By James Knight
For a remote archipelago in the South Pacific, New Zealand has had an outsized impact on the world of wine. Tardy to the party, the Kiwis had such good luck in the export market with Sauvignon Blanc that it's hard to talk about the varietal without clarifying whether it's a "New Zealand–style," i.e., an overtly fresh, fruity, but dry wine with aromas of gooseberries and fresh-cut green grass—things that many of us in California either know nothing about or that threaten to become increasingly rare.
Or is it more of a Sancerre style? Similar to Sauvignon Blanc from France's Loire Valley, these are, broadly speaking, supposed to be lean and highly acidic, and with more of a sense of "minerality" (i.e., sucking on rocks) than fruit flavor. Stuck in the middle, many North Coast producers seem to be chasing one style or the other. But are these regions so distinct that someone with a little knowledge can identify two randomly purchased wines in a lineup with North Coast Sauvignon Blanc? Let's find out.
Murphy Goode 2013 Fumé North Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($14) This one's lightly toasty and subtle in aroma, with lemon blossom and unripe pear. The smoky splinter of oak in the nose comes from the portion of this blend that was fermented in barrels, à la Fumé Blanc (a California term invented by Robert Mondavi). An altogether agreeable sipper. Guess: California.
Rodney Strong 2013 Charlotte's Home, Northern Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc ($17) Floral aroma with odd hint of cherry-flavored mineral water. Tart lemon, pear flavor, and a little smoky. Guess: California.
Chateau Montelena 2013 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($35) Canary melon, cantaloupe, lemon candy; just enough banana chip, melon, and sweet-sour lemon to round out a pleasant palate. Guess: California.
Domaine André Vatan 2013 Sancerre, Les Charmes (around $17) With green aromas of grass and watermelon rind leaping from the glass, this is a sure-fire New Zealand Savvy, I guess. I'm wrong—the palate-scouring acidity might have been the tipoff.
Matua 2013 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (around $8) With its musty aroma, more than a hint of vomitus—surely the French have a prettier word for it—and gumballs, this comes from an award-winning New Zealand producer. I guess Sancerre, but I'm three for five on the "California style" Sauv Blancs, which are bright and zippy, all. Distinct, yes; lesser, not at all.