If there were a pin-up calendar for wine drinkers, the poster grape for April would probably be sauvignon blanc. It's light, zesty, herbal, fragrant enough to rouse a bear from hibernation and pairs well with asparagus. In fact, many sauvignon blancs can conjure spring asparagus doused with grapefruit juice.
The white grape with a sunny disposition also seems tailor-made for Canadian soil. It buds late in spring, ripens early and loves cool temperatures. In good growing seasons with ample sunshine, sauvignon blanc makes a fine rival to higher-profile varieties commonly associated with this country, such as riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.
Although sauvignon blanc can seem like the furthest thing from late-ripening, full-bodied cabernet sauvignon, it shares more than just a word with that globally popular red. The two are genetically related. Cabernet sauvignon, born just a few hundred years ago in France, is the spawn of a marriage between cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. In progressive, non-sexist fashion, the soon-to-be-famous offspring was given both parents' names. (Wine-grape vines are hermaphrodites, incidentally, and don't need pollen from another vine to bear fruit.)
Niagara sauvignon blanc plantings are growing apace, and I think that's great news. My current favourite – and it's a standard-bearer – is Peller Estates Signature Series Sauvignon Blanc. At $30, I dare say it's expensive (and available only at the Niagara winery through www.peller.com). But there are many other impressive and consistent producers in Ontario, including Peninsula Ridge, Vineland Estates, Jackson-Triggs (the Gold and Black series, specifically), Hinterbrook, Mike Weir, Tawse and Henry of Pelham. In British Columbia, stars include Pentage, Cassini, Sandhill, Lake Breeze and Mission Hill.
The newly released Henry of Pelham below is a smart buy, crafted in a rounded style somewhere between the boldly fruity sauvignons of New Zealand and the elegantly lean, subtle examples of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé of France's Loire Valley.
And because it's income-tax time, too, I've kept all but one of the selections, including the non-sauvignons, under $20. There's enough tax pain in a bottle of wine as it is.
Henry of Pelham Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $14.95
Silky, with lively acidity around the edges, it offers up pronounced pear and grapefruit along with green melon and herbs – freshness defined. Pair it with simply prepared shellfish or asparagus topped with crumbled goat cheese. Available in Ontario.
Mission Hill Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
Ripe and plump, this achieves its uncommonly smooth texture in part thanks to oak barrels, which are often eschewed in favour of steel tanks by sauvignon blanc producers. It's a fruit cocktail of pear, lemon and grapefruit with a hint of sweetness. Good for fleshy pan-seared fish. $19.99 in B.C., $19.99 in Sask., $20.45 in Que.
Momo Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
Momo is the entry-level line from cinematographer Michael Seresin's fine estate. Expect passion fruit, nectarine, blossoms and dry, citrus-peel bitterness. Grilled shrimp or scallops or seafood salad would be nice. $19.99 in N.S.
Babich Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
Textbook New Zealand style at an attractive price, offering passion fruit, gooseberry, a hint of banana, grass and gunflint. Good for shellfish or sushi. $19.75 in B.C., $19.10 in Que., $19.99 in N.S., $17.99 in Man.
Megalomaniac Eccentric Savagnin 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $24.95
Believed by some to be a relative of sauvignon blanc, savagnin is in fact another name for traminer, a lightly aromatic white variety that begat floral, musky gewürztraminer. Grown almost exclusively in the Jura region of eastern France, this oddity was adopted by Megalomaniac founder John Howard with intriguing results. It's light-medium-bodied and dry, with a Juicy Fruit gum quality, floral note and good length. I'd try it with light curries. Available in Ontario.
Taurino Riserva Salice Salentino Rosso 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $14.95
Sexy stuff, this succulent, medium-bodied blend of negroamaro with malvasia nera shows sweet cherry, with marzipan, flowers and licorice, even a hint of funky barnyard air. Consider it poor man's Barolo. Braised red meats would pair nicely. $18.95 in B.C., $15.40 in Que.
Tasca d'Almerita Lamuri 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $17.95
This Sicilian is made from nero d'Avola, the island's signature red grape, with syrah-like dark-skinned fruit and savoury lift. It's full-bodied and chewy, underpinned by a tingle of acidity and spice on the long finish. Perfect for lamb roasts. $21.80 in Que.
Gérard Bertrand Minervois Syrah Grenache 2009 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95
The wild herbs that grow prodigiously in southern France are on parade here, adding a delectable lavender-thyme essence to the dark-skinned fruit. Juicy acidity gets in on the act, too. Ideal as a partner for leg of lamb or grilled pork sausages. Available in Ontario.
Château Bru Lagardette Cahors 2008 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $14.95
You may be familiar with malbec from Argentina. This comes from the Cahors region of southwest France, where the classic, cellar-worthy style delivers inky concentration and bolder tannins but less of a gutsy jolt. It's full-bodied, with shades of plum, earth and mineral. Cellar it for five to 10 years or pair it now with hearty meat stews. Available in Ontario.
Fabre Montmayou Reserva Malbec 2009 (Argentina)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
Classic Argentine-malbec bitterness and a solid acid grip give this meaty red a solid spine. The flavours hint at coffee, bitter cocoa and licorice. Try it with grilled red meats.