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Serious Grape: Stellar Sauvignon Blanc for $18 and Up

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[Photo: Grgich Hills Estate]

I usually consider Sauvignon Blanc to be a summer wine, but as you move up the price ladder, wines made from the grape become worthy of a special occasion, and perfect for pairing with savory fall foods. Looking for a special bottle to start off a fancy fall dinner party? Consider a bottle aged by the winemaker such as Cloudy Bay's ethereal Te Koko or a golden Sauvignon Blanc from Kalin Cellars.

If you think Sauvignon Blanc is a just a throwaway thirst-quencher, a wine to please margarita-lovers, check out what we found in our high-end explorations. These are serious wines made with care.

My Top Pick

There's wine that tastes great, and then there's wine that's so stunning that it stops you in your tracks. While the standard Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc is fine (if perhaps a little overpriced), the Cloudy Bay Te Koko (2006) is beautiful. The grapes for this wine are harvested on a cool evening and allowed to ferment with wild yeast. After a partial malolactic fermentation, it's left in the barrel on the yeast lees for almost a year, and held for several years before release. If you like champagne, this is a still wine to seek out, with its aromatic hints of apple turnovers, vanilla beans, jasmine, and Asian pears. The oak influence is present, but finely tuned, and the wine manages to retain the fresh, light character of the varietal (though in a blind tasting you'd be more likely to guess Bordeaux than New Zealand). This luxurious wine would be lovely with poached shrimp, seared scallops, or sashimi. Find this wine, $40-50.

More Stellar Sauvignon Blanc

20100928channing.jpgWhile not quite as transcendent as the Te Koko, the Sauvignon from Channing Daughters on Long Island had some similar qualities (and is a bit more affordable.) This sleek, mineral-driven wine had a hint of spicy oak without being heavy, delicate notes of anise and lava rocks, nutmeggy applesauce and sprightly acidity. Serve with fresh crab. Find this wine, $24.

Another favorite was the Tramin Sauvignon (2009) from Alto Adige. With razor-focus and minerals and herbs up front, this wine is perfumed and well-balanced, reminding us of tart gooseberry, honeydew, oyster shells, lavender, Earl Grey tea, and a squeeze of lime juice. It's very smooth and fresh; an elegant wine. Find this wine, $20.

Just looking at Kalin Cellars' latest Sauvignon Blanc release, you know you're in for something different. For starters, it was made in 1997. That's right—'97. "Ever wine we offer is a library wine," says winemaker (and professor emeritus of microbiology) Terry Leighton. Sometimes they release wines out of order, depending on how they're each evolving in the bottle. The juice is fully fermented in French oak barrels and bottled without filtration. It pours amber-gold, and has a slightly spicy, honeyed scent. The wine is smooth and almost shockingly rich, with hints of quince, lemon tea, smoke, and spiced apple cider. It's earthy, weird and wonderful, and would be amazing on the Thanksgiving table or served with butternut squash ravioli. If wine can have umami, this one does. Find this wine, $30-39.

The Grgich Hills Estate Napa Valley Fumé Blanc (2008) is the kind of Sauvignon Blanc I dream about. The scent is a cloud of lemon pound cake and white grapefruit, and the wine is full bodied and rich, but with gorgeous cleansing acidity. This wine is smooth, smooth, smooth. The undertone of neutral oak doesn't overpower the fresh fruit. We tasted flat leaf parsley and thyme, a hint of green apple and underripe mango. Anyone who thinks biodynamic wines are all funky might be surprised by this one; it's pretty darn clean, refreshing, and rich. We'd pair it with scallops or salmon grilled rare, and we'll be saving up our pennies for another bottle. Find this wine, $22-30.

We also enjoyed the 2007 Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc from the Mt. Veeder district in Western Napa County. Only 501 cases of this wine were produced, and it's worth tracking down. The scent had hints of freshly baked bread and spicy apple butter. This wine had a delicately tart acidity layered atop notes of baked apples, herbs, and musty cedar boxes. This is a perfect Sauvignon Blanc for fall, with its crabapple and cider notes, hints of nutmeg and flowers. It's amazing with goat cheese, but we'd also love to pair it with pumpkin soup. Find this wine, $25-30.

The focused, beautifully expressive Craggy Range Te Muna Road Sauvignon Blanc (2008) is a wine I'd love to buy by the case. It's intensely fragrant, with notes of orange peel, craberry, flowers, and creamy tart yogurt. It floods your mouth with flavor: tangy tangerines, pineapples, and papayas. Limestone-studded soil gives this wine a smooth minerality that's perfect for balancing the juicy fruit. Everything is balanced and harmonious in this wine; it's a wonderful example of what New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc can be. Very well priced for the quality. Find this wine, $16-20.

Also Recommended

As we stuck our noses in a cloudy unfiltered glass of Grey Stack Rosemary's Block 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, my sipping companion immediately said the scent reminded her of peach gummy rings. This wine is seriously aromatic, with floral and apricot notes (and yes, those peach candies.) The flavors are rounded and juicy without being overripe, sunny but with just enough structure and acidity to hold it together. We tasted Asian pear and canned mandarin orange—it's a fun, exuberant wine, though some serious sippers may not find it quite as complex as they'd hoped for the price. Find this wine, $25-29.

You Can Do Better

One person's favorite wine may be another person's drain pour. You may love these wines—plenty of critics and wine lovers do. But we'll be hogging the wines above instead. For us, the pleasure-to-cost ratio of the wines that follow didn't quite add up.

I can't recommend the Illumination Sauvignon Blanc (2008) from the Quintessa Estate in Napa Valley without hesitation. This wine has won critical raves, and I can see why. It has a rich mouthfeel and luscious, golden and sunny flavors. The fragrant fruit blooms as this wine warms. There are hints of hay, grass, honeydew, and butterscotch. But it's lacking in varietal character; there's so much alcohol in each sip (it's a whopping 14.2% ABV) that it overshadows any fresh Sauvignon Blanc flavors. You could drink this one blind and think it's California Chardonnay (with a little lingering heat.) This one's not really for Sauvignon Blanc lovers. Find this wine, $33-41.

In the sixties, Robert Mondavi coined the term "Fumé Blanc" in order to position his wines as more upscale than the cheap California bulk wines that were popular at the time. (He hoped "Fumé" would make customers think of fancy French Pouilly-Fumé.) The 2008 Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc Reserve is everything this winery is known for—bold and luxurious, big and oaky. This To Kalon vineyard wine is fully barrel-fermented and aged with the yeast lees in oak barrels to add even more richness. We smelled lychee and popcorn butter on the nose, and were struck with how velvety and thick the mouthfeel was. Toasty vanilla notes are especially present on the finish, but there's a squeeze of citrusy acidity to balance it. We were reminded of toasted pine nuts and buttery poached pears, and coconut milk. The oak was way too overpowering for me, but plenty of folks will find this wine to be a treat. We'd serve it with green curry with shrimp. One warning: This stuff is strong at 14.6% ABV. Find this wine, about $39.

I had really high hopes for the Cakebread Cellars Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc—I'd heard only great things about Cakebread's wines. But I must admit that their 2009 Sauvignon Blanc was just too alcoholic for me—though there were classic hints of pomelo and and cat's pee (that's a common tasting note, I promise), canary melon and ginger tea, the alcohol flavor stuck out too much for this wine to feel balanced. Find this wine, $25-33.

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