After evaluating several 2015 and 2016 domestic sauvignon blancs last week, a thought ran through my head that was slightly unnerving. Were many of them sweet?
Then my wife, Juliann, tried a few of the wines and said something like, “Most of these are sweet.”
Sauvignon blanc is typically a dry wine, designed to work with grilled seafood dishes, simply prepared chicken, or other lighter fare. These wines were sweet enough to work fine with spicy Asian food, but might have been too soft for those who prefer totally dry wines.
Slightly sweet white wine isn’t uncommon in California. We have been making chardonnay that way for decades, following the old saying that “Americans speak dry, but drink sweet.”
At first, I imagined that the sweet sauvignon blanc phenomenon came about as a result of the popularity for sweeter chardonnays. But then I realized that other explanations could be at play.
First, many of these wines might not have been all that sweet after all, but were merely made with lower acidity to appeal to people who don’t really like very dry wine.
I had been evaluating the wines, which is best done at about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But most people drink white wines a lot colder, closer to 40 degrees. To me, that stuns and mutes the aroma and taste of most wines. To test this theory, I put a few of the “sweeter” wines into a 40- degrees refrigerator for 90 minutes.
When I re-poured them, they didn’t taste anywhere near as sweet — but they had a lot less aroma and flavor.
I then had another thought: It’s no secret that one reasons for the great success of New Zealand sauvignon blanc worldwide is that many are slightly sweet — but this is a necessity if the wines are to be balanced.
New Zealand has a cool-to-cold climate, which leaves wine makers with higher acidity, not to mention typically lower alcohols. It is thus difficult to balance the wines. Without a trace of residual sugar, the wines would be austere.
New Zealand wine makers are amazingly skilled at balancing the residual sugar, as well as the pH, the total acidity, and a couple of other factors to make their wines taste not only varietal, but also to avoid too much of the sour character that the acidity might provide.
One secret here is that New Zealand sauvignon blanc typically has lower alcohol then do most California versions, so the latter usually have a slightly broader texture. Higher alcohols give a wine a lush aftertaste that some people can mistake for softness.
It’s hard to generalize about anything when it comes to wine, but when buying young California sauvignon blanc and you see that the alcohol in a wine is 14 percent or so, it might be best to assume that the wine will be softer and perhaps slightly sweeter than a European version, such as Pouilly-Fume or Sancerre.
The average alcohol in the latter wines is about 13 percent and the acid is typically the driving force in the mid-palate.
Wines of the Week:
2016 Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc, California ($12): Lime and tropical fruit notes in the aroma of this young and vibrant white wine. There is a delicate sweetness in the mid-palate, so some people may want to chill it to improve its effective acidity. From wine maker Randy Mason.
2013 Marc Deschamps Pouilly-Fumé, Les Loges, “Le Vigne de Berge” ($22): Classic Loire Valley character in the nose of flint, wet rocks, lime, a hint of green tea and subtle spices. The wine is dry but not austere and will benefit from another few years in a cellar! Don’t chill too much! Imported by Neal Rosenthal, one of the most reliable importers in the country.