The blame for the popularization of ABC — Anything but Chardonnay — can be laid at the door of former British Prime Minister John Major, who said in the late 1990s, “I’m afraid I’m an ABC man.” That was the decade of excess, when Chardonnays were sweet, ripe, creamy, larded with oak and with a texture so thick you could scoop it out with a spoon. With the PM pitching in to the debate, suddenly everyone realized they were sick of that style.
It didn’t dent sales. Any big distributor will tell you there have been blips in Chardonnay sales, but none serious. These pronouncements are often overhyped by the wine media’s desire for a story, and the fact that critics’ boredom thresholds are lower than the public’s.
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Sauvignon Blanc has always had its detractors. The former Slate columnist Michael Steinberger, for example, mocked its “chirpy little wines wholly devoid of complexity and depth … a limp, lemony liquid that grows progressively more boring with each sip.”
Articles with titles like “10 alternatives to Sauvignon Blanc” are more and more common. How do we “wean ourselves” off the grape, asked Victoria Moore in the Daily Telegraph.
And it’s not just the columnists. “I’ll sell people a crisp and fresh white from somewhere else, like a Verdejo, or a dry Riesling,” said John Jackson of Theatre of Wine, independent merchants in Greenwich, England, with a loyal, local clientele. Jackson saw Sauvignon in the same position as Pinot Grigio a few years ago. “People are starting to move on, though they’re not as vocal about it as they were with heavily-oaked Chardonnay.”
Sauvignon Blanc’s momentum
There’s no evidence to suggest Sauvignon is in danger of even the smallest blip in sales. “It’s as strong as it ever was,” reported Paul Brown, who runs the on-trade side of major United Kingdom distributor Bibendum. At the Wine Society, a multi-award-winning mail-order giant, head buyer Tim Sykes said, “Sauvignon sales are growing apace, up over 15% year on year in volume terms, and they represent around 25% of our white sales.”
According to Bibendum, the status of Sauvignon Blanc is not only healthy, it’s growing. “Everyone thought it was going to fall off a bit, but it’s still incredibly strong. It’s even chipping into Chardonnay,” Brown says. “The trade wants people to try something else, but people still love it.” And what they want is the big style, “flavors that you can smell five yards from the glass.”
That style, in the wrong hands, can be tedious. The phrase “cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush,” memorably coined by U.K. writer Anthony Hanson, is beginning to seem pretty dated. That is why it was so refreshing to taste a range of Sauvignons whose flavors, though unmistakable, were in a lower key than one might expect, more complex and more varied.
The tasting (in July at London Cru, the capital’s first urban winery) comprised 32 wines from Australia, New Zealand, California, Chile, France (Loire and Bordeaux), South Africa and Turkey. They were tasted double blind, in identical clear glass bottles. All we knew was that it was Sauvignon, with or without Semillon in the blend.
Jean-Christophe Mau of Chateau Brown in the wine-growing area Pessac-Leognan organized it, including his own wine in the lineup. (Pleasingly, Chateau Brown won top marks from the majority of critics there.)
All the wines had oak treatment of some kind. Some were barrel-fermented, some spent 10 months in new French oak barriques, others far less time, 50% second-use barrels, others eight month medium toast, others 15 months in old oak. … With oak, the variables are infinite.
Looking down the list, a common factor was restraint. Where new oak is used, it’s sparingly, either in larger barrels, or for a small percentage of the blend.
“The trick is in the toasting,” Mau says. “We use 50% new French oak and a very light toasting, for eight months. You get less classic gooseberry flavors, if you can find the balance between acidity and flavor.”
The first surprise was the difficulty in placing the wines. I didn’t expect such freshness and restraint in the American wines, for example, although the New Zealanders showed their classic colors: gooseberry, robust sweaty aromas, nettle and grass. Surprising also was the complexity on show: judicious use of oak tempers the green pepper or asparagus flavors that people can find offensive, and bring more of what U.K. critic Sarah Ahmed calls “the Bordeaux style, more lemon oil notes — it’s a striking feature.”
“Limp and lemony … devoid of complexity”? Not at all. The best of these wines have bracing acidity and fine complex fruit. I noted the following flavors: apple, pear, sour apple, sugared pear skin, honey, apple custard, fresh hay, salinity, river mud, lemon, lemongrass, apricot, sweat, earth.
I used the descriptor “gooseberry” three times, “cat’s pee” not at all.
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Top 5 Sauvignon Blancs
Prices are approximate; oaking regimes as supplied by winery
Larry Cherubino ‘Cherubino’ 2013, Pemberton, Western Australia
100% Sauvignon Blanc
100% new, 3 months aging
Delicate gooseberry and hint of oak on the nose. Sour apple and pearskin palate leading to tropical notes — sweet stone fruit. Long and elegant, very fine
Alcohol: 12.5% Price: $44 (£25.99)
Château Talbot Caillou Blanc 2012, Bordeaux blanc, France
74% Sauvignon 26% Semillon
35% new oak barriques, 35% 1 year old, 30% 3rd fill for 8 months
Unexpressive nose but quickly a lovely interesting palate with honey, freshness, salinity, good ripe acidity, mouthwatering sweet pear and peach and fine, sophisticated weight
Alcohol: 14% Price: $27-$30 (£15)
Château Brown 2012, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, France
64% Sauvignon 36% Semillon
8 months in medium toast barriques, 50% new, 50% 2nd fill.
Really fresh impression of intense chalky acidity, fine pear and apple (Granny Smith) with an almost tannic heft. The mid-palate is dry with promise of a dissolve to juice. Lovely, mouthwatering wine
Alcohol: 13.5% Price: $36 (£25)
Huia Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Wairau, Marlborough, New Zealand
100% Sauvignon Blanc
A portion was fermented in neutral French oak barrels.
Elegant refined nose with nettle and hint of green mown grass. The palate unmistakably New Zealand, with gooseberry, lime and more nettley, hedgerow flavors. Fine fresh acidity, fine weight
Alcohol: 14% Price: $15 to $20 (£13)
Yealands Winemakers Reserve 2013, Awatere, Marlborough, New Zealand
100% Sauvignon Blanc
30% fermented and aged in French oak barrels, 5% new
Classic sweaty nose with gooseberry, intense and powerful palate with dancing acidity. Lovely fresh, fearlessly classic Marlborough Sauvignon
Alcohol: 13.5% Price: $25 (£14.95)
For more tasting notes, visit Adam Lechmere’s blog.
Main photo: Jean-Christophe Mau of Chateau Brown, left foreground, at London Cru. Credit: Richard Bampfield