A lot of people say they don’t like chardonnay, but that’s almost always because they haven’t had good wine made from chardonnay. Chardonnay is such a neutral, responsive, malleable grape, capable of fermenting into so many different wine styles, that to claim you don’t like it is akin to claiming you don’t like wine.

For years I have recognized and criticized this fallacy, all the while maintaining an equally obstinate – and equally incomplete – prejudice against the grape often proffered as chardonnay’s antidote: sauvignon blanc.

Sauvignon blanc – green, astringent, sharp, and then blithely fruited – often strikes me as an assault, an ornery blast of acid and grass (not the drugs; the texture and flavor) that clenches my jaw and narrows my outlook.

Sauvignon blanc is one of the “noble grapes,” a white that along with riesling, chenin blanc and yes, chardonnay, is supposedly capable of producing grand, age-worthy wines. Intense aromatics, high acidity, moderate alcohol, undistracted flavor delivery: It should be right up my alley.

Yes, but I just don’t enjoy drinking the wines. I do not like it from New Zealand, I do not like it from Touraine. I do not like it from Bordeaux, I do not like it when Chilean. I do not like it from Sancerre, I do not like it anywhere. Green eggs and ham might have pleasing tastes that belie their color, but green wine from sauvignon blanc is green – thoroughly, acerbically green – from hue to soul.

That’s not actually true, all the time, but it’s a bias that has informed my reactions to sauvignon blanc through the years. The grape’s flavor fingerprint is so distinctive – fresh-cut grass, grapefruit, gooseberry, bitter herbs – that anyone who wants to learn to blind-identify wines starts with sauvignon blanc because it’s the easiest grape of all to distinguish. No matter what, it triggers an immediate reaction, which for me happens to be negative.


So now that I have stood up a straw man, let’s knock him down, shall we?

The first inkling I got that sauvignon blanc could be extraordinary wasn’t even a white wine. It was orange, the infamous skin-macerated Prince in His Caves 2012 from Abe Schoener’s Scholium Project in California. (Around $40, though not available in Maine. The easiest way to buy the cultish Scholium Project wines is to join the mailing list. Sometimes they are extraordinary, sometimes they are frustratingly off the mark, as I learned after buying a half-case, but they are always worth as much attention as you can muster. Schoener’s story has been told many times, and is available in many versions online.)

The Prince in His Caves is from a single vineyard in Sonoma County, California. A three-week fermentation on native yeasts follows a long skin maceration; very little sulfur is used as a preservative. The wine is waves of different textures: briary, honey-toned but dry, strong and complex. And most important to this grapefruit and gooseberry sauvignon blanc hater, as I drank the wine I found almost nothing superficially fruity.

If sauvignon blanc made in a very hands-off style can produce this exciting and atypical a wine, thought I, then there must be some immense capacity in the grape that does not ordinarily find a way to express itself.

The Prince in His Caves allowed me to return to the benchmarks – Sancerre, Marlborough, Bordeaux – and find more in them to appreciate. But it took tasting ambitious, multifaceted sauvignon blancs from regions of the world less esteemed than those standard bearers to help me see how exceptional these wines can be.

Before I provide details, a warning. My project here is to find sauvignon blanc greatness, rather than just decentness, and these wines are relatively expensive.


There are valuable articles to write about decent sauvignon blanc for $11 to $17, but I will let a more dogged and optimistic writer write them.

Blame the higher prices on the various efforts required to temper sauvignon blanc’s inherent aggressiveness, which is brought on by fierce levels of malic acid and pyrazines (the scientific term for what we taste as vegetal notes). Those efforts include use of oak during fermentation or maturation, encouragement of malolactic fermentation and/or painstaking vineyard management to achieve unusually high ripeness.

Grieve Family Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2012, $43. This small winery is located in the Lovall Valley, a cold, northerly nook of Napa Valley so remote that the only way to arrive at it is through Sonoma. This is the only wine David Grieve makes, from a super-rare clone of sauvignon blanc. I love how this wine seems to take SB’s assertive herbaceousness and explode it into herbs themselves, in all their unique subtleties. It’s a panoply of fresh earth and aromatic plants; pine nuts and lemongrass and lots of other things.

The grapes are picked in two separate passes to assure optimal ripeness, then fermented and aged in a combination of stainless steel, used and new oak, and concrete eggs. I sometimes think of a wine’s body as the clothes it wears. The Grieve dresses in a silky, almost impossibly luxurious cloak, which presents an incredibly long, complicated finish. Both fine-grained and macroscopic, the Grieve is a revelation of the grape’s potential.

Vie di Romans Piere Sauvignon Blanc 2012, $33. This meticulous winery in northeastern Italy’s Friuli Isonzo DOC produces dense, mysterious white wines from pinot grigio, chardonnay, malvasia istriana, riesling and more. The area is a nexus of various climatic zones: Adriatic, Alpine and others both Mediterranean and continental. The wines do not see oak or undergo malolactic, but attain remarkable precision and opulence from rigorous canopy management, extreme low-yield viticulture, long macerations and aging on the lees.

Vie di Romans wines often receive mediocre scores from big wine magazines, a fact I ascribe to an unexpected richness and compacted nature that only time unfurls.


People don’t expect aromatic white wines from Italy to behave the way the big reds do: reticent at first, with high (but well-integrated) alcohol around 14.5 percent, unleashing their full power only to those with patience. The Piere is an intense, gravitational marvel.

Groot Constantia Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2013, $20. This is from the oldest wine estate in South Africa, founded in 1685. A serious and weighty sauvignon blanc, it has a crisp lift and vibrancy too. I’m not yet skilled enough to describe how I know this wine will age well, but trust me. The combination of fleshy texture and punctuating acidity, though in their thrilling stage now, will knit together over the next few years into something much more resonant.

Marc Deschamps Pouilly-Fumé Champs de Cri 2010, $30. In an article somewhat dismissive of Sancerre, praising Pouilly-Fumé may be a cheat. The AOC is just across the Loire river from Sancerre, and the two regions share similar chalky, flinty soils from the Kimmeridgian limestone substructure.

Many experienced tasters cannot taste the difference between sauvignon blancs from Pouilly and Sancerre, and I feel sorry for the residents of the former, who surrender wine-list real estate and billions of by-the-glass pours to the latter mostly because their home is more difficult for English-speakers to pronounce.

The “fumé” part of the name is due, originally, to a smoky-gray bloom that covers the grapes at maturity, as well as, sometimes, the practice of deliberately burning the insides of the fermentation barrels. For whatever reasons, there is something distinctly smokier, flintier and more potent in the character of good Pouilly-Fumé, which for me delivers a far more interesting wine than its better-known sibling across the river.

Marc Deschamps harvests manually from vines more than 55 years old, ferments with native yeasts and employs extended lees aging in cement tanks. Unlike most of his other wines, the ‘Champs de Cri’ is not fined or filtered. All of these factors yield an inordinately complex, powerful wine that will blow apart your notion of Loire sauvignon blanc as merely elegant and refined. It’s rather wild and muscular, coniferous, beeswaxy, with a mix of floral and bitter you get in jasmine green tea.

And like a small number of sauvignon blancs from around the world, it issues a tantalizing call that the more jaded among us, with all our preconceptions, would do well to heed.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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