What is Sauvignon Blanc?
“Sauvignon Blanc is the most useful grape variety in the world…I need a wine that is totally reliable, that will always give me a painter’s pallet of flavours anyone can understand as soon as they smell and taste the wine. Sauvignon Blanc. That’s my baby” – Oz Clarke, Author of Grapes and Wines
The first mention of Sauvignon Blanc was around the late 16th century (the time of King Henry the IV) and there is heavy contention as to where it originated in France – in Loire or Bordeaux. Research has provided that its genetic parentage is that of Savagnin (also known as Traminer) from the Jura region of France and Chenin Blanc. The happy marriage of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc produced the “King” of all grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, sometime in the 18th century in the Bordeaux region. Getting its name from the French words sauvage (“wild”) and blanc (“white”), “Savvy,” as it’s sometimes known, is closely associated in France with the Loire (for example for its role in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume) as well as in Bordeaux, where it is often blended with other grapes such as Semillon.
Though often, also, associated with New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc Its rise in New Zealand has been a rapid one – it has only taken the Marlborough region of New Zealand, a generation to become a powerhouse for Sauvignon Blanc production which was first planted in 1973.
The first cuttings of Sauvignon Blanc were brought to California from Chateau d’Yquem, the famed Bordeaux Sauternes property, in the 1880s. Charles Wetmore, who owned the Cresta Blanca winery in Livermore Valley, brought and planted the vines there. Sauvignon Blanc became one of the favorite early American grapes as well as an international sensation when, in 1889, his “Sauternes” from the valley won gold at the Paris Exposition (nearly a century before the infamous Judgment of Paris tasting). The varietal however did not rise to great heights in stature in the US until the mid-1960s. It was at this time (1968) that Robert Mondavi coined the term “Fumé Blanc” to express a different side of Sauvignon Blanc and his hope for increased sales. Through his use of some oak on the varietal, which had traditionally been done without any wood, the grape was somewhat reinvented.
Sauvignon Blanc can be found the world over, as it is one of the most planted winegrapes globally. It has found a footing in numerous wine regions around the planet such as Chile, Austria, Australia, Italy, and South Africa. However, it can also be found in lesser-known wine regions such as Israel, Ukraine, Romania, and many other Eastern European countries.
“Crisp, elegant, herbaceous, fruity, and fresh” are ways to describe Sauvignon Blanc. It has such a distinctive character, with naturally high acidity, it is usually “tangy, tart, nervy, racy, or zesty”. This acidity also can keep even sweeter versions from being too sickly sweet. Styles can vary greatly and range from slightly tart and grassy to tangy pineapple with oak nuances.
Sauvignon Blanc is usually consumed young, as it does not always benefit from aging. It is the classic “quick turn white” that is often most desirable in the spring and summer months that immediate follow the previous year’s harvest. The sweet white wine, Sauternes, utilizes Sauvignon Blanc as a major component and is one of the few exceptions that can be very age worthy.
The use of stainless steel fermentation tanks is the preferred method in production of Sauvignon Blanc. Barrel-fermentation is not commonly used for this variety but where it is, it tends to round out the flavors and softens the naturally high acidity modifying the aromas and adding complexities. It was also, one of the first fine wines to be bottled with a screw cap in commercial quantities, especially in New Zealand.
Common Sauvignon Blanc Aroma/Flavor Profiles
- Apple (Green – e.g. Granny Smith)
- Bell Pepper Capsicum (Hot Pepper – e.g. Jalapeno)
- Cat pee
- Citrus (Lemon, Lime, Tangerine)
- Freshly Cut Grass
- Green Olive
- Green Peas
- Late harvest/”Noble Rot” – Botrytis cinerea (Apricot, Peach, Honey, Pineapple)
- Malolactic (Butter, Cream)
- Oak/Wood – Fume Blancs (Vanilla, Toast, Smoke)
- Tropical Fruit
Sauvignon Blanc’s crisp acidity is delicious with:
- Fish, Seafood & Shellfish
- Salad & Raw Vegetables
- Citrus & Vinaigrette
- Cheese, particularly goat cheeses
- Tomato based dishes
- Asian, Mexican and other cuisines with some spice
Some of the major SB areas around the world (areas listed in green are featured in our series of Regional Tasting Profiles by SIAG Resident Master Sommelier, Catherine Fallis, a.k.a. grape goddess – many more coming soon!)
- France (Loire Valley, Bordeaux, Languedoc-Roussillon, South West France)
- Czech Republic
- New Zealand (Marlborough)
- South Africa
- USA (California, Washington, Oregon, New York)
Professional Friends of Wine – Sauvignon Blanc: http://www.winepros.org/wine101/grape_profiles/sauv_blanc.htm
UC Davis Integrated Viticulture – Sauvignon Blanc: http://iv.ucdavis.edu/?uid=267&ds=351
Gallo Web Central – Sauvignon Blanc: http://www.gallowebcentral.com/trade-tools/wine-types/sauvignon-blanc/taste-sauvignon-blanc.html
Washington State Liquor Control Board – Sauvignon Blanc: http://liq.wa.gov/publications/liqpurchasing/Store%20Training/Sauvignon%20Bl%205%20things.pdf
New Zealand Wine – Sauvignon Blanc: http://www.nzwine.com/wine-styles/sauvignon-blanc/
Loire Valley Wines – Sauvignon Blanc: http://www.loirevalleywine.com/home/?q=loirewines/varietal/sauvignon-blanc
Nova Scotia Liquor Control – Sauvignon Blanc: http://www.mynslc.com/Content_MarketingPages/Content_Wine/Content_Wine101/GrapeVarietals/SauvignonBlanc.aspx
Food and Wine Magazine, Tasting Room – 10 Best Vineyards: http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/tasting-room-10-best-vineyards
eLivermore – Livermore History: http://www.elivermore.com/photos/Hist_lvr_winery_cresta1.htm
UC Davis Sauvignon Blanc seminar videos: http://stream.ucanr.org/fps_sauvignon_blanc/Steinhauer/index.htm
Bordeaux Wines – Grapes: http://www.bordeaux.com/us/vineyard/bordeaux-grape-varieties
The Science of Sauvignon Blanc by Jamie Goode
Grapes and Wines by Oz Clarke