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Sauvignon Blanc

Education Reviews Wines

The Mighty South West

Photo credit: IVSO / P. Poupart
Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

From a Canadian’s perspective, France is a small country. 15 times smaller to be specific. A mere blip on the world map. Yet in terms of wine output, France is enormous. Not only in terms of sheer quantity, but also the diversity of wine styles, the number of producing regions and so on. Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne have become household names, even for you reasonable folks out there that don’t spend all of your waking moments thinking about wine. The oceans of wine coming out of the Languedoc have also assured this area pretty good visibility on the world stage. And the Loire and Rhône Valleys, with appellations like Sancerre and Châteauneuf-du-pape respectively, can hold their own quite nicely. But there is another vast wine producing area that often gets forgotten…

The South West of France is the 5th largest vineyard area in France with 47 000 hectares of vines. It cups Bordeaux to the south and east (of the right bank), extends to the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and continues south to the Spanish border and the Pyrénées mountains. The region is often a little too neatly summed up as being a cheaply priced Bordeaux alternative. While many good value Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends are to be had from places like Bergerac and the Côtes du Marmandais, there is a wealth of other grape varieties and wine styles out there.

There are 29 designated AOP (protected appellations) and 14 IGP (vin de pays) growing areas.  As well as the two mentionned above, the best known appellations, and easiest to find on most international markets, include: Madiran and Cahors (best known for their big, bold reds), AOP Fronton (lighter, violet scented reds), AOP Gaillac (where everything from still to sparkling to sweet white, rosé and red are crafted) and AOP Jurançon (where prized late harvest, sweet white wine is made). The largest territory however, is that of IGP Côtes du Gascogne, where crisp, lively, easy drinking white wines are the mainstay. Due to the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean, these wines often take on an intriguing saline note that adds to their refreshing appeal.

Given the size of the region and the diverse climate conditions and soil types, it is only natural that the grapes that grow well in one area are not suited to another.  Over 300 different varieties are grown here, with just over half native to the area. The majority of AOC wines, and many IGP wines are blends. I will give you a quick over view of some of the major players, and where to find them.

GAILLAC  COTES DU TARN                   Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

White Wine

Colombard – a major player in the production of IGP wines like Côtes de Gascogne and also in in the digéstif Armagnac. When over cropped it produces a fairly neutral white. The best examples have intense exotic fruit aromas, light body and moderate acidity.

Chenin Blanc – widespread in the eastern appellations and IGPs of the South West. Highly appreciated for its fruity, floral palate of aromas, medium body and bright acidity

Gros Manseng – a major blending component in many IGP Côtes de Gascogne, as well as dry Jurançon and Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl whites. Gros Manseng gives vibrancy and spicy notes.

Mauzac – adaptable to a wide variety of wine styles, it is used for sparkling, and still, dry and sweet wines, principally around the Gaillac area. It gives fresh orchard fruit in youth, and honeyed notes with age.

Petit Manseng – related to Gros Manseng, this grape has smaller berries with thicker skins, generally producing wines with greater aromatic complexity. The grape has the ability to produce high sugar levels while retaining fresh acidity; perfect for the sweet Jurançon dessert wines.

Sauvignon Blanc – used either as a single grape, notably in IGP designations, and as a blending element in several AOPs (Béarn, Tursan, Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl). The grape gives its characteristic citrus, gooseberry, cat pee notes as well as vibrant acidity.

Red Wine

Cabernet Franc (Bouchy, Acheria) – Though widely grown in Bordeaux and the Loire, this grape actually originated in Basque country. Slightly less tannic and more red fruit scented than its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, it nevertheless provides good structure to red blends from many AOP & IGP regions (notably Madiran, Fronton, Irouléguy)

Cabernet Sauvigon – A second stringer in the South West. It provides fragrant cassis notes, firm tannins and deep colour. It is found in the same appellations as Cabernet Franc.

Duras – One of the most oldest grapes grown in the Tarn Valley. It is a major player in Gaillac, giving finesse, deep colour, moderately firm tannins and a fruity, peppery perfume.

