Sauvignon Misunderstood

John Buechsenstein likes Riesling — always has. Why, Riesling was among the first wines he helped to make, back when he was just starting out at Joseph Phelps in the early '80s, fresh out of UC Davis and working with California wine pioneer Walter Schug. He admires Riesling's acidity and, especially, its aromatics. ("It has marvelous turpines," he says, referring to the volatile flavor compounds that leap up from a wine and tickle the olfactory bulb.) It's just that he doesn't think it merits the title of "Most Versatile, Most Food-Friendly White Wine on the Planet." For that, he turns to Sauvignon Blanc.

Why? "Riesling doesn't have the pyrazines, and hardly any of the thiols that Sauvignon Blanc has." Pyrazines "are what's responsible for the way a bell pepper smells, along with lemongrass and a whole host of herbal smells. And gooseberry, which smells vegetal and berrylike at the same time." They also give Sauvignon Blanc its characteristic grassy character — "green grass, dry grass, hay..." Thiols, on the other hand, offer up aromas of "passionfruit, grapefruit, pineapple guava, and mango." Also cat's pee. These flavors, notes Buechsenstein, "are very well elaborated these days, thanks in part to some great researchers in Bordeaux, and also in New Zealand. The entire country of New Zealand has mobilized all its universities for what they call the Sauvignon Project. They're teasing out what all of these individual aromas are."

It's not terribly surprising that New Zealand should be leading the charge on this one. They've gone a long way toward making the wine their own — starting with their willingness to make Sauvignon Blanc that tastes like itself. "In the late '70s and '80s," recalls Buechsenstein, "we were making Sauvignon Blanc in California that was fruit-driven and grassy. People said, 'What's that?' Our response was, 'That's what Sauvignon Blanc fruit tastes like. Those are legitimate varietal flavors.' They said, 'I can't stand it.' So a lot of Sauvignon Blanc was either pulled out, mixed into white blends, or made in that Fumé Blanc style." (Fumé Blanc being Robert Mondavi's fanciful name for the grape as he rendered it — swaddled in a heavy layer of oak.) "We had 20 years of denial, making Sauvignon Blanc into the poor man's Chardonnay." What really sparked the grape's comeback was "the New Zealand wine industry. In the later '80s, they started bringing in Cloudy Bay and Kim Crawford, and people tasted it and said, 'Wow, that's racy, that's zappy. We love that.' And those of us who had been wringing our hands all that time in California said, 'Well, yeah.'"

As it turned out, a few other regions were making Sauvignon Blanc as well. Some (Chile, South Africa) were relative newcomers to the wine scene; others (Austria, Slovenia, Italy, France) had been at it for quite some time. "One of the reasons it's so fascinating for me is that it expresses itself in different schools of flavor."

The schools:

1. Stylized. "People stylize to beat the band," even in these days of varietal correctness. "They'll do anything with anything, just to see if it will sell." That touches a little bit on...

2. Fruity. In order to contain all those fruity esters and thiols, you've got to find a way to keep your juice from releasing them into the oxygen. You've got to practice what Buechsentein calls "reductive winemaking. Basically, it's a lot more anal" than more traditional, "oxidative" practices. "You've got to take care of the grapes, keep them cold, keep them away from oxygen. In New Zealand, much of the Sauvignon is machine-harvested, and it comes in looking like lentil soup. That would be a big tub of oxygenated juice, so they take CO2 pellets and throw them in. The CO2 just bubbles out, which makes it less likely that oxygen will go in, and the truck goes down the road looking like a witch's cauldron." It's a New World sort of practice — better winemaking through technology.

Not to say that slightly oxidized Sauvignon Blanc is a bad thing. Wine made with a little less fussing over total control produces...

3. Veggie-Grassy-Herbal. "They're two legitimate styles," says Buechsenstein. "It's just that these grapes may get more handling, more oxygen contact. Winemakers may rely on spontaneous fermentation instead of inoculation. They may not control temperature as much during fermentation. They may age the wine in passive oak." It all sounds a little old school, and in fact, it is. "A lot of times, the Old World wines are more austere, leaner. Minerality seems to crop up more often."

The result: a varietal that varies widely depending on the terroir and winemaking practices that surround it. Eventually, wine-friendly chef John Ash and longtime winemaker/winery manager Paul Dolan hit upon the idea of starting a company that would market one varietal — Sauvignon Blanc — in order to showcase its tremendous variability. They would pull from all over the world (giving them the delicious advantage of new releases every six months, thanks to the reversed growing seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres), and they would build a brand: Sauvignon Republic.

Ash and Dolan turned to Buechsenstein to be their Chief Explorer, a title he happily accepted. "I'll do a year's worth of homework in advance," he explains. "I'll get to know people. Before I go to an area, I'll have tasted a lot of wine and made contact with a lot of people. I tell everybody our production mission, and there are always people who want to work with us. I taste everybody's wines, look at their facilities, make sure they can carry it off. Eventually, we narrow it down to one producer who will work with us, help us to locate growers, buy fruit, and vinify it. I supervise, albeit from a distance. I talk to people all the time, and then, finally, I go over to work on a blend," to be released under the Sauvignon Republic label. So far, the company sells wine from California, New Zealand, and South Africa, and Buechsenstein has found an agreeable producer in Italy. Eventually, he plans to carry wines from all eight regions.

It's notable that his first three wines are New World -- and that every one of them is under screwcap. A modern touch, but one that may eventually become standard, even in such a tradition-rich winegrowing nation as France. "They're starting to go through wholesale changes over in France, because wine is not selling. I think exports are down 30--40 percent from France to North America in the last few years. People are going out of business. So the EU is loosening up policies about things that it used to prohibit, things that will allow the producer to compete a little bit better."

But while that might one day mean Screwcaps for All, such a policy also carries risks. It's part of the reason why Sauvignon Republic exists. "Wherever you go in the Sauvignon Blanc world," says Buechsenstein, "people are upgrading. They're replanting vineyards, trying to access good technology, trying to clean up their act. But in many cases, I fear this is going to be at the expense of some of those traditional flavors, those things we associate with terroir in certain regions. We have to guard against this. One of our visions is to try to educate people about these flavors and their specific origins, so that people will learn to appreciate them. If no one appreciates them, there will be no demand, and someday, all our white wines will taste alike. We want to glory in this diversity; we want to emphasize it and support it."

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