Dissecting Sauvignon Blanc

Continuing with our theme of exploring specific varietals, this month the Journal and Jacques Scott have teamed up to test sauvignon blanc, a grape that makes a distinctive minerally, crisp wine that cuts through rich dishes like a knife. Two Old World and four New World productions of the grape were under the microscope, with culinary pairings this month provided by Guy Harvey’s Grill. Business Editor, Lindsey Turnbull reports.

Sauvignon blanc is a major player in France, where it turns up in different guises: blended with Semillon to make some tremendous white Bordeaux wines or standing alone in its crisp minerality in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in the Loire Valley. It has also succeeded tremendously well in the New World, in places such as South Africa, Chile as well as of course, New Zealand, where the grape has flourished.

All six wines at the Guy Harvey’s Grill were blind tasted by the group, which consisted of Lee Royle, wine sales professional; Sergio Serrano, senior wine sales & marketing associate; Paul McLaughlin, wine retail manager and Rebecca Parchment, sales and marketing associate as well as yours truly.

Wines were unseen so the group could attempt to identify the known characteristics of each wine (we had a list of the wines, just not the order in which they were tasted) and associate them with what we were actually seeing, smelling and tasting.

First up was a fruity little number, oozing grapefruit on the nose and a clear indicator of a definitive sauvignon blanc.  Lending itself to the New World with its fruit forward characteristics, this wine indicated to Paul that it hailed from South Africa.

“The wine displays that grapefruit nose with a touch of cat’s pee [yes – that really is a sauvignon blanc characteristic! Ed],” he says. “It feels very much like one of the New World wines but doesn’t have the distinctive nose of the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.”

The second wine poured was far more muted and subtle on the nose and the palate, and was guessed correctly by all tasters, its light fruitiness and flinty stone and chalky nuances clearly manifested themselves as an Old World Sancerre. A light and refreshing choice, it made a pleasant quaffing wine as well as pairing gracefully with the food to come.

The third wine poured was a gift for New Zealand sauvignon blanc lovers, with Rebecca confident in her choice, having enjoyed the wine on many occasions.

“The lovely peach and citrus notes such as grapefruit zing out of the glass at you,” she states.

This wine had a really nicely balanced acidity and a long finish, suggesting that this was perhaps one of the more expensive of the bunch.

At this point the tasters paused from the intensely serious business of guessing the grape to enjoy Guy Harvey’s Grill’s delicious lunchtime dishes, which really helped to bring out the intricacies of the wine.

The goat’s cheese and roast vegetable was a classic pairing, according to Lee, who says, “Sauvignon blanc and goat cheese is a perfect pairing. Goat’s cheese has a distinct, thick yet crumbly, stick-to-your-teeth texture that is less firm than a slicing cheese like cheddar or Swiss but not as creamy and rich as a triple-crème style like those cheeses in the Brie family. What makes sauvignon blanc pair well with goat cheese is its bracing acidity, which cuts through this unique texture perfectly. Acid is the lip-and-cheek-smacking component of wine that literally makes your mouth water; high-acid white wines like sauvignon blanc have a zinging quality in the mouth that is very different than, say, a super-buttery, rich chardonnay.”

Lee suggests this basic experiment: “Buy a nicer quality log of goat cheese, slice off a round section and let it melt in your mouth. Then take a gulp of sauvignon blanc and you’ll understand immediately why these two go so well together.”

Tasters also enjoyed a bowl of the restaurant’s fabulous tomato and basil soup, the acidity again of the tomatoes working nicely with the wines. Guy Harvey’s popular crab cakes were also devoured by the tasters and declared an excellent pairing with the wine, this time a nice richness working alongside the crisp wines.

Onto the final flight of wines and tasters tried to fathom out the fourth wine which displayed delicate citrus notes on the nose including lemon as well as peach. Few detected the light oak that this wine had been exposed to during fermentation and thus this wine proved to be a tough one to detect.

The least favourite wine was then poured, with no discernable hints of that lovely sauvignon blanc nose. On the palate the flavours were not particularly distinguishable. Its lack of distinction therefore persuaded tasters that this could well be the least expensive wine of the group.

On to the sixth and last wine and this time Sergio could detect elderberry and grass notes on the nose (another common description of the sauvignon blanc aroma) and enjoyed its fresh and crisp characteristics. Not overtly fruit forward, this suggested to the tasters that this wine could well be the second Old World sauvignon blanc.

More delicious courses then followed, including a lovely chicken in mushroom sauce, a filet mignon which surprisingly went well with the more fruit forward of the wines, and a snapper in a traditional Cayman style sauce, resplendent with tomatoes, peppers and onions. The diversity of the courses tasted proved that the sauvignon blanc grape is a real all-round winner.