Fer Servadou (Fer, Pinenc, Braucol, Mansois) – Similar aromatics and structure to Cabernet Sauvignon. Blending component in many appellations, notably Marcillac, Béarn & Gaillac.

Gamay – Off spring of Pinot Noir, the Burgundian grape Gamay is bright, fresh and very red fruit driven. It is a blending component in Gaillac and many surrounding appellations.

Malbec (Cot) – Originally from the South West, Cot (as it is called there) is the principal grape in the Cahors appellation. It produces densely coloured, full bodied, structured wines with black fruit aromatics, moderately fresh acidity and firm, chewy tannins. Well crafted versions have great aging potential.

Merlot – Also offspring of Cabernet Franc (like Cabernet Sauvignon), Merlot makes an excellent blending component due to its fleshy mid-palate, rounded tannins and fragrant plum aromas. It is notably grown in Cahors as a minor blending component.

Négrette – The major grape of the Fronton appellation. It is a parent to Malbec. Négrette brings attractive violet notes, and sometimes animal and leather undertones. Fruity and medium bodied with moderate tannins, it is an ideal grape for rosé and easy drinking reds.

Syrah – A blending component in appellations like Fronton, Syrah brings elegance, fine tannins, black fruit and spiced notes.

Tannat – The principle red grape of Madiran. Named for its very firm tannic structure, the grape gives full-bodied, deeply coloured, raspberry scented reds that generally require a little time to unwind

1.ESTAING   CAHORS Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

Great Wines to Try

(What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out):

Chateau Montauriol Prestige AOP Fronton 2013 – 89pts. VW

This blend of 55% Negrette, 25% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Franc is just delicious. Attractive aromas of plum, kirsch and pepper on the nose. The palate is lively, medium bodied, showing moderate depth and complexity, with lingering dried fruit, floral and pepper flavours. Firm, yet ripe tannins frame the finish. The cedar oak imprint is quite subtle.

Where to Buy: SAQ (18.10$)

Château Montus AOP Madiran 2010 – 92pts. PW

Consistent high quality is a feature of this estate. A blend of 80% Tannat and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, this big, brooding red features complex aromatics of cherry, spice, prune and dark chocolate. Full bodied, densely structured yet velvetty on the palate, with chewy tannins and harmonious cedar oak. Long, layered finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (30.25$), LCBO (35.45$)

Château Montus AOP Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2011 – 91pts. PW

Made from 80% Petit Courbu, a little known grape from the obscure appellation of Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, this cuvée is absolutely worth discovering. Smoky citrus notes feature on the nose. Fresh, long and layered on the palate with lots of creamy lees character and well integrated toasty oak. Very stylish!

Where to Buy: SAQ (24.85$), LCBO (35.45$)

Odé d’Aydie AOP Madiran 2012 – 87pts. VW

Attractive aromas of fresh red cherries, with floral and spice undertones. Medium bodied, with lively, balanced acidity, firm tannins and subtle oak. No great aging potential, but pleasant every day drinking quality.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.35$)

Château de Gaudou “Renaissance” AOP Cahors 2012 – 87pts. PW

Pleasant earthy, animal notes on the nose, underscoring the fresh red and black fruit aromatics. Fresh acidity, full body, with attractive spiced, oak notes on the finish. This cuvée falls down a little on the finish due to the green, bitter edge on the tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.85$), LCBO (25.95$)

Domaine du Tariquet “Classic” IGP Côtes de Gascogne 2015 – 88pts VW

At only 10.5% alcohol, this is a great option for an every day house white. It is light, refreshing, crisp and lively, with lots of citrus and floral notes. Fairly simple, but nice for the price.

Where to buy: SAQ (12.95$)

South West Vineyard photos, courtesy of IVSO/ P. Poupart

Reviews Wines

A Comparative Tasting of Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc Tasting

Summer is drawing to a close. The kids are back in school, and it is time for me to kick my own studies back in to high gear if I want even a microscopic chance of passing my Master of Wine (MW) exams next June. So while most diligent students are hitting the books, I will be hitting the bottle…hard. It is an interesting sight to see a new mother rocking her baby in his bouncy chair while simultaneously blind tasting a flight of wines (cue the boos and hisses on my awesome parenting!). But that is how I will be spending the next 9 months. Each week a new flight, tasted with a fellow MW candidate, and a new tasting article for you lucky folks.

