A Master of Wine (MW) is a title earned by a person who passes a rigorous battery of wine tests; there are only about 40 or so people in the entire world who hold this degree. One is a British chap named Clive Coates. Once Mr. Coates was asked by the Society of Masters of Wine to address his peers and other very serious wine snobs at one of their highfalutin seminars, on the subject of sauvignon blanc. He walked up to the microphone with a glass of the wine, took a great whiff, and stated with a straight face and the utmost sincerity, "it smells…as it should…like…cat pee."
Most wine authorities don't use such crude language -- they describe the aroma as "gooseberries." Personally, I've never seen nor smelled a gooseberry, and if the former term is good enough for an MW, it's good enough for Vino Joe. But why in the world would anyone want to drink something that smells like cat pee?
In fact, the smell isn't quite as awful as it sounds -- it's really more of a grassy, herbal aroma -- but it does put off a number of people. Regardless, sauvignon blanc is the second-most popular white wine (after chardonnay), and it is grown in regions all over the globe. Much of its popularity in the USA can be directly attributed to wine marketing genius Robert Mondavi, who in the early 1970s began bottling sauvignon blanc and labeling it "Fumé Blanc" (a tribute to the sauvignon blanc wines made in the Loire Valley, France area called "Pouilly Fumé"). The wine was a brilliant success and as a result, everybody in California began making their own sauvignon blancs.
Unfortunately, the marketing success led to overproduction, and it wasn't long before most of the California sauvignon blancs were bland and uninteresting. The aforementioned Loire Valley produces the purest expression of sauvignon blanc: grassy, herbal aromas dominating the nose and fresh, dry, crisp citrus flavors, with hints of stone/mineral. This "pure" sauvignon blanc character is replicated, to a degree, in the wines made in New Zealand; in fact, many people prefer the examples from kiwi country because they also have inviting tropical fruit tones.
Nonetheless, I tasted through about two dozen sauvignon blancs from California (tough job, but someone had to do it), and discovered one that was worthy of my sparse ducats: Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2002. It has the open, fresh, clean, bright fruit aroma I expect from the grape, including the distinctive hint of herbal/grassiness that makes it what it is -- and though the "cat pee" element is evident, it is not overpowering. In the mouth this wine again is clean (i.e., no oak or sugariness obstructing the fruit), with tasty lime and grapefruit flavors. The acidity is high, which gives a nice crisp balance to the fruit and also allows the wine to match well with a variety of foods. For example, I successfully matched it with crab cakes, tuna tartar, goat cheese, grilled chicken and chicken caesar salad (though not all in one sitting).
In addition to the great taste of this wine, it also has two other benefits: it's easy to find and it's cheap; I picked it up for about eight bucks. If you're willing to double that, head over to the New Zealand aisle in your favorite wine shop, and look for
Goldwater, The Crossings, Brancott or Glazebrook. And if you have an Andrew Jackson burning a hole in your pocket, go for the real McCoy: Sancerre (sahn-SAIR) or Pouilly-Fume (pooey-foo-MAY), both from the Loire Valley. Pascal Jolivet, Lucien Crochet, Didier Dagueneau and Ladoucette are all reliable labels.
Send any questions, comments or wine stories to
For even more info on wine, visit our Vices