A ‘Wacky’ Sauvignon

The grape variety Sauvignon Blanc has been grown in France for at least 200 years and is, in fact, old enough to be one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon (along with another old-timer, Cabernet Franc).  The Cabernet Sauvignon link suggests that Sauvignon Blanc’s origins were in Bordeaux but growers in the Loire claim it is native there.  Who knows who is right (and does it matter?) but, for much of the 20th century, if you wanted to drink single variety Sauvignon Blanc, it was Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé (not to be confused with Pouilly Fuissé, which is Chardonnay) or one of the other eastern Loire Appellations.  Or, if you were happy with Sauvignon in a blend (normally with Sémillon), you looked to Bordeaux and to Graves for a dry example and Sauternes for a dessert wine.

And then, in the mid-1980s, everything changed.  Along came New Zealand, and specifically the Marlborough region, with their own very distinctive take on Sauvignon Blanc.  No longer the dry, austere, ‘flinty’ style from France, here was an altogether fresher, more zingy and lively white with instant appeal that gained popularity with remarkable speed, drawing on the success of the iconic Cloudy Bay brand.

When Cloudy Bay’s winemaker, Kevin Judd, decided to move on, he started his own label, Greywacke (pronounced ‘Grey wacky’), named after the dominant soil in the local vineyards.  On first smell and taste of Judd’s Greywacke Sauvignon, you might not think of New Zealand at all.  Here is a much more restrained version of the grape, almost French in style.  Yes, the characteristic acidity and grassy, citrussy flavours are there, but wrapped up in something far softer, more rounded and, for a variety that is sometimes described as a little one-dimensional, incredibly complex.  It is also very food-friendly; think delicate fish or lighter-style chicken dishes and you won’t go far wrong.  Not cheap for a Sauvignon, perhaps, (£20 in Majestic and widely available elsewhere for similar money) but, for me, the depth and breadth of flavour make it really worth the money.


Rotten Grapes make Great Wine!

Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.

Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.

Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.

Sauternes Ch FilhotThe most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.

Sancerre Style, not Sancerre prices

ReuillySancerre and Pouilly Fumé, the twin towns of the eastern Loire, turn out some lovely wines. But, because they are famous names and always in demand, the best tend to be expensive (you can easily pay £15 – £20 or even more). And, if you go for some of the cheaper examples found in supermarkets instead, they can be quite disappointing. So, how do you get the lovely, racy, pungent flavours of a good Loire Sauvignon Blanc without paying these sorts of prices?

Look at a map of the area and, just to the west of Sancerre, you’ll see Menetou-Salon; a little further west and you come to Quincy and Reuilly. All three of these villages also produce Sauvignon Blanc in much the same style as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, yet, as they are not nearly as widely known, prices – comparing wines of similar quality, of course – are far more reasonable.

Take Denis Jamain’s Les Pierres Plates Reuilly, for example. We opened a bottle recently and it went beautifully with some grilled sardines. It was absolutely textbook Loire Sauvignon with wonderful clean, fresh, gooseberry and green pepper flavours. Only a real expert could confidently say this wasn’t a high quality Sancerre. But, when you check the price, you’ll notice the difference: £11.50 from The Wine Society. And, in case you want to try value alternatives from the other two villages I mentioned, Wine Society also have Domaine Pellé’s Menetou-Salon (£11.95) and Majestic are offering Jean-Charles Borgnat’s Quincy (£11.49). Both recommended.

If you’re searching for reliable Loire Sauvignon even cheaper still, you may need to choose carefully, but I’d suggest you look even further west, over the border into Touraine, the region surrounding the town of Tours. At their best, wines labelled Sauvignon de Touraine can give you much of the same style and freshness as a modest Sancerre, but, production here is quite large and quality can be a bit variable, which is why I say you need to be selective. Above all, avoid Loire Sauvignon at bargain basement prices (which, these days, means below about £6) as cheap examples are often dominated by tart acidity with very little fruit – very unpleasant!

And finding bargains by seeking alternatives to famous names doesn’t stop on the Loire. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Pouilly Fuissé and many others have their value alternatives. But that’s a Bristol Wine Blog for another day. In the meantime, just look around.