Sauvignon Blanc: An FAQ

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What is Sauvignon Blanc?

It is a white wine grape variety. It’s “home” is in the Loire Valley, but it is one of the French grapes, like Chardonnay, that has become a widely planted and widely consumed “international” grape variety. As many consumers decided that Chardonnay was too “oaky and buttery”, many of them moved to Sauvignon Blanc, which is typically crisper, more fruit forward, and more herbaceous.

Where is it grown?

The most famous Sauvignon Blancs continue to be produced in the Loire Valley, mostly in the AOCs of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. It also make popular varietal wines in California, South Africa, Chile and New Zealand, and to a lesser extent Austria, Northern Italy and Australia.

There are other, lesser-known pockets of Sauvignon Blanc production in various corners of the world.  Burgundy has its own Sauvignon Blanc AOC in Saint Bris. The Germans (especially in the Pfalz) and the Spanish (especially in Rueda) have been known to produce examples.

The other very important wine region for Sauvignon Blanc is Bordeaux and in fact many think that it’s the grape’s original home (although more recent DNA and etymological evidence points us back towards the Loire Valley). Sauvignon Blanc occasionally makes a varietal wine in Bordeaux, but is most often blended with other varieties, usually Semillon. This includes the famous sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac, which are just about the only sweet wines made from Sauvignon Blanc anywhere in the world (though we have come across other examples…) Similar blends (dry) are also produced in the Margaret River region of Western Australia.

Is it related to Cabernet Sauvignon?

Yes! The name is no coincidence. Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross (which occurred naturally) between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. That’s quite a family!

You can detect the family resemblance in the natural herbaceousness of all three grapes. All have a high level of pyrazines (short for methoxypyrazines), which is a molecule that you also find in bell peppers, and gives these wines their “green” notes. All the high-pyrazine grapes originate in and around Bordeaux (in addition to Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, you have high levels in Malbec, Carmenere and Merlot; Sauvignon Blanc is the only white wine in this group!).

What is Fume Blanc?

It’s a marketing name for Sauvignon Blanc that someone came up with in California back in the 1970s. It was popularized by Robert Mondavi’s varietal bottling.

What are the greatest examples of Sauvignon Blanc?

Although the Southern Hemisphere produces plenty of cheerful, fruity examples of Sauvignon Blanc, the world’s greatest examples still come from the grapes’ original homes in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. The greatest Sauvignon Blancs made today include Dagueneau’s Pouilly Fumes, and the top Sancerres from the likes of Vatan, Cotat, Boulay, Labaille or Vacheron. But my own personal favorite Sauvignon Blanc is actually from Bordeaux: The Pavillon Blanc du Chateaux Margaux. It’s a very unique wine, as the vast majority of the 100% Sauvignon Blancs from Bordeaux are straightforward and inexpensive, and almost all the luxury whites are blended with Semillon and often other grapes. But Chateau Margaux has been doing it this way for hundreds of years, and the wine they make with Sauvignon Blanc is extremely special (and very expensive)!

California is also trying with top examples from the likes of Araujo, Larkmead, Peter Michael and Spottswoode. I have not yet come across examples that have convinced me that these are worth the high prices, but I confess that I have not tried very many.

What about more affordable Sauvignon Blanc?

Start with Sancerre!  It is really incredible how many artisanal Sancerres can be had here in the U.S. for under $30. Don’t confuse these wines with the industrial Sancerre that you find in so many bistros, both here and in France. Try the Cuvee Chavignol from Bailly-Reverdy ($23.99) or the Lucien Crochet Croix du Roy ($27.99).

You should also try a bottle of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($29.99), the wine that put New Zealand on the map. This is full-on Southern Hemisphere Sauvignon Blanc, with an emphasis on berry fruit rather than the lime and mineral flavors more common in the Loire. And then for a slightly different take, try Dipoli’s Sauvignon Blanc ($29.99) from Northern Italy, where there is actually a small but important tradition of making fairly “serious” Sauvignon Blanc with aging potential. As of this writing, the 2012 is the current release, and it is drinking great!

 

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