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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
16 May 2003

As temperatures rise, even this confirmed Sauvignon Blanc-phobe has to admit that the refreshingly aromatic grape has its uses. In hot, sticky weather a chilled, linear Sauvignon can do things that no complex, rich or oaky white wine can.

This is a good time for Sauvignon-lovers since the Loire, its French power base in appellations such as Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon and even humble Touraine, enjoyed an exceptionally good vintage in 2002, the year that is currently easiest to find on retailers' shelves. And both of the most recent vintages, 2001 and 2002, of dry white bordeaux are also distinctly superior, their Sauvignon component usually fleshed out with some Semillon grapes.

New Zealand has wooed many a Sauvignon enthusiast from France's more reticent wines with the sheer power and pungency of its Sauvignon Blancs, especially those from Marlborough in the north of the South Island. In fact for many a year, Sauvignon Blanc represented a nugget of triumph for Kiwis over Australians since most traditional Australian wine regions were too hot to preserve Sauvignon's key ingredient, a herbaceous fume of decongestant power.

Recently however, I have found myself almost more impressed by Sauvignons from Australia's newer, cooler regions than New Zealand's offerings, most of which have become rather formulaic (take a bunch of grass, add a drop of sweetness, a dollop of canned asparagus, a feline whiff and bottle early).

Shaw & Smith were the first to bring the suitability of South Australia's misty Adelaide Hills for Sauvignon Blanc to international attention. Cousins Martin Shaw and Michael Hill-Smith have been producing attractively dry, racy, scented Sauvignon Blanc for some years but with the opening of their own designer winery they now have even more control over what exactly goes into their clear, bordeaux-shaped bottles. The ultra-cool 2002 vintage is their best example yet. This is fine, almost mineral-scented Sauvignon Blanc by any measure.

Nepenthe is a neighbour in the Adelaide Hills, more recent and with a wider quiver of grape varieties to work with (including, even, a couple of Zinfandels of which the Charleston 2001 is really rather serious). Nepenthe Sauvignon Blanc 2002 in its screwcap is not quite as lively as the Shaw & Smith but is enriched by its nine per cent of barrel-fermented fruit and is a decent price - £7.99 from Waitrose.

Even more of a bargain is Hardys Stamp Semillon Sauvignon 2002 which contains some Adelaide Hills fruit and has really benefited from the cool vintage there.

The 2002 vintage may have been just too cool in Coonawarra. Sauvignons from both the generally reliable Katnook and Rymill had a hard, metallic quality to them, noted at two quite different tastings. Sauvignon Blanc does need some fruit in the middle.

Some of New South Wales' newer wine regions are cool enough for Sauvignon Blanc but the most exciting Australian Sauvignons to have come my way recently have been grown thousands of miles west of the Adelaide Hills in Western Australia. Larry Cherubino, chief winemaker of Houghton, BRL Hardy's western outpost, has been allowed - nay, encouraged - to produce what Australian Gourmet Traveller's Wine magazine calls 'his magnum opus so far: a range of outstanding premium varietals from Frankland, Margaret River and Pemberton'.

His Houghton Sauvignon Blanc 2002 Pemberton leapt out of the glass at me. While being grown-up and dry, it is also full and rich with a lovely panoply of herbal flavours and a touch of minerals too. This tastes as though it is made from quite old vines and is much more interesting than the average Marlborough Sauvignon, without being much more expensive - a Sauvignon for drinking with food. Pemberton, source of some fine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Picardy winery in particular, is a newish Western Australian wine region to watch.

Even more sophisticated, and a challenging rival to Bordeaux's smartest dry whites, is another Western Australian Suckfizzle Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2001 Margaret River.

Suckfizzle, and its second label Stella Bella, are the creation of the talented Devil's Lair winemaker Stuart Pym and his predecessor and partner Janice McDonald who clearly have a way with words as well as wine. The whole range is pretty impressive but this 4:1 blend of Sauvignon and Semillon is arguably the single most successful effort. Slightly fennel-flavoured, it has the same sort of lemon oil oakiness as a serious dry white Pessac-Léognan (Ch Pape Clément perhaps) but with real finesse and intensity. I went back to a bottle that had been opened about a month previously and still enjoyed the contents.

Blends of aromatic Sauvignon with fuller-bodied Semillon are a speciality of the beautiful Margaret River region in Western Australia, most famous as one of the world's remarkably few ideal spots for Cabernet Sauvignon. Cape Mentelle and Cullens both have a proven track record for this style (and some bottles in bigger Oddbins stores) and Xanadu is developing one for its well-priced Secession range. This blend, Australia's answer to Bordeaux, is now increasingly found in less famous Western Australian wine regions such as Frankland where the new Ferngrove Vineyard has crafted a very creditable, mouth-filling, unoaked Ferngrove Semillon Sauvignon 2002. Next door the much older Alkoomi winery established the region's Sauvignon Blanc credentials many vintages ago.

This phenomenon of discovering cooler wine regions more suited to fragile, early-ripening vines such as Sauvignon Blanc is by no means unique to Australia. Chile has been developing its Casablanca Valley between Santiago and Valparaiso and some far southern sites for this very purpose. And South Africa has had notable success with Sauvignons from such relatively new regions as Elgin, Elim and Groenekloof. Names to look for in this respect include Neil Ellis, Flagstone's The Berrio and Iona - all of them making very fine Sauvignon Blanc indeed. Californian winemakers and wine drinkers meanwhile seem to have a completely different view of Sauvignon Blanc and continue to eschew grassy aromas, preferring a much fuller, richer style, which is certainly easier to achieve in the golden state's relatively warm climate.

It is my earnest wish that the quality of all these wines will spur New Zealand winemakers on to make even more exciting wines for the world's lovers of Sauvignon Blanc.

See also my notes on the Sauvignon Blanc grape in purple pages.

Stockists

UK

Shaw & Smith - £10

  • Bennetts of Chipping Campden
  • Moriarty Vintners of Cardiff
  • Reid Wines of Hallatrow
  • Tanners of Shrewsbury
  • Taurus Wines of Guildford

Nepenthe - £7.99

  • Waitrose

Hardys Stamp - £4.99

  • Tesco

Houghton - £9.50-10

  • Noel Young of Trumpington
  • Fenwick of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Suckfizzle - £15

  • Waitrose (Canary Wharf and Kingston only)

Ferngrove - £5.95

  • Great Western Wines of Bath (tel 01225 322810)
  • Wine Time Wine Warehouses in Cumbria and Lancashire (tel 015395 62030)
  • Charles Stevenson Wines of Tavistock (tel 01822 616272)
  • Wines in Cornwall of Nancenoy (tel 01326 340332)
  • Compendium of Belfast (tel 02890 791197)

Alkoomi - £6.49

  • Safeway

USA

Shaw & Smith

  • Wine Exchange, Orange, CA
  • PJ Liquor Warehouse, New York, NY
  • Martin Wine Cellar, New Orleans, LA
  • Sams Wines & Spirits, Chicago, IL
  • Esquin.com, Seattle, WA (national)

Nepenthe

  • Wine.com, San Francisco, CA (national)

Canada

Suckfizzle

  • British Columbia liquor stores

Australia

Houghton

  • The Online Cellar.com, Adelaide

Alkoomi

  • The Online Cellar.com, Adelaide

For other countries, see WineSearcher.