February 6, 2013

Appel on Wine: Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand changes assumptions

By JOE APPEL

In wine, the simplest category to wrap one's head around has to be Sauvignon Blanc. Grass, lemons, herbs, paperwhites; crisp, dry, refreshing. Done. I know there are exceptions to the simplicity tag, from Sancerre to Alto Adige, but they're rare enough just to prove the rule.

The only thing simpler, or so I thought, is the sub-category of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. This is where the markers are so tried and true, so obvious, so known by everyone, it's almost comical: Gooseberry, grapefruit, grass. Emphatic, zippy acidity.

Go into a shop or peruse the glass-pour list at a restaurant. When you see the indigenous-sounding name and cute, Maori-influenced iconography on the label, you are perfectly set up to enjoy a bright, summery, guava-and-citrus Glass of White Wine. Right-on, invite some friends over and keep it flowing. You just positively know what you're going to get.

I did. Which is why I so rarely am drawn to the wines. A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc under $20 will provide as much illumination, gravitas and complexity as a Ke$ha song, which, OK, I'll hear it once or twice and then please, no mas. (To be fair, though, in their favor most NZ SBs provide as much energy and winking sexuality as a Ke$ha song, too, and that's a plus.)

So there I was, just happened to open a bottle of The Supernatural 2010 ($19, SoPo). And behold, the hair-raising sound of the earth shifting beneath one's feet, sucking a "category" down into its inexorable, unsympathetic maw.

I like this wine so much, but it's hard for me to distinguish everything I like about the flavors and aromas in the liquid itself (which, more below) from the very fact that it's so unlike what I thought I knew about this category.

The Supernatural is from Hawke's Bay on New Zealand's North Island, an area until recently better known for its red wines than its whites, though that is changing, rapidly. The cheeky name refers to the organic viticulture and biodynamic farming practices employed to bring the wine into being.

The packaging (postmodern, catchy label, with a beer-bottle-style crown cap) and website claim "natural" winemaking, but that's such a vague term these days that it's hard to know what it means. (Sulfites are added to the wine, which some "natural wine" proponents would say discounts it from the category.)

I know that Sauvignon Blanc on its own (as opposed to in Bordeaux, for example, when it is usually softened by blending with Semillon) is supposed to be pungent and almost raw. I love The Supernatural because it isn't. The acidity isn't the first thing you notice (though it does appear, about halfway through the tasting arc). I know Sauvignon Blanc on its own is born-ready for a bar fight. I love The Supernatural because it's so much friendlier and easygoing than that, with a fuller body, wooly and warmer.

Speaking of warmer, for the sake of all that's holy don't drink this wine right out of the fridge. So much Sauvignon Blanc has enough offputting characteristics (especially the aforementioned "paperwhite" aromas, a euphemism for "cat pee") that you need a 33-degree temp to neutralize them. Not so The Supernatural, which transmits its luxuriance and spicy aromatics, and musty, subtle cider-y quality best at maybe 15 degrees below room temp.

Also, high-honorable mention to the Mohua 2011 ($12, Nappi), another wine to throw me off my game. This one's from Marlborough, the best-known New Zealand region and responsible for 80 percent of the country's Sauvignon Blanc plantings. Less crazily sui generis but still a true stand-out, the Mohua's passionfruit vibrancy is startling, and it just exudes versatility. I'd be so happy drinking it with Asian curries or chicken tacos.

These are Sauvignon Blancs for lovers of Chenin Blanc: citrus pith, tempered by a good deal of honeysuckle, popcorn, pear and papaya. You don't love Chenin? You love Sancerre? OK, but let your guard down enough to try them anyway. Life is not only about elegance. Life just is -- in manifold iterations, none conducive to classification. Life is just chance after chance to dismantle one's assumptions, to learn.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: soulofwine.appel@gmail.com

 

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