1994 Marques de Grinon Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 4.49, Tesco, and Hugh Ryman's elderfloral, grapefruit-crisp 1994 Vina Calera, pounds 4.99, Thresher Wine Shops, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up.

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