Sauvignon Blanc

Question – I don’t care for Sauvignon Blanc wines but my friend loves them. How can our tastes be so different?

The question might rephrased as Sauvignon Blanc – straight up or tamed?

If we have a Sauvignon Blanc wine at one of our local wine tastings, we know to order fewer bottles of it than other wines in the tasting. People just don’t seem to drink as much of it as other white wines, even in hot summer months. Classic Sauvignon Blanc (SOH-vihn-yohn BLAHN) wines, especially those from the cool climate of New Zealand, can instill a love-hate relationship. It is a wine that shouts out its pungent, brash personality but it can be too much acid for many wine lovers. For others, however, Sauvignon Blanc sings a dry, crisp freshness and becomes their “go to” wine. No one can deny that frequently there are 180 degree differences in wine taste preferences and this wine variety points that out in spades. Even though I am not a great fan of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, I really enjoy it with a vinaigrette dressed salad at a midday lunch especially in the warmer summer months; its just not my “goto” sipping wine.

Actually, two prominent chemicals seem to play major roles in its aromas and tastes. One called 2-methoxy-3-isobutylpyrazine (ibMP) is described by some wine enthusiasts as a dusty, grassy or green pepper aroma. Another Sauvignon Blanc sulfur containing compound, 4-mercapto-4-methylpentan-2-one (MMP), gives off a subtle odor exactly like cat’s urine when in a particular concentration range. When in a weaker concentration, it exudes an herbal scent somewhere between a citrus-sage description and spicy. Some wine drinkers are put off by this aroma that they call “cat’s pee” while others like its pungency and think it really adds to the complexity and the personality of the wine.

If you don’t like most Sauvignon Blanc wines or even if you can just “take them or leave them,” is there any hope? Of course there is. Sauvignon Blanc’s brashness can be toned down or tamed to a very respectable, polite wine to sip or to pair with food. The two best tools to do this are aging in oak barrels and blending with a lower acid grape called Semillon.

Usually the Sauvignon Blanc grape does not take to oak aging like its cousin white wine Chardonnay does. But back in 1967, Robert Mondavi ‘s new winery introduced Fumé Blanc (an entirely made up name just for marketing) which had just a touch of oak barrel aging. When this slightly toasty taste was combined with the more tropical fruit flavors of guava and passion fruit found in warm climate California Sauvignon Blanc, he had a great new wine and a real hit on his hands. The Mondavi Fumé Blanc is still produced and is excellent but since it is a trademarked name you will have to search out the fine print on other Sauvignon Blanc wines to see if they have any oak treatment since they cannot use that trademarked name on their labels. One such delightful lightly oaked example (15% barrel fermentation) that we found in our wine education classes is Mason Cellars Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley.

Perhaps the best example of “taming” Sauvignon Blanc is the blending of it with another white grape wine, Semillon. This is the path taken by the great Bordeaux white wine producers. They have perfected their formulas over centuries using blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and sometimes a small amount (1-5%) of another grape called Muscadelle. White Bordeaux wines can range from 100% Sauvignon Blanc to about 20% Sauvignon Blanc with the remainder being Semillon and possibly a touch of Muscadelle.

If you are not a real fan of pure Sauvignon Blanc, try a White Bordeaux at your local retail store that has a 50-80% blend of Semillon in with the Sauvignon Blanc. I think you may find it a delightful wine. You may even want to suggest such a wine to your dinner companions who like Sauvignon Blanc so that you can enjoy it too and keep them happy. It goes great with light fish and shellfish dishes as well as many vinegar or lemon-based salad dressings. Lemon chicken or even a wine poached pork will really astound your taste buds when served along with a White Bordeaux or a pure Sauvignon Blanc.

Try it! You might like it.