Our journey begins with a comparative tasting of Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley, Bordeaux, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa. This zesty white is generally high in acidity, dry, light bodied, with moderate alcohol; the definition of thirst quenching. Aromas range from citrus, grassy, gooseberry and mineral to more overt tropical notes, stone fruits and blackcurrant buds (the prettier, French description for the aroma Anglophones describe as “cat pee”). With the exception of sweet wines made from botrytised Sémillon/ Sauvignon Blanc blends, Sauvignon Blanc is generally meant to be drunk young (within 2 – 3 years of harvest), while the bright fruit aromas and bracing acidity are at their height.

I first discovered how seriously good Sauvignon Blanc can be on a visit to the Loire Valley, the presumed origin of the grape, shortly after I moved to France ten years ago. The charming, 11th century village of Sancerre is perched on a hilltop looking down on its vineyards and pastures. The streets are lined with signs boasting wine tastings and little cafés where my friends and I ate sharp, earthy Crottin de Chavignol goat cheese, the perfect partner for the local tart, flinty white wine. After an epic, 4-hour tasting with Alphonse Mellot in his labyrinthine cellars, complete with scantily-clad ladies astride model bi-planes strung from the ceiling, I was hooked on Sancerre. Elegant and light bodied, with searing acidity, and delicate citrus, gooseberry and mineral-rich aromatics…impossible not to love. Neighbouring Pouilly Fumé makes a similarly whites, though generally in a richer and broader style.

A school tasting trip to the Graves area South of Bordeaux revealed a totally different style of Sauvignon Blanc to me. First of all because they tend to blend with the Sémillon grape, and secondly due to the often liberal use of French oak. The acidity is still quite striking, but the wines have more body and a subtly creamy, nutty texture. Aromas include lemon, grassy notes, currant bud, all underpinned by the oak flavours.

While France is its historic home, New Zealand claims to be the new king of Sauvignon Blanc. The majority of plantings come from the cool Marlborough vineyard on the South Island. Intense, “in your face” grassy, asparagus and gooseberry aromas dominate here, with riper examples showing lots passion fruit and peach notes. Most wines are unoaked, with racy acidity, light body and moderate alcohol.

Less well known currently, but growing rapidly in reputation are the cooler coastal areas of Chile (especially the Casablanca and the San Antonio Vallys) and South Africa (Western Cape coastal region and Cape South Coast). Both countries produce a range of styles, from lean and crisp to more lush and tropical. Their Sauvignon Blancs are regularly described as being mid-way between the restrained, elegant style of the old world and the overt, heady new world offers. I had the opportunity to taste some fantastically vibrant examples from the Walker Bay area South East of Cape Town when I worked there. The ocean breezes drifting in from the South Atlantic Ocean give a zesty, saline finish to the wines.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose classic examples from the following producers (What do VW, PW & LW mean?  Click on my scoring system for the answer):

Domaine Fouassier Sancerre “Les Grands Groux” 2013 – 92pts. PW

Domaine Fouassier farms his vineyard according to organic, and where possible, biodynamic principles. This wine shows excellent Sancerre typicity with elegant aromas of lemon, green apple and white florals hints on the nose. It has bracing acidity, a light body, integrated alcohol and an intriguing chalky minerality on the medium length finish. Very pleasant and balanced. Lacks the concentration and depth of flavour of top Sancerre.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.10$)

Michel Redde “La Moynerie” Pouilly Fumé 2013 – 91pts. PW

The third generation of Redde sons are currently running this 42 hectare estate in Pouilly Fumé. Grapes planted on flint, limestone and marl soils are blended here to create a mineral-laden nose, underpinned with citrus aromas. Vibrant acidity gives way to a rounded, smooth mid-palate. The finish is lifted and mineral. Highly drinkable and good value for the price, though not especially complex.

