In Chicago, summer comes on very quickly. One day it’s a lovely sixty-eight degrees with a little cloud coverage and a wonderful cool breeze at night. The very next day, it’s a sticky eighty-five, with relentless sunshine and palpable humidity. It stays this way for what feels like forever with very few reprieves. Yuck. On many parched days we reach for a cold beer; sometimes we’re even reduced to drinking (gasp!) plain old water. But if wine is in your blood, what you’re looking for this month is something fresh, vibrant, light and refreshing. And when that’s what you’re thirsting for, there’s nothing better than sauvignon blanc.
For a long time, France had the corner on this grape. In the Loire Valley, it’s the most notable white varietal. The areas Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé (hence the moniker fumé blanc) produce extraordinarily clean and complex wines of distinct minerality and grassiness. In Bordeaux, sauvignon blanc is usually blended with semillon for a rounder, slightly honeyed style that can age for a decade or more. It also plays a part in the noble dessert wines of Sauternes.
Californian producers have really made a run at it in the last couple decades, mostly from Napa and Russian River Valley. Here it’s mostly about the crisp, citrusy acidity but the better ones are fashioned after the great Sancerre. The recent popularity of this grape however, is thanks to a surge of great, affordable sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. They aren’t overly intellectual wines, but are great sippers and certainly have a place on the dinner table. From here the wines are zingy and tropical, and dominated mainly by grapefruit and mango. Many also have a distinct and barely tolerable ammonia aroma. As far as the rest of the world, the verdict is still out. Chile and South Africa are coming around on this wonderful white varietal and seem to be establishing their own styles, though generally inexpensive sauv blancs from these regions typically leave a lot to be desired.
Sight: The wine is a very light straw color. Generally this is a cooler climate, low alcohol wine so you shouldn’t see too much glycerine. It’s also usually consumed when young so there will a very clear, almost watery rim.
Smell: Because there are so many distinctive qualities based on region, these are just some of the aromas: Lemon, lime, grapefruit, melon, peach, herbs, chive, hay, tangerine, apple, fresh cut grass, nickel.
Taste: Sauvignon blanc always reminds me of the filling for lemon meringue pie. It can be insanely lemony and usually mid palate I’m thinking “Ugh, this is too tart, I can’t take any more.” But somehow, by the time I finish the sip or the bite of pie, my whole mouth is refreshed and can’t wait for the next dose. This wine is light, crisp and downright invigorating. The flavors in play are typically lip-smacking citrus fruits and tropical melon, with hints of straw and steely minerality. Its acidity refreshes and stimulates the palate like no other wine can do, but the best ones have depth and elegance that would make chardonnay blush.
Pairing: Shrimp ceviche. Caesar salad. Fresh goat’s milk cheese.
- $10-15: Indaba, Honig, Monkey Bay, Dry Creek, Beckmen, Jolivet Attitude
- $15-30: Mulderbosch, Frog’s Leap, Bird, Isabel, Santa Rita Medalla Real, Vacheron Sancerre, Cliff Lede
- Before you die: Didier Daganeau Silex, Chateau Pape Clement Blanc