2002 Loire Valley Sauvignon Blancs

In recent years I have published regular coverage of excellent sauvignon blanc bottlings from New Zealand and South Africa. Repeatedly I have portrayed these wines as cheaper alternatives to the best sauvignons from the Loire Valley, which remain the prototype for dry, unoaked sauvignon. But in fact, even Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume remain reasonably priced, despite the steady deterioration of the U.S. dollar over the past year and a half. Purchasing the world's finest sauvignons does not have to require a second mortgage, and the Loire Valley's 2002 vintage yielded classic yet user-friendly examples that merit strong buying interest.

Just as vintage 2001 produced consistently excellent wines in the Rhone Valley and Languedoc/Roussillon, vintage 2002 provided fireworks across much of northern France, including the Cote d'Or and the Maconnais, Chablis, Champagne, and the Loire Valley clear across to the Atlantic Coast. The 2002 vintage, which benefitted from a dry growing season and favorable harvest conditions, is a near-perfect middle-of-the-road style of year for wine lovers who prize the mineral character, vibrancy and extraordinary food-friendliness of Loire Valley sauvignon but are scared off by aggressively lean and excessively herbaceous examples, which are far more common in underripe years. The best 2002s offer a near-perfect combination of varietal and soil character and the richness and flavor development made possible by thorough ripeness. Yes, there are numerous pricey wines in these categories. But I was also pleasantly surprised by the number of excellent wines that retail in the $20 price range. In fact, cellar door prices for many Loire Valley sauvignons have barely budged over the past four or five years; for the wines frommany estates, any price increases here are almost entirely attributable to the weakness of the dollar. Shockingly, excellent Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume from the lovely 2002 vintage can often be found for just a few dollars more than the best examples from New Zealand.

Below are the wines that stood out in my tastings of 2002s this winter (a very high percentage of the wines I tasted merited scores of 85 or higher). Note that 2002s from a few top producers, such as Didier Dagueneau and Lucien Crochet, have not yet arrived in the U.S. marketplace.