"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Like every other white wine grape, Sauvignon Blanc lives in the long shadow of the market champion Chardonnay, which, in terms of popularity, really is the vanilla of the wine universe. (Cabernet Sauvignon is the chocolate.) But Sauvignon Blanc seems poised to make its move as the Next Big White, battling its way to the sharpest growth rate — nine percent — of all major varieties sold in the United States in 2009. And it’s not hard to see why, making for wines that range from the easy-drinking, fruity, and refreshing to richer, rounder styles.
I always think of Sauvignon Blanc as the “green” grape. It’s lovely, full of high, bright acidity the flavors of wonderful green things: green apples, green grapes, green herbs and a perhaps just a bit of green bell pepper. Aromas of lime, kiwi, honeydew, and even non-green tropical fruits like guava, papaya, and passion fruits make some Sauvignon Blanc-based wines — especially those from New Zealand and South Africa — smell and taste like fruit salad in a glass. There is one typical characteristic of Sauvignon Blanc that does sound like a harder sell, though: a pungent, herbal, asparagus-like aroma that wine writers most often liken, unfortunately, to cat pee. But don’t be scared: this aroma doesn’t carry through to the flavor of the wine, and in combination with all those fresh aromas, it actually lends a bit of pleasing intrigue. Many Sauvignon Blanc lovers are disappointed, in fact, if we don’t get at least a whisper of cat pee in the “nose” of the wine.
In addition to the refreshing wines that highlight this grape’s greenness, there are a few other main styles of Sauvignon Blanc.
Classic Old World versions, from the Loire Valley of France, are far less obviously fruity and more grassy and herbaceous, with a high degree of minerality: chalk, limestone, and a brininess reminiscent of the sea.
From California, you may find Sauvignon Blancs labeled as “Fumé Blanc.” In the late 1960s, Robert Mondavi coined this name for a style of Sauvignon Blanc that is fermented and aged in oak barrels: the result is cat pee-less, much richer — and much less “green” — than classic Sauvignon Blanc produced in stainless steel tanks. Today, Fumé Blanc may or may not be oaked, but the name usually connotes that the wine is richer and fuller, riper and less acidic than a wine labeled “Sauvignon Blanc.” Some people consider the Fumé Blanc style more sophisticated, but there’s plenty of room for both interpretations, especially depending on the food to be paired with it.
And finally, in Bordeaux, France, Sauvignon Blanc is often blended with another grape, Sémillon, to produce a distinctive style of white wine. As Sémillon has nutty and honeyed characteristics, white Bordeaux of this blend tend to be medium-to full-bodied and more restrained in their acidity and fruit flavors. The classic versions come from the districts of Graves, and within Graves, the more expressive and expensive wines of Pessac-Leognan can be truly age-worthy. These days, white wines labeled simply as “Bordeaux” or Entre-Deux-Mers tend to be more about the straightforward, crisp flavors of Sauvignon Blanc, and are meant for early drinking.
Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect antidote for a world awash in both mediocre and good-but-overpriced Chardonnay. It is easy to find delicious Sauvignon Blanc, and it is affordable. When you taste one you really like, Sauvignon Blanc becomes all but addictive, especially with spicy, lively foods. So, the next time you’re hankering for a white, think green.
Sauvignon Blanc: A Survey
For years, and until quite recently, classic Sauvignon Blanc was defined by the wines of the Loire Valley — wines from the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, followed by the less exalted and less expensive Quincy, Reuilly, and Menetou-Salon. As is customary in France, the name of the grape has never appeared on the labels of these bottles, and so, in an increasingly varietal-conscious world, these wines have begun to lose their status as the classic Sauvignon Blanc, as other wine-producing nations have aggressively marketed their Sauvignon Blanc wines as such.
Some favorite producers from the Loire Valley: Pascal Jolivet, Didier Dagueneau, Ladoucette, Masson-Blondelet, Château Sancerre, Reverdy, Henri Bourgeois, Lucien Crochet, Fournier, Domaine Vacheron, and Michel Redde. Expect prices in the $20 to $30 range for these wines.
In Bordeaux, look for the Entre-Deux-Mers appellation for good bargains in light-bodied, simple, refreshing, seafood-friendly Sauvignon Blanc. Château Bonnet is an excellent choice, and is widely available. For more full-bodied, far more expensive, and ageworthy Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon blends, turn to the white wines of Pessac-Leognan, including Château Smith-Haut Lafitte, Domaine Chevalier, Château Carbonnieux, and Château Malartic-Lagraviere.
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has, especially for many younger wine drinkers, become the classic expression of this varietal. Full of tart lime and tropical aromas and flavors, with grace notes of minerals, grass, and herbs, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is pure pleasure, an uncomplicated and fun wine; not a wine to exercise expertise, but a wine to enjoy with a myriad of tasty dishes. A great accompaniment to ethnic foods, especially spicy Asian and Latin American flavors, this wine is like a squeeze of fresh lime juice, awakening and brightening flavors throughout the meal. Once you start to enjoy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, it can quickly become a favorite.
