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Cut through the white noise with Sauvignon Blanc

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It's the second week of July, hot and humid. You're looking for a bottle of white wine that you can sip inattentively while you're cooking dinner—a quick fish sauté, perhaps—but it also needs to have the substance to accompany that fish, which will have, say, a lemon-herb-butter sauce. It also needs to be cheap enough that you won't regret pouring some of it into the pan to enrich the sauce.

There seems to be no end to the parade of obscure and often boring white wines. Some are humdrum (Gruner Veltliner); some vary suspiciously in quality (Albariño); some drip with hip but are mostly just novelties (Txakoli); some are almost willfully insipid (Gavi and Soave and all that industrial Pinot Grigio). Most of the rest are hard to find or impossible to remember: just so much white noise.

What to do? Hidden in plain sight is an old favorite, too easily forgotten and generally getting its best expression from French and American winemakers: Sauvignon Blanc.

Common as it seems, Sauvignon Blanc boasts ancestral nobility: its apparently inadvertent cross-breeding with Cabernet Franc, in the 18th century, created what we now consider perhaps the most aristocratic of red grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon. Sauvignon Blanc is also a component of the hallowed dessert wines of Sauternes.

Plenty of Sauvignon Blanc is out there, and much of it is bad. Any product made in ubiquitous quantity—white wine, action films, lawn mowers—will primarily be duds. Yet there are some compelling Sauvignon Blancs from northern Italy, such as those by Elena Walch and Movia. New Zealand has drunk up much of the international market share, and if you like grapefruit juice you'll love the Kiwi versions. Most of these are made expediently in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, geared toward producing lots of fresh juice.

There's nothing wrong with steel fermentation, but it rarely captures a wine's full shape. It's like the difference between digital and analog music recording: the former may have clarity and precision, but it lacks the latter's warmth and richness. The fullness of Sauvignon Blanc layers green and yellow orchard fruits over a naturally assertive underlying essence. If grown conscientiously, and on appropriate soil, the grape has the concentration and acidity to mature gracefully in neutral oak or other less austere, non-steel vessels before bottling, allowing it to achieve dinner-worthy weight and complexity.

Most of these come from the U.S. and France. There is Sancerre, of course, Sauvignon Blanc's flagship wine and goat cheese's classic pairing. Proceed with caution: Much Sancerre is expensive, and many of the more affordable bottles are blowsy or brittle, sometimes just capitalizing on the name.

American Sauvignon Blanc (sometimes labeled "Fumé Blanc") can suffer from what plagues much American wine: too much new oak. No wine does well with this heavy-handed treatment, but it's particularly rough on Sauvignon Blanc, whose innate acidity gives it its founding character.

Nonetheless, there is some excellent barrel-aged Sauvignon Blanc from California. In fact, some of California's most revered red wine gods, such as Araujo and Spottswoode, make outstanding Sauvignon Blanc.

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