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Sauvignon Blanc

photo of Sauvignon Blanc by Tim Ramey.Charles 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. Although considered a cool-climate grape, sauvignon blanc prefers a more narrow range of average seasonal temperatures, from 58° to 63° F, than other varieties.

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 quite pungent and 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.

Sauvignon Blanc cluster (photograph).Barrel-fermentation, 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.

This 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 cinerea), to 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.

Sauvignon Blanc leaf (photograph).Considering 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!

Besides France 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 value.

Sauvignon 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 include:

*Typical Sauvignon Blanc Smell and/or Flavor Elements
*Typicity 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.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Herbaceous: grass, lemon-grass, gooseberry

Botrytis: apricot, quince, peach, honey, pineapple, vanilla, candy

Vegetal: bell pepper, green olive, asparagus, capsicum

Malolactic: butter, cream

Fruity: grapefruit, lime, melon

Oak (light): vanilla, sweet wood

Aggressive:, box hedge, "catbox"

Oak (heavy): toast, smoke, oak

(see our latest Tasting Notes [PDF] )

With naturally 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 sticky-tasting.

Dry-style 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.

by Jim LaMar

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. Julia Harding, Jancis Robinson and José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. London: Allen Lane/Penguin and New York: Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2012

6. 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

7. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983


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Page created April 19, 2002; last updated December 3, 2015
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