Where to buy: SAQ (25.75$)

Château Cruzeau Pessac-Léognan 2010 – 89pts. PW

Château Cruzeau is owned by the highly reputed Bordeaux producer, André Lurton. A deeper yellow gold colour is the first indication of the richer, fuller Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc style. Intense currant bud, lemongrass, apple and oak aromas abound. Fresh, juicy acidity marks the palate, with a medium bodied, subtly creamy mid-palate and reasonable oak integration through-out. Short finish.

Where to buy: LCBO (25.25$), SAQ (24.95$)

Babich Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2014 – 93pts. LW

Family owned since 1916, this large, award winning estate offers high quality at incredible value. Pale, white gold. Surprisingly elegant; with less of the pungent grassiness of many comparably priced Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs. The nose is refined, with lemon, passionfruit, floral and subtle mineral notes. Lean, with racy acidity, lots of juicy passionfruit and lemon flavours and a soft, rounded finish. At less than 20$, this is a bargain.

Where to buy: LCBO (15.95$), SAQ (19.65$)

Caliterra “Tributo” Sauvignon Blanc (Leyda, Chile) – 85pts. VW

An entry level brand from the owners of leading Chilean winery Errazuriz. Caliterra “Tributo” is a clean, well-made but fairly simple offering, with pungent vegetal, guava and lemon notes on the nose. Crisp and light-bodied, with moderate alcohol. Easy drinking but unexciting for the price.

Where to buy: SAQ (16.95$)

Bouchard-Finlayson Walker Bay Sauvignon Blanc – 88pts. PW

This 25 year old winery sits on an incredible plot of land in the stunning Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and earth) Valley in the Walker Bay. Their house Sauvignon Blanc is an intensely aromatic offering though the lime, verbena, and grassy notes have a slightly acrid quality to them. More pleasant on the palate; smooth and light bodied with moderate acidity, lots of juicy peach and lime aromas through the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.95$)

Producers Reviews

Producer Profile – Paul-Henry Pellé

Paul-Henry Pellé

Seriously good, seriously affordable Burgundian-influenced Loire Sauvignon Blanc

I met Paul-Henry in 2005 when he was studying viticulture at the Lycée Viticole de Beaune and I was studying international wine commerce at the Beaune campus of the AgroSup Dijon. Amid the giddiness of his wine loving, party oriented crowd, he stood out from the pack. He knew how to let loose, but was just a shade quieter and wiser than the others; a bit of an old soul. We became fast friends; eating and drinking our way through Burgundy, the Loire and later South Africa.

Though he was too humble to brag about it, Paul-Henry stood to inherit a 40 hectare estate in Menetou-Salon; an AOC region in the extreme east of the Loire Valley, near Sancerre. In 2007, when his friends were heading off for overseas harvests and oenology degrees, Paul-Henry set out for home. He was to take up his responsibilities in the vines and the cellar; just 22 years old and already head of the estate. His father had passed away when Paul-Henry was only 10 years old. Since then, his mother had kept up the domaine’s excellent reputation with the help of a top quality hired oenologist, awaiting the next generation’s coming of age. Paul-Henry took up his charge with quiet dignity, rising to the challenge of managing staff who had known him since he was in diapers.

Over the next couple of years, I visited Paul-Henry a number of times for meals at the legendary C’heu l’Zib in Menetou-Salon (a hearty and animated, family-style Berrichon restaurant), for Paul-Henry’s legendary summer Garden Parties and, most importantly, for tastings at the winery. The Domaine Henry Pellé, named for Paul-Henry’s grandfather, is based in the village of Morogues. It is a pretty spot with stone houses and a lovely, old church, surrounded by green meadows, vineyards and forests. The Pelle’s Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir vineyards are dotted through the communes of Morogues, neighbouring Menetou-Salon and Sancerre.

