Liquids: Sauvignon Blanc

If the gourmand James Beard, the uncontested champion of cream and butter, were still alive and chomping, I have no doubt that he would try to steal sommelier David Weitzenhoffer away from the hallowed halls of Locke-Ober. Why? Because when asked what food he likes most to pair with sauvignon blanc, Weitzenhoffer answers without hesitation: “Mayo. Anything with mayo.”

Weitzenhoffer is not being a smart aleck. He’s demonstrating that sauvignon blanc is a terrifically versatile food wine. “It’s fantastic with shellfish and oysters and has enough acidity to cut through the richness of dishes with cream and butter,” he says. That’s why he pours it alongside sandwiches of chicken salad, tuna salad, or grilled veggies with creamy dressing when he’s at home.

If it’s been a while since you’ve tried sauvignon blanc, or if you’re hooked on chardonnay, now’s the time for a refreshing change. With temperatures rising, our bodies crave refreshment through acidity (think lemonade), and no other grape in the wine spectrum comes close to delivering the thirst-quenching acidity of sauvignon blanc. Though originally cultivated in France, this parent of the cabernet sauvignon grape is grown around the world, displaying many personalities, all of which share a common thread of pronounced acidity and grassy, herbaceous aromas and flavors. In a word, they’re crisp. But which one’s right for you?

Lorenzo Savona, resident wine guru at the Fireplace, says sauvignon blanc has racier acidity than most chardonnays, which makes it better suited for food. “If you like California chardonnay, I’d steer you toward a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, perhaps a Seresin [$17] or Brancott [$30] [both from the Marlborough region],” he says. I’m with him on that, and would add two more from Marlborough: the Crossings and Cloudy Bay. “If you like European-style chardonnay [a.k.a. white Burgundy],” Savona continues, “I’d recommend white Bordeaux, such as Château Smith Haut Lafitte or Château Carbonnieux.”

With all due respect to Bordeaux, I’d have to say the best sauvignon blancs in France are grown in the Loire Valley, where they are known by the names of the places where they are produced, such as Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé. I recently tasted two wines I liked very much from each of those appellations by Pascal Jolivet that are crisp and tart with a great flinty quality. Weitzenhoffer loves Loire whites, too, especially those from the Menetou-Salon region, just southwest of Sancerre.

“They’re the poor man’s Sancerre,” he says. “We also have from the Loire an Alphonse Mellot Sancerre [$32] and Ladoucette ‘La Poussie’ [$47], both of which would be great with oysters.”

The name Pouilly-Fumé often garners much confusion because of its similarity to both Pouilly-Fuissé (which is the name of a chardonnay district in Burgundy) and Fumé Blanc (which is a fantasy name created by Robert Mondavi). Back in the ’60s, Mondavi introduced a dry, oaky-style sauvignon blanc he called “Fumé Blanc” at a time when most sauvignon blancs were semisweet. It was easier for Americans to pronounce than the word “Pouilly,” which, by the way, sounds like “poo-yee.” Thanks to Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc, sauvignon blanc is now the second-best-selling white varietal from California, and its popularity in this country has spawned its production in many other parts of the world.

Though critics complain that oak in California sauvignon blancs makes them nearly indistinguishable from chardonnay, I could name a few producers of elegant styles that balance oak and acidity nicely, including Rudd, Geyser Peak, Foley Estates, Rochioli, Groth, Cakebread Cellars, and Matanzas Creek. The best bargain of them all, however, is Kenwood from Sonoma Valley, which retails for about $12. Similar bargains abound from South America. From Argentina look for Trapiche and Santa Julia; from Chile seek out Casa Lapostolle, Undurraga, Carmen, and La Palma.

David Raines, wine director at Gordon’s Fine Wines, disagrees. “I don’t much care for California sauvignon blanc anymore,” he says emphatically. “They need to come from a cool climate, such as Sancerre, South Africa, or New Zealand.” Asked to list a few of his favorites, Raines spouted off Weitzenhoffer’s aforementioned Alphonse Mellot Sancerre ($15.99), Lucien Crochet Sancerre ($19.99), and Henri Bourgeois Sancerre “Jadis”($29.99). “And from South Africa I like Mulderbosch [$19.99],” he says, naming one of my own favorite wines.

Howard Rubin, the general manager and wine buyer at Bauer Wines, says he prefers a sauvignon blanc from Tuscany’s famed red wine producer Tenuta dell’Ornellaia called Poggio alle Gazze ($22.99). “I’m also high on Goldwater from Marlborough, New Zealand [$17.99],” Rubin adds, “and from the U.S. I think Voss from Napa [$20] is great because there’s no wood on that wine; just the aroma of fresh mowed hay and lemongrass.”

Back at Locke-Ober, Weitzenhoffer is pondering the menu Lydia Shire will prepare for a wine dinner he’s hosting on 6/26, called “Summertime Sauvignon Blanc.” “Well, there’ll be goat cheese on the menu,” he says, “and lima beans, and asparagus, but after that, I’m not sure.” It would be safe to assume, however, that if mayo does show up on a plate, it surely will not be Hellmann’s.