The Many Faces of Sauvignon Blanc

TIMEDecember 20, 2021

Those involved in a close liaison with wine for decades make lots of demands on the wines we’re happiest to consume.

Just because a wine is tasty is no reason to get excited about it, I believe, if it fails one crucial test: It doesn’t smell sort of like the grape listed on the front label.

When you buy a BMW, you expect it to do what a BMW is supposed to do. Likewise for any product that relies on performance—writing instruments, knives, software. …

If I buy a riesling and it smells more like aftershave or pomegranates, it’s not a good example of riesling, no matter how “tasty” it may be.

Holding wines to this standard isn’t something most wine buyers do. If you’re content to drink a $3.99 wine that has no varietal authenticity, you’re probably happy it’s wet. But when paying $15 or more, we should demand that it smell roughly like what it’s supposed to.

But that calls for some expertise. If you can’t describe what a cabernet is supposed to smell and taste like, it’s hard to criticize it if it smells more like shoe polish or motor oil.

Look at sauvignon blancs from different areas, all of which are valid, in my view. Although several sound bizarre, I’ve loved my lifelong learning of varietals tied to different soils.

Start with the fact that sauvignon blanc isn’t a floral variety. Its main aroma leans more on herbs. In cool climates, and especially in windy areas, it often displays green or herbal notes similar to grass, veggies, tarragon, green tea, and green olives.

In many areas of New Zealand, such as the cool, windy northern tip of the South Island (Marlborough), sauvignon blanc aromas are so distinctive that most wine lovers can identify not only the varietal but also the region.

Few areas of California can make wine like this. But some come close. Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, Livermore Valley, and parts of California’s central coast, including Monterey County, often make sauvignon blancs with some of the same “green” aromas.

Decades ago, Monterey had yet to learn how to tame that character and some of its sauvignons blancs were too strong for some reviewers. With our recent understanding of the New Zealand style, many central coast sauvignon blancs today display fascinating faces that once might have been disparaged.

California’s Dry Creek Valley is cool enough to ripen the variety so it can deliver a bit more of the true varietal aroma. Although Russian River Valley can produce slightly more spice and exotic notes, Dry Creek sauvignons blancs seem to age a bit better.

The Napa Valley’s primary grape, cabernet sauvignon, prefers warmer climates. But Napa also has some sauvignon blancs that have delicate varietal nuances. (Some of these wines are aged in oak barrels, giving them a different expression.)

Sauvignon blancs also grow extremely well in France’s eastern Loire Valley. In Pouilly-Fumé, you get more “earthy” complexity; there are slightly more mineral elements in Sancerre.

South Africa sauvignon blancs also can have “New Zealand-ish” aromatics, and sauvignons blanc from Chile (notably from Casablanca Valley) can be more floral and spiced.

I have also tasted some unusual sauvignon blanc styles, such as California’s Sierra Foothills and low-lying areas of Alexander Valley (dried hay), Austria (slate, brine, citrus peel), and northern Italy (pea pods).

Despite the unusual descriptors, the wines were all fascinating.

Wine of the Week

2021 Allan Scott Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($16): This delightful New Zealand import comes from a region that normally displays more of the gooseberry, new-mown hay, and distinctive “cat box” aromas. But this winery is one of the oldest in the area and the vines are some of the oldest in New Zealand, dating back nearly 50 years. That has given Allan and his family great knowledge on how to grow the fruit so it delivers more complexity, such as Asian pear and subtle spices. Best with seafood. Simply superb.

Dan Berger
To find out more about Dan Berger and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at