Wetmore, founder of Cresta Blanca winery, brought the first
cuttings of Sauvignon Blanc to California in the 1880s. Some
came from the vineyards of the legendary Sauternes Chateau
Y'Quem, world's most expensive and renowned dessert wine. These
plantings did well in the Livermore Valley and Sauvignon Blanc
became one of the early American favorite wines, albeit mostly in a sweet style.
Eventually, Sauvignon Blanc lost favor with American palates, but regained popularity as a dry wine, often under an alias
in California, where it is now sometimes labeled as
"Fumé Blanc", a named coined by Robert Mondavi in 1968.
Sauvignon Blanc vines tend
to be quite vigorous growers, so it is especially important
to manage the canopy by careful pruning and even by thinning
leaves and shoots to direct the plant's energy towards ripening
the fruit. Unrestrained growth and over-cropping can result in either
neutral-tasting wines of little interest or wines too strong and offensive.
The varietal identity of Sauvignon
Blanc is typically similar to grass, bell-pepper, or grapefruit
in nature. New Zealanders liken it to "gooseberry",
but that is not a familiar smell or taste to most Americans. The level of pyrazine compounds, naturally-occuring in Sauvignon Blanc, influences whether this distinctive character is mild or intense. Grapes that either lack sun exposure or are harvested underripe can result in wines that are overbearing with vegetal, green flavors. Viticulturalists generally did not discover this relationship until near the end of the first millennium.
Another group of compounds in Sauvignon Blanc, thiols, are repsponsibile for melony or tropical fruit flavors. Using different yeast strains in fermentation influences the level of thiols (and other aromatic compouds that enhance or produce fruity aromas, such as acetates and esters). Concentrations of pyrazines, thiols, and esters that are not properly proportioned can result in aggressive, offensive "catbox"
odors. experimentation is on-going to find the right balance and proportions of yeast strains.
Besides viticultural practices that expose the
grapes to more sunlight, clonal selection can also yield wines more melon-like
in aroma. Development of hardier clones has helped production
levels, which were irregular in humid climates, due to this
variety's propensity to develop "powdery mildew" and "black
rot". Although UC Davis' Foundation Plant Services has 22 registered clones, FPS estimates that 98% of all California plantings since 2000 use the Wente clone FPS 01, originating from the 1880 Wetmore vines. An increasingly popular newer clone, sauvignon musqué, makes very aromatic, floral wine.
although not commonly used for this variety when compared
to Chardonnay, can also modify the Sauvignon Blanc aroma and
add complexities. Blending Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon is
a common practice that can add richness, ameliorate acidity, and soften the sometimes abrasive Sauvignon
Blanc character, while sometimes contributing an extra element
of figs to its aroma.
blending is widespread in the Graves district of France's
Bordeaux region (normally 75-85% Sauvignon Blanc to 15-25%
Semillon). In the communes of Sauternes and Barsac, a blend
of 60-70% Semillon with 30-40% Sauvignon Blanc is more typical.
When allowed to hang, past the normal ripeness point for dry
table wine, the grape flavors may be concentrated by the influence
of a naturally-occurring mold known as "Noble Rot" (Botrytis
make the area's famous dessert wines.
Loire Valley wines made from
Sauvignon Blanc, such as Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre,
are most often 100% unblended Sauvignon Blanc and, although frequently barrel-fermented, usually
performed in well-used barrels to avoid oak influence.
For many years, California
wineries made wine from Sauvignon Blanc grapes, with very little consistency of style: some made bone-dry wines
after the fashion of the French in the Graves and Loire regions,
while others chose to make very sweet, dessert-style wines
after the Sauternes and Barsacs. Even if the sweet wines are
left from consideration, there are plenty of inconsistencies
within the group of dry wines to leave consumers confused.
the traditional practices used in France, the California production
and marketing conventions are decidedly ironic. California producers
tend to use the Loire-derived Fumé Blanc name and bottle
shape for their blended and oak-aged wines (more like the
Bordelais). Meanwhile, the California Sauvignon Blancs that
are 100% varietal and most likely without oak in fermentation
or aging (distinctly Loire-like practices), are most often
bottled in Bordeaux-style bottles!
and California, Sauvignon Blanc also is produced
successfully by New Zealand and South Africa
(excellent in both), Chile, Argentina, and, to
lesser degrees of production, Washington State,
Australia, and Italy, where it is expanding.
With fairly good tonnage per acre and lacking
the inflationary consumer demand of Chardonnay,
Sauvignon Blanc is often a very good
Blanc is usually quite distinctive and has been one of
the easier varietal wines to recognize by its
often sharp, aggressive smell. The most common
(but not exclusive) smell and/or flavor elements
found in sauvignon blanc-based wines
Smell and/or Flavor
depends upon individual tasting ability and experience
and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions,
as well as viticultural and enological techniques.
This list therefore is
merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.
Herbaceous: grass, lemon-grass,
apricot, quince, peach, honey,
pineapple, vanilla, candy
bell pepper, green olive, asparagus,
Fruity: grapefruit, lime, melon
(light): vanilla, sweet
Aggressive:, box hedge, "catbox"
(heavy): toast, smoke,
(see our latest
Notes [PDF] )
high acidity, Sauvignon Blanc is always tangy,
tart, nervy, racy, or zesty, and this character
pervades even sweet and dessert versions,
keeping them from being cloying and
Sauvignon or Fumé Blancs are very
versatile in accompanying foods and can handle
components such as tomatoes, bell peppers,
cilantro, raw garlic, smoked cheeses or other
pungent flavors that would clash with or
overpower many Chardonnays and almost all other
dry whites. In fact, Sauvignon Blanc is probably
the best choice for dry white wine to accompany the
greatest variety of foods.
What is Fumé: additional useful information, including Fumé-friendly recipes, Fumé "flavor-wheel", etc.
Altering the Chemical Profile of Sauvignon Blanc to Match Consumer Preferences: slog through this Academic Wino BLOG for a look at experimental efforts to understand SB-consumer-friendly chemistry.
1. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010
2. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003
3. Persistence of vegetal characters in winegrapes and wine, by Kay Bogart & Linda Bisson (UCD) in Practical Winery and Vineyard, Mar-Apr, 2006
4. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford
Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006
5. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998
6. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983