The best examples of this popular white are sourced from grapes grown in the vineyards of the Marlborough region, located at the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. The wines are affordable, with many priced under $10, and some of the best available for between $15 and $20. Most of the wines you will find in the U.S. market feature screw caps, not corks, as closures, making New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc a perfect wine for the dinner table or the picnic basket.
Some good to very good New Zealand producers include: Craggy Range, Cloudy Bay, Matua Valley, Villa Maria, Brancott, Nobilo, The Crossings, Monkey Bay, Te Kairanga, Kim Crawford, Ata Rangi, 3 Stones, Mud House, Allan Scott, Palliser Estate, Babich, Jackson Estate, Selaks, and Spy Valley.
California produces some very good Sauvignon Blanc, with true-green aromas and flavors, and also produces the Fumé Blanc style. Sauvignon Blanc from the North Coast of California — Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties — is the antithesis of the Chardonnay produced in the same region. Rather than the rich, oaky, vanilla flavors of Chardonnay that can overwhelm simpler foods, the refreshing, straightforward fruity flavors of Sauvignon Blanc are just the thing for fish — especially when prepared with bright, acidic ingredients, like ceviche or grilled tuna with a tomatillo salsa — or a fresh goat cheese or tapas-style appetizers. California Sauvignon Blanc has emerged as a food-friendly wine, gaining more space on restaurant wine lists and more adherents among American consumers.
Some favorite Sauvignon Blanc and Fumé Blanc producers in California include: Benziger, Honig, Frog’s Leap, Lolonis, Dry Creek Vineyard, Ferrari-Carano, Bogle, Robert Mondavi, Murphy-Goode, Kunde, Gainey, Estancia, Hess Select, Chateau St. Jean, Groth, and Ancient Peaks.
For great bargains, look for Smoking Loon, Barefoot, BV, and Geyser Peak.
Sauvignon Blanc is South Africa’s best white wine. When sourced from low-yielding vineyards in the cool Stellenbosch region, the wines can be incomparable. Though wines from South Africa can be uneven in quality — the reputation of the producer is paramount in choosing the wines — Sauvignon Blanc seems to be among the most successful varietals exported to the U.S. market. With thirst-quenching acidity, a healthy dose of minerality, and green, tropical fruits in the mix, the wines are more fruit-driven than the wines of the Loire Valley, but a bit more restrained in their exuberance, and slightly fuller-bodied than the wines of New Zealand.
Some fine South Africa Sauvignon Blanc producers include: Warwick, Mulderbosch, Neil Ellis, Boschendal, Klein Constantia, Robertson, Buitenverwachting, Simonsig, Thelema, Brampton, Nederburg, Sebeka, and Fleur du Cap.
Australia produces a wide range of Sauvignon Blanc wines, from simple summer sippers to more complex wines with rich, jammy fruit balanced by a vein of mouthwatering acidity. With Australian Sauvignon Blanc you usually get what you pay for, and it is easy to find wines for under $10, but even the most expensive and best wines are under $20.
Some favorite Australian Sauvignon Blanc producers include: De Bortoli, Shaw and Smith, Henschke, D’Arenberg, Groom, Cape Mentelle, Reynolds, Yalumba, Dominique Portet, Mad Fish, and Katnook Estate.
Chile produces some delightful Sauvignon Blanc, very much in the California style, but with a bit more tropical fruit on the palate, especially from grapes grown in the cool Casablanca region. Currently, these wines live in the shadow of Chile’s red wines — especially Cabernet Sauvignon — and so Sauvignon Blanc from Casablanca tends to be a bargain-priced gem.
Current favorites from Chile include: Maycas del Limari, Terrunyo, Emiliana Natura, Veramonte, Montes, Miguel Torres, Carmen, Santa Rita, Cono Sur, Errazuriz, Leyda, Kingston Family, Casillero del Diablo, Viu Manent, Morandé, Los Vascos, MontGras, Casa Lapostolle, Nimbus, Caliterra, Valdivieso, and Santa Carolina.
Although perhaps a bit hard to find, Sauvignon Blanc wines from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Alto Adige regions of northeast Italy are worth the search. Often just labeled as “Sauvignon,” these are some of the most elegant examples of Sauvignon Blanc produced anywhere in the world, with a grassy background and subtle fruit acids that refresh the palate. Sauvignon Blanc from Friuli and from Alto Adige (officially bilingual: both Italian and German is spoken here) can be moderately expensive, starting at about $15, with some as high as $35.
Look for these wonderful whites: Livio Felluga, Alois Lageder, Jermann, Bastianich, Russiz Superiore, La Roncaia, Tiefenbrunner, Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro, Plozner, La Vis, Elena Walch, Mario Schiopetto, Pighin, Attems, Vie di Romans, Lis Neris, Bortoluzzi, Villa Russiz, and St. Michael-Eppan.
Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. He is the author of "WineWise," a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the worldMore Steven Kolpan.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)