Why sauvignon blanc is overrated.

April 18 2006 6:27 AM

White Lies

Why sauvignon blanc is overrated.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

A few weeks ago, I had dinner at the famous Joe's Stone Crab in Miami. It was a miserable meal. For one thing, I'm not a fan of crabs served in the shell—they're never worth the effort required. Compounding my irritation, the restaurant was a zoo. Then there was my 4-year-old son. One of his playmates had just taught him that a raised middle finger is a bold gesture of defiance, and James spent much of the evening excitedly flipping our fellow diners the bird.

But what really soured my mood was the wine. The restaurant's list was uninspired, to put it charitably, so I played it economical and went with a Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, from New Zealand. There was nothing wrong with the wine per se; it wasn't cooked, corked, or otherwise spoiled. In fact, it was clean, crisp, and effusively fruity. It was also thoroughly, maddeningly dull—a wine with absolutely nothing to say. This wasn't a Kim Crawford problem, and it wasn't a New Zealand problem; it was a sauvignon blanc problem. Simply put, the grape is a dud, producing chirpy little wines wholly devoid of complexity and depth, the very qualities that make wine interesting and worth savoring. For years, this offensively inoffensive grape has escaped criticism while chardonnay and merlot have been scorned. The free ride ends here.

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Astonishingly, there are people, among them some wine writers, who contend that sauvignon blanc creates wines of great character and verve. I'd love to know which sauvignon blancs they've been drinking. I taste dozens each year, and character and verve are two qualities most of them sorely lack. Sure, they tend to have distinctive bouquets, with heady aromas of grass, citrus, gooseberry, gunflint, and chalk—or some combination thereof. But this excitement is reserved for the nose; all the mouth gets is a limp, lemony liquid that grows progressively more boring with each sip. Sauvignon blancs almost never evolve in the glass—they simply fill the space.

I am tempted to anoint sauvignon blanc the new merlot, but that would be a disservice to merlot, which, despite all the dreck that goes out under its name, is capable of yielding such monumental wines as Petrus, Lafleur, and Le Pin. And while it is fashionable to deride chardonnay and to proudly proclaim oneself an ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) drinker, more great white wines are produced with chardonnay than with any other grape. Krug's Clos du Mesnil, Raveneau's Chablis Les Clos, Bonneau du Martray's Corton-Charlemagne, Coche-Dury's Meursault Perrières, Romanée-Conti's Le Montrachet—these are some of the world's most coveted wines; all are composed entirely of chardonnay, and all stand as powerful, pricey retorts to the notion that chardonnay equals rotgut.

I'd have trouble coming up with a comparable list of great sauvignon blancs, because there aren't any. Sure, Didier Dagueneau makes toothsome Pouilly-Fumés, but they aren't in the same galaxy as the best chardonnays, Rieslings, or even Rhone whites (Chave, Beaucastel). The only important wines made with sauvignon blanc are white Bordeaux, and in particular Sauternes and Barsacs, the region's fabled sweet wines. But these are blends in which sauvignon's role is generally a supporting one; the key ingredient is semillon, which tends to fall victim much more easily to botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, the fungus that gives the wines their honeyed sweetness. It is also semillon that imparts texture and gravitas to Bordeaux's dry whites.

Every major grape variety has at least one region in which it is the star attraction—every major variety, that is, except sauvignon blanc, whose banality condemns it to bridesmaid status wherever it is cultivated. Sauvignon reaches its apogee in France's Loire Valley, but even there it is the second grape, and by some margin. Chenin blanc, which is used for Vouvrays and Savenièrres, is the true pride of the Loire. For a time, sauvignon blanc has been New Zealand's showcase wine; bizarrely, one Kiwi sauvignon blanc, Cloudy Bay, even acquired something of a cult following in the United States during the 1990s. Fortunately, most of those who succumbed to it were successfully deprogrammed, and Cloudy Bay is now just another Antipodean label on the shelf. These days, New Zealanders seem eager to downplay sauvignon blanc and to talk up their success with pinot noir, and I can't say that I blame them: Being known for the quality of your sauvignon blanc is like being known for the quality of your white rice.

The grape's defenders will inevitably point out that most sauvignon blancs don't aspire to be anything more than simple quaffers. But surely, even a simple quaffer ought to be able to hold your interest for at least a few minutes. Sadly, most sauvignon blancs can't even do that. In fact, the pleasure to be derived from the typical sauvignon blanc is inversely related to the amount of attention paid to the wine—the less you think about it, the more you're apt to enjoy it. And spare me that old chestnut about versatility: It is hardly surprising, given their acute lack of personality, that these smiley face wines can accommodate themselves to just about any dish. Water can, too.

So what, you might ask, would be preferable to drinking sauvignon blanc, particularly if you are on a budget? With most New Zealand, South African, and Californian sauvignon blancs selling for around $15 a bottle, and with most Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés now fetching at least $20, there are scores of worthy alternatives. Take, for instance, the chardonnays from the Macon region of France (they aren't called chardonnays, of course, but instead go by names like Vire-Clesse, St.-Véran, Pouilly Fuissé, etc.). The wines of Daniel Barraud, André Bonhomme, Olivier Merlin, and Domaine Delaye all tend to run in the $15-$25 range and have substantially more depth and brio than most comparably priced sauvignon blancs. Ditto Domaine des Terres Dorées' Beaujolais blanc, which, at $10 a bottle, is truly a gift from Bacchus.

Loire Valley chenin blanc yields a number of elixirs: The Vouvrays of Domaine Huet are legendary; Huet's dry Vouvrays (called sec) sell for around $25-$35 a bottle and will encourage much more swilling and sniffing than any sauvignon blanc. (Sauvignon blanc is, at best, a lubricant to conversation; a good Vouvray is a conversation-stopper.) The basic Vouvrays from Domaines Pinon and Champalou can be had for $10-$15 and are usually delicious in their own right. South African chenins are also beginning to make some noise: De Trafford and Rudera are two names of note and go for around $15-$20 per bottle.

Looking for Rieslings? Hunt down any German Rieslings imported by the estimable Terry Theise. Alsace does Riesling, too, albeit in a different, (usually) drier style. I've had the 2000 Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile three times in the last six months, and it is spectacular—probably the best Frédéric Emile since the celebrated 1990. At $30-$35 a bottle, it is less expensive than some Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés, is infinitely more engaging, and will last many years longer. That is what separates the noble grapes from the pedestrian ones.

Next week:A grape that deserves more respect than it gets.