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A little respect: Rehabilitating the Sauvignon Blanc

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Wine people all have a conversion story. That defining moment when angels appeared in a bottle and lured them to a life of the vine. For me, that moment was with a Sauvignon Blanc. No kidding. To hardcore aficionados that's like saying I got into cigars by nibbling on cherry Swisher Sweets and that I still like them.

It's not that Sauvignon isn't respected; it's one of the noble grapes, after all. But no one takes it for their desert island grape. That'd be Riesling. Or Pinot Noir. Or Cabernet. Anything, really, other than Sauvignon Blanc.

In this country, it doesn't help that our modern wine era began with Robert Mondavi's Fumé Blanc, a smart marketing mix of cloying Sauvignon Blanc and Frenchiness that was an important engine of wine sales. It was a hit. It also left the grape's image besmirched.

But fell in love I did with Didier Dagueneau's Pouilly-fumé, Pur Sang. You can still find the late winemaker's bottles at Bacchus in Milwaukee, where there's a section of the wine list carved out in his memory. His impact on the Loire Valley and beyond was wide.

Sauvignon Blanc's spiritual home is in Loire Valley and Bordeaux. It also grows well here in the U.S. and New Zealand, as well as in South Africa and Chile.

What grabs me about Sauvignon Blanc is exactly what grabs people who love Riesling or Pinot Noir -- its expression of terroir.

In Bordeaux, the wine can be both lean and herbaceous, grassy even. It's also often mixed with the Sémillon grape and oaked. I usually prefer Loire versions, where the calcium-rich soils lend the wines flavors of smoke and wet stone. Imagine firecracker and citrus intertwined with impossible subtlety.

I like producers who rein in the grape's fruitiness -- lemon, lime, grapefruit, apricot -- and bring out the steely and mineral qualities. When these wines are good, they can make for an exceptional drinking experience.

Sauvignon Blancs are crisp, light and refreshing; ideal for scorching summer days. Serve with equally fresh, light fare.

Chateau La Rame 2011 ($16) is a Bordeaux with crisp acidity and snappy lime and orange flavors. Lovely with a salad or fish.

Despite a sad name, Six Sigma Ranch produces a relatively small amount (1,078 cases) of good Sauvignon Blanc (2012, $17). There's complexity here: stone fruits, citrus, minerality, even a touch of sour funk.

Domaine Plouzeau, in appellation Touraine in the Loire Valley, produces great wine for the money (2012, $13). It has an even mix of acidity and fruit. This a go-to bottle that you'll want on hand.

Wines from Sancerre are often cited as the top expression of Sauvignon Blanc. They're not always on shelves here, but if you spot one, whisk it home and pair with goat cheese.

For more on the Sauvignon Blancs of the Loire Valley, look for Jacqueline Freidrich's 2011 book, Earthly Delights From the Garden of France.

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