Before Chardonnay became California’s dominant white grape, others also had their “day in the sun.” Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Colombard (aka French Colombard) led the pack with Sauvignon Blanc largely in a support role. That was until Robert Mondavi, with his first release in 1968, swung open the doors to an expanded market by coining “Fumé Blanc” as a more consumer-friendly name.
A support role, however, was not the case in established Old World growing areas such as Bordeaux and the Loire Valley where Sauvignon Blanc continually maintained a leadership position both as a stand-alone varietal or blended with Semillon depending on local tradition and terroir.
Today, Sauvignon Blanc reigns in the world’s top-10 most planted grapes and one of the few whites in this club just behind Chardonnay. It is the principal grape of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé of France’s Loire Valley and blended with Semillon (in varying percentages) in Bordeaux for both the heralded dry whites of Pessac-Léognan and Graves as well as the luscious sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
According to Rebecca Gibb MW in her Nov. 19 Decanter article “Celebrating Sauvignon,” the heritage of the grape can be “…traced back to the Loire Valley [where in] 1534 Chinon-born mathematician and writer François Rabelais mentioned it under the synonym Fiers…”
For centuries, it was primarily seen in France, but over the last three decades it has taken on a prominent role elsewhere including Chile, U.S. and New Zealand where it continues as the number one varietal. A few other areas now cautiously embarking on the Sauvignon bandwagon are South Africa, Australia, Germany and Austria.
Usually regarded as a lighter, more aromatic wine for early consumption, the character of Sauvignon Blanc depends heavily on the growing area. Cooler areas emphasize the brighter aspects of the grape while wines from warm areas are often a bit flat and uninteresting.
In the moderate Mediterranean climates, you will find complexity and depth often accented with some floral and tropical notes.
While early drinkability is usually the expectation, a bit of bottle age will often reward the experience as secondary almost honied tones begin to emerge. Typically, oak aging is counter-productive given the grape’s inherent character, although some have found a judicious balance with oak, but it’s widely accepted to err here on the side of caution.
Many industry pros credit New Zealand’s unique bright aromatic fruit style for introducing Sauvignon’s new-found popularity in other areas around the world. The slightly herbal nose (often described as “cat pee”) coupled with bold acidity and intriguing tart notes of “gooseberries” woke up the white wine loving consumer in the early 1990s as an alternative to some of the heavier whites of the day. Its worldwide planted acreage has almost tripled in the 30 years since Cloudy Bay came on the scene to launch the ever growing Kiwi version.
Tom Eddy, proprietor and winemaker for Tom Eddy Winery, is perhaps best known for his legendary hillside Cabernets. But, the character of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc peeked his interests in the early 2000s. Eddy traveled to New Zealand to research the stylistic expressions of Sauvignon along with the best growing areas and most talented growers to launch his TENZ brand. Tom focused on three principle sites, each with specific soil types and temperature patterns to demonstrate the best of the Marlborough wine region’s potential.
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He learned the unique character of the wines resulted from greatly elevated thiol levels that were responsible for the intense citrus/grapefruit flavors (aka gooseberry to the Kiwis). He also discovered younger vines and cooler growing areas with extended hang-time further enhanced these signature characteristics. Each of Eddy’s chosen sites displayed individual flavor and aromatic nuances and wisely decided a blend of the three vineyards would achieve added layers of complexity and appeal to the finished wine.
While Eddy chooses not to use oak in the vinification, he has observed others experimenting with it. “Oak with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a distracting factor and overrides the natural beauty of the grape,” he says.
Closer to home, the Novak family planted Sauvignon Blanc in 1973 and has been producing their stellar Spottswoode bottling since 1984. Co-founder Mary Novak loved her Sauvignon Blanc and the tradition is being carried forward at Spottswoode by her daughters, Beth and Lindy. According to Beth, “Our mom loved the grape and the wine. It spoke to her as it does to us.”
Under the direction of winemaker and vineyard manager Aron Weinkauf, Spottswoode’s Sauvignon Blanc program has grown and matured greatly. In addition to their St. Helena estate vineyard, Aron sources grapes from several highly acclaimed growers in Napa and Sonoma. He also uses four specific clones, including the rather aromatic Sauvignon Musqué for an intriguing tropical note. For added complexity and a unique personality, Aron employs a variety of fermentation vessels ranging from stainless steel and oak barrels to amphorae along with concrete and ceramic eggs.
Following the family’s respect for the grape and the wine, Beth sees Sauvignon Blanc’s place at the table as “being very versatile and fitting with any meal beautifully.” Some of her favorites are fresh seafood (without butter sauce), room-temperature red pepper and tomato soup with goat cheese and chives and a variety of Asian-styled dishes.
Mitch Cosentino is entering his fifth decade of winemaking and his fourth in the Napa Valley. During his distinguished career, he has consulted with several Napa luminaries as well as holding a principal winemaking role for his eponymous Cosentino Winery (until its sale in 2011) and currently, with pureCru and J. McClelland Cellars.
Cosentino has worked with Sauvignon Blanc since 1981 and has often used Semillon either in small amounts (5 to 15 percent) to enhance a varietal bottling or in a more significant role (30 to 50 plus percent) for his award- winning White Meritage (Bordeaux-styled) blends. He’s best known for the blends and definitively says that, “My long-term commitment is based on my drive to reach great heights with a Bordeaux-style blend expressing in tandem the best qualities of each varietal.”
It’s primarily with the Meritage blends that Cosentino looks to oak as a vehicle in raising the wine to higher levels.
In the early 1990s, he was the original test case for the French cooper Vernou in using a new barrel specifically designed for Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. The results were promising and he continues with these barrels today for both fermentation and aging in different proportions depending on his vision of the finished wine and vintage variations.
There’s no doubt Sauvignon Blanc has had a long, and sometimes circuitous, history in the world of wine. But, thankfully, over the last several decades it has risen to a well-deserved position among the noble varietals whether on its own or as an intricate partner in a cherished blend.