I, like most Yale undergrads have or will, turned 21 my junior year. Newly legal, I entered the world of wine with little knowledge other than the fact that I like it and felt classy while drinking it. But this summer, I received an eye-opening education interning for Bottlenotes, the leading digital media company in the wine industry. Not that Franzia shouldn’t have its place in the world (I can list a number of enjoyable Yale evenings in which Franzia played a crucial role), but if I’ve learned anything in the past five months, it’s that good wine is truly an experience to be savored, and probably not the most efficient refreshment of choice in your Toad’s pregame. As is true with art, literature and music, understanding and appreciating wine is a lifelong journey, both rooted in a grand historic and cultural tradition and living today as a vibrant and dynamic global industry.
Let’s start out and state the obvious: Wine comes from grapes. In fact, the vast majority of wine comes from a single species of grape, called Vitis vinifera. Vitis vinifera is the only species of wine grape indigenous to Europe, and most of the recognizable grape varieties — cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir — all stem from this one species. Scientists predict that around 5,000 truly unique wine grape varieties exist, but only 150 or so significantly contribute to wine production. You can think of wine grape varieties like dogs. While all our canine companions may technically be the same species, Handsome Dan is going to look and act a whole lot differently than Lassie. Similarly, you’re never going to confuse a glass of pinot grigio with a glass of merlot.
While the grape variety may be the most important indication of how a wine will taste, many other factors come into play before the fruit gets to the bottle. Wine may come from grapes, but these grapes also come from a place. Oenophiles use the French term “terroir,” which literally means “land,” but in truth encompasses a lot more than the English translation provides. The concept of terroir speaks to the collective effect of a vineyard’s soil, elevation, slope, climate, orientation to the sun, etc., on the grapes that are grown there, and the wine that is subsequently produced. A great wine typically will be a great reflection of its terroir.
Today, I am going to explore my personal favorite white grape variety, sauvignon blanc. A deliciously refreshing warm-weather sip, sauvignon blanc will make a great toast to summer’s end tomorrow night. Virtually every major wine-producing country in the world grows sauvignon blanc, but I’m going to focus on how this one grape can yield a spectrum of flavors depending on its terroir.
The most classic expression of sauvignon blanc comes from France’s Loire Valley. Beginning on the western coast and spanning nearly half the country’s width, the Loire Valley boasts some of the most diverse and exciting wines in the world. Sauvignon blanc is grown primarily in the Loire’s eastern edge, in appellations such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Today, I’m drinking a glass of 2012 sauvignon blanc from the smaller but mighty region Menetou-Salon, produced by Domaine de Bellevue. This Menetou-Salon is quintessential Loire Valley sauvignon blanc. With notes of kiwi, lime and gunflint on the nose, the Menetou-Salon greets the palate with a rush of tropical flavors. The wine delivers a gentle finish with a hint of white flowers.
From the opposite end of the globe, I’m also tasting a sauvignon blanc from Uruguay, one of the world’s newest wine producers. This 2012 made by Bodegas Carrau comes from the Cerro Chapeu region, which sits 1000 feet above sea level among a series of flat hills. If the Menetou-Salon is soft and elegant, then this sauvignon blanc is crisp and zippy. With a bouquet of grapefruit, wet stone and freshly cut grass, this racy herbaceousness carries over to the mouth. Brightly acidic, this sauvignon blanc exits with a crisp, lively finish. As you can see, although they’re both sauvignon blanc, the places these grapes come from, their “terroir,” amount to excitingly different and diverse wines. I look forward to exploring all these details with you over the course of this next year.
Both the Domaine de Bellevue 2012 (Menetou-Salon, France) and the Bodegas Carrau Sauvignon Blanc “Sur Lie” 2012 (Cerro Chapeu, Uruguay) are available for purchase at The Wine Thief (181 Crown St., New Haven).
— Bryce Wiatrak