As modest as ever, Paul-Henry would tell you that the poise and complexity of his wines is all due to terroir; Kimmeridgean clay-limestone marl soils made up of vast multitudes of fossilized oyster shells (locally called Terres Blanches). His first act upon returning home was to cut out all pesticides and herbicides, and start nourishing the soil with homegrown composts. His time in Burgundy had convinced him of the importance of working each parcel individually, to achieve a unique expression from each plot.

The same rigour is employed in the winery. Wherever possible grapes move to fermenting tanks by gravity flow and conveyor belts to avoid harsh pumping. Fermentation is temperature controlled in stainless steel and neutral oak vats. The top white cuvées are aged on their lees for added texture, while the top reds see subtle barrel ageing.  The wines are then bottled unfiltered to preserve their aromatic purity. Paul-Henry will tell you that his goal is to craft fresh, lively, balanced wines. But his best wines go so much further. They are elegant and intensely aromatic; an enticing procession of fresh, vibrant attack, creamy mid-palate and lifted, mineral-rich finish.

Sadly, Ontario readers, none are currently sold at the LCBO so you will just have to drive to Québec to stock up:

Domaine Henry Pellé Menetou-Salon Les Bornés 2014 – 89pts. PW

Les bornés means clay soil in the local Berrichon dialect. This easy-drinking white is aged 6 months in stainless steel on fine lees. The 2014 vintage is crisp and refreshing with intense aromas of citrus and quince. Light bodied with a hint of creaminess on the mid-palate and a lifted finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (20.65$)

Domaine Henry Pellé Morogues 2014 – 91pts. PW

A blend of 7 parcels from among the highest altitude slopes of the appellation, this Menetou-Salon is pure and racy, with a refined citrus fruit and white floral nose. More depth and textured than Les Bornes, this cuvee has a subtly saline notes on the palate and a lively, mineral-rich finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (23.35$ for 750mL / 13.55$ for 375mL)

Domaine Henry Pellé Menetou Salon “Les Blanchais” 2013 – 94pts PW

Les Blanchais is a single parcel cuvée from one of Pellé’s top vineyard sites in Menetou-Salon. The clay-limestone marl is interspersed with silex; a complexity of soils that Pellé feels speaks through the wine. The 50 year-old vines lend power and concentration, with intense citrus, grassy, floral and mineral notes on the nose and palate. There is a pleasing fullness to this wine, and a long, layered finish. Still taut, needs a few years’ cellaring or a couple of hours decanting to fully unwind.

Where to buy: SAQ (29.70$)

No Domaine Henry Pellé reds are currently imported, but you can contact the local agent for more information: www.vinsbalthazard.com

Reviews Wines

Around the World in 6 Summer Whites

Cono Sur Winery Bicycles

So, while living in France, surrounded by stunning vineyards and oceans of incredible wine, is fantastic…. The downside is the lack of diversity. Not only can you not find Italian or Spanish wines, it is hard to get wines from other regions of France. My mission since arriving back in Canada has been to taste widely, at all different prices…because I can! Here is a mishmash of what I’ve been drinking this week (don’t worry, I have friends. I didn’t finish all these wines myself).

We start our tour in Australia. D’Arenberg is an excellent winery in the McLaren Vale region of South Australia. They are probably best known for their deliciously juicy Shiraz and Grenache offerings. I was intrigued by this interesting white blend: Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, both known for their light body, bracing acidity and purity of fruit aromas, blended with Marsanne and Roussanne, Rhône varieties that offer elegance and rich, nutty flavour (Marsanne), body and structure (Roussanne).

Over to New Zealand for some….you guessed it…Sauvignon Blanc! No trip to the liquor store in the summer seems complete without coming face to face with a display of Kim Crawford, so I figured I should give it a swirl and see what all the fuss is about. Marlborough is New Zealand largest and best known wine region. The combination of cool nights, hot days, low rainfall and free-draining, moderately fertile soil makes for racy, intense Sauvignon Blanc with exuberant tropical fruit, citrus and grassy profiles.

On to Chile, to taste Cono Sur Viognier. Renowned for their excellent value wines, Cono Sur is also a leading name in sustainability. The Viognier grape becomes notoriously flabby and oily when grown in overly hot climates where acidity levels aren’t high enough to balance the fruit and alcohol. If handled correctly however, Viognier is the poster child for lush, hedonistic whites. At a mere 10$ a bottle, I was curious to see what this wine would offer.

