You sometimes hear wine experts say that sauvignon blanc has the character of cat urine. Of all the insider terminology used to describe wine (some of which I've used myself)—tarry, funky, barnyardy and the rest—this may be the strangest, but it's not a plot to scare wanderers back into the Chardonnay camp. No, the cat-pee people mean to sing the praises of sauvignon blanc's particular smell. Still, although I don't know about cats in other parts of the world, my Brooklyn-born feline couch potatoes don't produce anything resembling sauvignon blanc. Nor do I use Nature's Miracle to clean out my wineglasses. Whence the tomcat comparison?
The answer is that sauvignon blanc has a sharp, pungent, herbal quality when you sniff it—peculiar, pleasant—a quality that continues on the tongue and can be conjured up to some degree if you imagine chewing on a river reed or something grassy or hayish while drinking a lively white wine. In a well-made example, it's unmistakable, it's what I look for; but apparently it reminds some people not of drifting along a slow river in a canoe but of Hello Kitty's back alley. At any rate, if you lay that green-grassy quality over a white wine that bursts with lemon, grapefruit, melon and (the English would insistently add) gooseberry flavors and combine all that in a wine that is also dry and tart and sometimes almost spritzy with acidity—well, you're talking about a superb refreshment, one of the brightest stars of the great wineway.
Mind you, sauvignon blanc from the less-than-dedicated wine maker or grape grower has none of these virtues. Weak Sauvignon can be watery and vaguely sweet and is often dressed up with oak-barrel flavors the way a pudgy all-smiles fellow might step out in a loud sport coat. (One swig of a bad sauvignon blanc makes me feel like I've been whisked away to happy hour at the all-suites motor hotel off Exit 16.) The frequent weak state of this wine is no accident. It was poor-cousined for years, at least in this country. I recall visiting tasting rooms in Napa and Sonoma wineries a few years after Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc, then a new wine from New Zealand, had rocketed into view in the late 1980s. Cloudy Bay had an insistent, reedy, knife-sharp aroma atop a delicious super-fruity flavor that, after a couple of glasses, permanently fixed itself in one's taste memory as God's recipe for sauvignon blanc. As I made my way around the California wine country, I was assured that the intense qualities I was looking for, which the pourers thought I was trying to avoid, would not show up in my glass. And they didn't. All was blandness and, for good measure, oak.
A word about oak. A good soak in a new barrel has ruined many chardonnays (not only American but Australian, too); the sweetish, buttery, vanilla flavors that dominate some chards become almost repellent after a while, like too much tarragon in a hollandaise sauce. The sauvignon blanc grape, which has an intense but fragile character, does not need oak, and the best sauvignon wine makers either don't oak at all or do so lightly. The effect of delicate oaking is to give the wine a softer "attack." It rounds the wine out and makes it seem richer in the mouth, though less zingy. It's a matter of style—don't shy from sauvignons that mention oak on the label, especially if you like a richer white wine, but know the risks.
In the past decade things have been looking up all over for sauvignon blanc. Wineries in New Zealand, particularly in the Marlborough District on the north shore of the South Island, leveraged the Cloudy Bay fuss to build a huge trade on the region's distinctive sauvignon blancs, and that raised the bar for everyone working with the grape. South Africa has had similar, smaller success with the wines of the Stellenbosch Region, first with Mulderbosch (whose distinct thin green label runs vertically right up the bottle), then with others. American wine making, which is now more and more devoted to expressing the differences among grapes, soils and wine makers' styles, is turning out some sauvignon blancs that can duke it out with the Marlborough cowboys. And France?Well, France is still the seat of this wine. The Loire Valley, planted with grapes since Roman times, turns out sauvignon blanc wines whose two most famous versions became rather trendy a while back—pouilly fumé and sancerre—and these can be marvelous. Tasters often stress mineral qualities in the sancerres; I found one described as "liquid limestone with a squeeze of lemon," and that was meant as a compliment. At their worst, the Loire sauvignons can be thin and overpriced. In general, expect less of the exuberant fruitiness you'll find in New Zealand wines.
The bottom line, confirmed at a recent tasting, is that you can shop both hemispheres and several countries and find a truly delicious bottle, though not always a cheap and delicious one. The sought-after bottles are now solidly in the twenty-dollar range. Sauvignon pours well before dinner—on a sunny deck, say, or on a dock down near those river reeds—and it drinks well with dinner (fish, seafood, birds, even Indian or Chinese food). Its essential character is really impossible to describe, hence the weird comparisons, but a whiff of a good glass will tell you this is one of the unsung gifts of the wine gods. Hell, maybe Bacchus had a tomcat.
Taste Test: Sauvignon Blancs
New Zealand wines lead the pack for concentrated bursts of the mysterious sauvignon blanc scent as well as the grapefruit, lemon and grassy flavors that separate this wine from chardonnay. In a recent tasting, Cloudy Bay 2001 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough surprised me with a remarkable spritzy acidity—it seemed almost bubbly. At $25, it ought to be good. For about five dollars less, try Seresin 2001 Sauvignon ($21) from Marlborough or Goldwater 2001 Dog Point ($20) from the same region; both are delicious.
From South Africa comes another powerhouse, Mulderbosch 2001 Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch ($20). While this one cannot quite match Cloudy Bay's intensity, it is a standout nonetheless.
France was well represented by de Ladoucette Pouilly Fumé 1999 ($26), a noted Loire sauvignon blanc, slightly lean with pleasing grassy qualities and acidity, priced in the Cloudy Bay range. At three years old, this one has a nice bit of age, but don't delay: If you buy it, drink it now.
Voss 2000 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley was the big winner among the American wines I tasted. A beautifully made Californian with no shortage of character, priced at $20 a bottle, it is well-balanced—a bit more rounded than the contenders from New Zealand.
Scotch Whisky: Laddie's Legacy
Mention Islay to a man of the bottle and one word is sure to drip from his tongue: "whisky." The island off Scotland's Atlantic coast produces some of the world's most cherished single malts, and after six years' absence Bruichladdich (say "brooik-laddie") rejoined the Islay distilleries in 2001. The revived Bruichladdich is run by a true Ileach—a native of Islay—named Jim McEwan, who recently introduced his Legacy, a thirty-six-year-old whisky that McEwan says he "sniffed out" while exploring his distillery's cellars. Unlike other Islay offerings, which are trundled by truck in their casks to Edinburgh or Glasgow for bottling with tap water, this smoky nectar was bottled with Islay spring water, the way whisky was made when Bruichladdich opened in 1881. The Legacy 1966 is lushly textured with an initial floral aroma followed by scents of fruits and honey. Its taste—more subtle in peat than those of its island compatriots—exhibits the crisp, dry maturity of oak saturated by sea air. Each bottle, priced around $350, is numbered and features a painting of Islay by Scottish artist Frances Macdonald. To secure a Legacy of your own, call the distillery at 011-44-1496-850221 or visit bruichladdich.com.