While sales of Sauvignon Blanc continue to rise, up 13.3% in 2015 according to the Wine Market Council, I come across increasing numbers of wine professionals and more serious sorts of wine drinkers who are giving the grape less and less attention. The top wines of Sancerre -- Dagueneau, for example -- remain highly-regarded, of course, as do a few other examples from around the world. But as a variety, Sauvignon Blanc seems to be a low-priority for many people who really pay attention to what they’re drinking. Chardonnay endured the protest chants of ABC (“Anything But Chardonnay”) but are the days of “QRS” -- Quit Reaching for Sauvignon, or Quit Recommending Sauvignon -- upon us?
They oughtn’t be, and not just because Sauvignon Blanc’s biggest player, New Zealand is diversifying its styles and offerings. Sauvignon Blanc is a truly international variety. Aside from a number of regions you may already associate with the grape, two have long been favorites of mine for the quality and distinctive character of their Sauvignons. If you feel the grape has become too defined by green notes and tart citrus fruit aromas, Alto Adige and Steiermark have the wines for you.
Or is that Südtirol and Styria? In any case, the former was once part of Austria -- hence the alternate name -- and the latter still is. Alto Adige is that northern piece of Italy that abuts Austria and Switzerland. While red wines there include some indigenous varieties, most of the region’s white grapes are international, including the various Pinots, and some German varieties such as Riesling and its descendants. There are about 940 acres of Sauvignon Blanc planted, making it just less than 7% of the area’s total plantings.
The region is essentially a long, high-elevation valley, creating a number of microclimates depending on exposure and elevation. As a student backpacking through Europe I once tried to flee a heatwave by heading to Bolzano, the region’s capital. Bolzano itself was quite warm -- no help with the heat at all, really -- but once I hiked up off the valley floor I found some relief and some amazing views. The slopes and sub-valleys between Bolzano and Merano seems to yield particularly noteworthy Sauvignon thanks to drier, less fertile soils that encourage deeper root systems from the vines.
Austria has largely made its name in the wine world with indigenous varieties -- Grüner Veltliner, most notably, but also reds like Blaufrankisch and St. Laurent. There was little pressure to feed the international demand for Sauvignon Blanc by exporting when the small amounts made could be sold domestically. Today, however, several producers are sending their wines abroad, but even given the 2300 acres of Sauvignon grown in Austria, the wines are harder to find than examples from Alto Adige. Plantings are increasing, and tripled during the first decade of the millennium, so exports are likely to continue growing. The Südsteiermark -- Southern Styria, near the Slovenian border -- is home to Austria’s best Sauvignons. The soils there are quite mixed, but many of the best sites are on gravelly river deposits which provide good drainage.
Both Südtirol and the Südsteiermark’s Sauvignon Blancs tend to be distinct in both aroma and texture. The Alto Adige wines are typically tighter, focused but with a softness of texture; the Austrian wines are broader, more transparent, but still fresh. In their aromatics both tend to have a strong blackcurrant component, but that aside, the Italian wines lean to stone fruit aromas, whereas the Styrian wines tend to be more citrusy.
It’s been some time since I have tasted these wines, Austrian or Italian, en masse; rather, they’re wines I find myself returning to again and again. For that reason I’ll forgo tasting notes in favor of some general recommendations of producers, below. Generally the Alto Adige wines come in at a lower price point, or at least in a wider range; the region has a number of very good cooperatives that can be quite affordable, but also some very good small, boutique producers. The Austrian wines do tend to come in at a higher average price point, but remain good values. In either case, Sauvignon Blancs like these don’t grow just anywhere. Some Recommended Producers:
Maria & Sepp Muster