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Jefford on Monday: Therapy with Jackie

Let me own up. I have a Sauvignon Blanc problem. It’s the variety of choice for millions, yet it really only gets my pulse racing if its creator has taken the precaution of dissolving it in a greater volume of Sémillon first, and ideally fermenting it in a tight-grained oak barrel with lots of creamy lees contact.

jefford on monday.

Time, perhaps, to seek help. I ordered a copy of Jacqueline Friedrich’s Earthly Delights from The Garden of France Volume 1: The Kingdom of Sauvignon Blanc (currently £18.90 from the UK’s Amazon website), got hold of a couple of her most highly recommended wines, and fired off a few questions.

I like Friedrich’s writing: she’s a tough-minded, straight-talking, pretension-popping former New York lawyer whose 1997 A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire remains my preferred handbook to the wines of France’s longest river. The new book is ‘volume one’ of a longer update, self-published this time. She summers in the Loire – and sits out winter in Paris. She tastes slowly: two days to a week or more, to follow each wine’s evolution. I trust her judgements, and enjoy reading her closely observed producer profiles.

The three test-case Sauvignons I got hold of (by requesting samples from the producers: it’s hard to buy top Loire wines in the Languedoc) were the elegantly labelled Claude & Stephane Riffault’s 2012 Sancerre Les Chasseignes; Jonathan & Didier Pabiot’s 2010 Prédilection, a Pouilly-Fumé from the hamlet of Les Loges; and Denis Jamain’s 2009 Cuvée Anne de Varennes from Reuilly. The third wine was (I assume) an unlucky bottle, as it was oxidized; Friedrich says she’s never had an oxidized Anne de Varennes or come across premox issues in the Loire. The Riffault wine was very restrained: taut, tight, without any of the overt varietal triggers, but just a faint hint of citrus playing about it. Pabiot’s was best: classy, poised, flinty in its sharp, sculpted edges, yet once again subtly allusive and undemonstrative.

Early in her book, Friedrich claims there has been a ‘sea change’ both in producers’ performance with Sauvignon and her own understanding of and feelings about the grape. This intrigues me, as I’m still unsure that Sauvignon Blanc can ever be great.

Simple examples have all the flamboyant triggers that makes this variety easy for beginners to recognise (cut grass, nettle, asparagus, gooseberry, cat’s pee, pea-pod, passion fruit); that, perhaps, is a reason for its popularity.

Paradoxically, the classier the Sauvignon, the less overtly allusive it seems. Neither the Riffault Sancerre nor the Pabiot Pouilly-Fumé did more than whisper its allusions – to celery, to Alpine flowers, to blood orange, to apple, to a birch copse in spring. Yet when I taste my way into the heart of wines like these, I encounter a kind of absence or muteness; perhaps they’re great, but that greatness seems to me to lie on the other side of an enigma which I can’t penetrate. Jackie, though, claims in her book that “my mind has been blown by the elegance, the beauty, the gravitas of more than a few I’ve tasted.”

Could she expand? “Some of the descriptors I’d trot out,” she said, “include freshness, aromatic ripeness, tension, grip, fine-tuned acidity, focus, length, mystery, thrilling texture and inviolable structure. What I’ve increasingly found is that those who have gone beyond the shrill, raw, unripe SBs, and beyond the white-fleshed peach and melon SBs, have reached a stage where the variety all but disappears. What is left is purity, transparency, and fleeting notes like those you mention, particularly citrus zests.” She cited ‘minerality’ (as in mineral water), too, though for more on this specific question see Alex Maltman’s posted comment to the June 3rd blog column here.

We discussed much else, too: she believes that Sauvignon can clearly express sub-regional origin (I still find it impossible to distinguish, blind, Pouilly-Fumé from Sancerre); she is alarmed by the ‘Taliban-esque sectarianism’ of the natural-wine movement, and the extent to which these sometimes ramshackle wines are increasingly monopolizing the lists of Paris’s fashionable wine bars; she’s frustrated by the ‘fecklessness’ of the French interprofessional committees which run France’s wine regions, by “the ceaseless creating of new and meritless AOCs” and the detrimental tinkering with existing laws.

I’m looking forward to the subsequent volumes of Earthly Delights for peppery comment on these and other matters, further slow-tasting verdicts – and especially because they will take us into the Kingdom of Chenin Blanc. Now there’s a great grape variety …

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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