Next up, the Loire Valley in France, with the classic summer seafood wine: Muscadet. La Cave du Coudray “Réserve du Chiron” is a « Sur Lie » style, meaning that the wine has spent time in contact with the dead yeast cells, a process which imparts a rich, creaminess to the wine. Classic Muscadet is lean and dry, with refreshing acidity, lots of minerality and a creamy mid palate.

Italy has become known for their Pinot Grigio whites in recent years. Unfortunately, the popularity of this grape has led to mass production and some fairly neutral, boring wines. Masi, a highly respected Veneto producer, offers an interesting twist with their “Masianco” white by blending in Verduzzo. This little known grape, native to North-Eastern Italy, is fresh, with herbal and honeyed notes. I wanted to see what the Verduzzo would bring to this Pinot Grigio.

Last stop Spain. While Rioja is well-known for its savoury, full bodied reds, the whites generally go unnoticed. And this, despite the fact that until 1975, more white than red was purportedly planted in the region. The El Meson Rioja Blanco is 100% Viura (aka Macabeu in southern France, or Macabeo in the rest of Spain). This grape is often associated with neutral, mass produced wines. However, when not overcropped, and picked early, it can offer crisp, lively wines with great minerality and a pleasing honeyed note.

The verdicts?

What do VW, PW & LW mean?  Click on my scoring system for the answer.

D’Arenberg “The Stump Jump” White 2014 – 85pts. VW

Medium, yellow gold. Intense nose of green apples and citrus with floral and exotic fruit undertones. Fresh and vibrant; just shy of medium bodied with moderate alcohol, a touch of residual sugar and a zesty finish. Easy drinking, yet fails to highlight the individual character of the grapes in the blend.

Grapes: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne

Where to buy: LCBO (14.95$), SAQ (17.35$)

Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2014 – 88pts. PW

Pale, straw yellow. Lively and refreshing, with aromas of lime, gooseberry, passionfruit and underlying herbal notes. Dry, light bodied and crisp, with moderate alcohol and a smooth, citrus dominant finish. Very pleasant, but for the price it lacks individuality and complexity.

Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc

Where to buy: LCBO (19.95$), SAQ (21.00$)

Cono Sur “Bicicleta” Viognier 2014 – 90pts. VW

Pale, white gold. Heady aromas of candied peach, tropical fruits and floral notes. Lush, medium bodied with moderate acidity, and juicy fruitiness throughout. A touch of bitterness and heat on the finish but, at this price, still represents killer value.

Grapes: Viognier

Where to buy: LCBO (9.95$)

La Cave du Coudray “Réserve du Chiron” Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2013 – 88pts. VW

Pale, yellow gold. Delicate aromas of citrus and melon with subtle minerality. Dry and balanced, with fresh acidity, a subtle, creamy lees note on the mid-palate and moderate alcohol. Citrus and mineral notes on the finish. Lacking some depth and richness for a Sur Lie offering, but overall worth picking up at bottle at this price.

Grapes: Melon de Bourgogne

Where to buy: LCBO (13.95$)

Masi “Masianco” 2014 – 87pts. VW

Pale, white gold. Delicate floral aromas with undertones of pear and honeydew melon. Crisp, light to medium bodied with a smooth, rounded texture and hint of juicy sweetness on the finish. A versatile wine; easy to pair with light summer fare. Fair value.

Grapes: Pinot Grigio, Verduzzo

Where to buy: LCBO (15.00$), SAQ (16.95$)

El Meson Rioja Blanco 2014 – 90pts. VW

Pale yellow gold. Restrained nose with hints of honeysuckle, lemongrass, peach and grassy notes. Dry, zesty and lean, with lots of juicy peach and citrus, good balance and a lifted, lightly mineral finish. A perfect, aperitif wine for hot summer days. Highly drinkable.

Grapes: Viura

Where to buy: www.wineonline.ca (12.95$)