Sauvignon Blanc is the original wild child of wine. It makes for herbaceous, green, citrusy and minerally wines that are instantly recognisable on the nose and grab hold of your tongue in an acidic embrace that literally leaves you salivating for more.
Befitting such an assertive grape, Sauvignon Blanc literally means ‘wild white’. ‘Wild’ because it is a native grape to France and grew in the wild, or as the French say, ‘au sauvage’. ‘White’ (‘blanc’), because the grape is er… green. Really, it should be called Sauvignon Vert, but that name is already taken by three other grapes. So Sauvignon Blanc it is.
Fun fact, Sauvignon Blanc is the parent of two other grape varieties, both of which were cultivated on purpose rather than growing wild. The most famous of these is Cabernet Sauvignon, the result of crossing Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. The other is Sauvignon Gris, but we’re not sure who the other parent was, nor how Cabernet Franc took the news.
For the sake of completion, we’ll mention Sauvignon Rosé which, other than its name, has no connection with Sauvignon Blanc; and Fumé Blanc, which is, in fact, Sauvignon Blanc—but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Sauvignon Blanc in a Nutshell
Sauvignon Blanc vines generally bud late but ripen early. They like a temperate climate, but can be grown in warmer climates as well.
Wines from cooler climates are usually greener, spicier and more herbaceous than those made in warmer climates, which often have tropical notes such as passionfruit and guava.
If you taste vanilla, check to make sure you aren’t drinking a Chardonnay. If it is a vanilla-flavoured Sauvignon Blanc, it is probably from the US. In California’s Napa Valley, Sauvignon is aged in oak barrels rather than the stainless-steel barrels favoured by nearly (nearly) everybody else.
Some people say Sauvignon Blanc has the aroma of cat pee. It sort of does, but don’t let that put you off. Unless you actually own a cat and it hates you…
Sauvignon Blanc at Home
In its native France, Sauvignon Blanc is used to make some of the most famous wines in the world. In Bordeaux, it is often paired with Sémillon, which with age can help calm the boisterous Sauvignon Blanc down a bit. However, when young, Sémillon can be just as rowdy as Sauvignon Blanc, so be prepared for a zesty bite to younger white Bordeaux wines.
That said, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon are capable of genuine magic together. Château Haut-Brion in the Graves district on the Left Bank produces what many say is the best dry Bordeaux white, and one of the greatest in the world. As if that weren’t enough, Graves is also the home of the Sauternes subdistrict, which makes possibly the world’s most famous white dessert wine.
All this notwithstanding, if you had to stick a pin in Sauvignon Blanc’s true home in France, it would be in the Loire Valley. Here, it is used to make the famous vibrant, green-grass, spicy whites of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Sancerre tends to produce lighter and livelier wines of the two, while Pouilly-Fumé are a little rounder on the tongue and have a ‘smokiness’, a characteristic the wine gets from the limestone in the chalky, marly soils of Pouilly-sur-Loire’s vineyards.
Sauvignon Blanc is a grape that does well in both temperate and warmer conditions. As a result, it has become the backbone of several white wine-producing regions around the world.
Outside of France, Sauvignon Blanc has become synonymous with New Zealand, the Marlborough region of the South Island especially. The soil there is a combination of sand and slate, with little in the way of nutrition for the vines. Also, no vineyard on the South Island is far from the sea, so the climate is cool and mild, allowing for a long, laidback growing season. As a result, the grapes concentrate their flavour over a long period of time. This is Sauvignon Blanc dialled up to 11.
Chile produces plenty of bright, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc with some tropical notes that are less acidic than those made in New Zealand. However, for a long time a lot of what was sold as Sauvignon Blanc from Chile was, in fact, an imposter. The grape used was one of the three called Sauvignon Vert (this particular one is better known as Sauvignonasse). It was an honest mistake due to Sauvignon Vert accidentally being mixed in with the initial shipment of Sauvignon Blanc vines from Bordeaux in the 19th century.
South African wine makers produce some terrific Sauvignon Blanc wines, in both the greener and fruitier styles, mainly in the wine regions east and due south of Cape Town.
Finally, Sauvignon Blanc is a significant grape in California’s wine industry, in Sonoma and Napa vineyards especially. Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc stands out because, unlike most Sauvignon Blanc, some of the wine there is aged in oak barrels.
If that break from tradition weren’t enough, Napa is also where Robert Mondavi rebranded Sauvignon Blanc ‘Fumé Blanc’ in the 1960s, a marketing ploy to piggyback off the reputation of Pouilly-Fumé in France. At the time, Sauvignon Blanc wine had a terrible name in the US for being sweet, low-quality muck. Mondavi recognised that, from a marketing point of view, this was a bit of a handicap when he started producing higher quality Sauvignon Blancs. So an alias was needed.
To be fair, if you’re going to rename the original wild child grape, associating it with smoke and fire isn’t a bad choice.
Photo by Kris Gerhard on Unsplash