Know your plonk from your blanc
A LARGE part of the pleasure of enjoying wine is to match it with food. Some wines seem superbly adjusted to certain foods and the main match with seafood is, of course, Sauvignon Blanc.
They were made for each other. However, how does one distinguish sauvignon blanc from sauvignon plonk?
Looking back at how the French make sauvignon in the Loire Valley, the regions of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, we find a relatively unassuming delicate dry white wine from a cool climate.
It is only by seeing what Marlborough in New Zealand (land of the long white cloudy bay sauvignon blanc) has been able to do with the variety can we understand why the Marlborough style became so popular around the world.
Suddenly here were all these new herby, citrus, tropical fruit aromas abounding in a glass coming from the high sunshine hours in the Wairau Valley, a very particular regional 'terroir'.
What we sense on the nose is a wide aromatic spectrum from cut grass, tinned peas, gooseberry and asparagus to melon, pineapple, papaya and passion fruit.
What a combination and no wonder at its popularity.
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With its high natural acidity (too high when young), it is an ideal wine to accompany rich seafood, especially shellfish, and makes it perfectly suited to our coastal culture.
I once went through the unpleasant experience of having to taste 40 brand new sauvignons before lunch. Three-month-old sauvignons with a high acid, really "green" taste showed the wines were not ready for consumption as yet but they were available in the shops.
Our southern hemisphere harvest is in March so please try to leave a sauvignon for 12 to 24 months to really appreciate it.
The year of production is always printed on the label.
To get the best of Marlborough try a wine over $20 and you will find a much more subtle, elegant, balanced sauvignon, some even with barrel age, an uncommon thing with sauvignon.
A part of that clean freshness in the New Zealand style has come from the dairy industry.
Instead of old copper pipes, wooden barrels etc. we now use stainless steel tanks and plastic pipes.
The revolution of the widespread use of screw caps has not only made consumption easier but retains the freshness of a wine, unlike cork.
Wonderful as it is, Marlborough is not the only area for this grape in New Zealand. Hawkes Bay produces a sweeter, fruitier style of "savvie", softer with less acid.
Some of the best value sauvignon comes from Chile, believe it or not, and South Africa makes a more-than-decent style.
Australia, unfortunately is limited to the high altitude areas to produce sauvignon but no particular region is clearly better than another.
Our wine gift to seafood is semillon, (sem-ee-on). It is grown brilliantly in the Hunter Valley and provides a softer more lateral alternative to sauvignon.
An aroma of lemon emanates from semillon and you can soon see why lemon and fish are a traditional match.
This grape covers a band of aroma from citrus to herb and honey and the good ones can be just gorgeous when long aged.
Semillon can live easily to ten or 20 years and tasting the deep honey in old semillon elevates the white wine experience to an entirely new level.
Now days you will often find the famous blend of semillon with Sauvignon Blanc, sometimes labelled SSB or SBS depending on which grape is dominant in the final blend.
Western Australia and in particular Margaret River is the most conducive region to this style.
Semillon sauvignon blanc is also famous in Bordeaux for its sweet, botrytis/sauterne wines and Margaret River is closest to Bordeaux (ocean breeze, southern west coast of a continent etc.) in climate but makes the SSB in a dry style.
Our dependable white friend pinot gris covers most light style foods but when we want to match fish and wine it is not always white wine with fish.
The cousin of pinot gris is pinot noir. Think pink, so pink fish like salmon for example will accept a pink wine.
Pinot noir as a light red can be a more balanced wine than the acidic whites but as always keep attention that an accompanying sauce does not dominate the initial wine and food flavours.
Did I mention champagne and oysters? Another time, Cheers.