The Sauvignon Blanc grape originated in the Loire Valley where its synonym “fiers” was mentioned as early as the 1500s. The name “sauvignon” is derived from two French words: sauvage (“wild”) and vigne (“vine”). Sauvignon Blanc is a vigorous (wild) growing plant, and the shape of its leaves are similar to those of wild grapevines.
In the Bordeaux region of France, Sauvignon Blanc has been the featured white variety for centuries. The Sémillon grape variety is usually planted in the same regions in France as the Sauvignon Blanc and is usually blended with Sauvignon Blanc.
In Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc is considered to be a second-choice grape and is planted in areas where the French feel that red varieties will not do well. The white table wines from Bordeaux reflect this second-class attitude and the wines are not particularly memorable. Although, with cooperation from Mother Nature, this variety makes one of the world’s great dessert wines, Sauternes.
In special years, about three a decade, when the weather is ideal for its development, noble rot (Botrytis Cinerea) attacks the Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes and leaves the variety with little juice but a high concentration of sugar, acid and flavor. It is from these blighted grapes that the great and unusual dessert wine, Sauternes, is made.
One of sauvignon Blanc’s parents was the ancient grape savagnin (it’s not clear who the other parent was). That makes Sauvignon Blanc a sibling of GrünerVeltliner, Chenin Blanc, Silvaner, and Verdelho, among several other grapes that originated in central France.
From there, Sauvignon Blanc spread to the region around Bordeaux where it spontaneously crossed with Cabernet Franc, creating Cabernet Sauvignon sometime before the mid-1750s.
Sauvignon Blanc was first planted in California in the Livermore Valley in the 19th century thanks to newspaper-journalist-turned-winemaker Charles Wetmore who, in the late 1870s, persuaded the California legislature to establish the state viticultural commission. As the commission’s first president and CEO, Wetmore headed straight for the prestigious estates of Europe where he obtained cuttings, including cuttings of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon from no less than Bordeaux’s renown Château d’Yquem.
Those Sauvignon Blanc cuttings (now called clone 1) became the plant material for vineyards all over the state. Indeed, Wetmore’s clone 1 was probably the Sauvignon Blanc planted by GustaveNiebaum at Inglenook winery in the Napa Valley.
An article in the February 4, 1881, edition of the St. Helena Star, noted that Niebaum received “900 choice cuttings of Sauvignon Blanc from San Jose.” Later, Beaulieu Vineyards won a gold medal for their Sauvignon Blanc (also probably clone 1) at the 1915 International Wine Exposition in San Francisco.
Due to over planting and high yields after Prohibition, Sauvignon Blanc steered more in the direction of jug wine. Produced in quantity with copious amounts of sugar, the grape was losing its way.
Robert Mondavi saw an opportunity to re-brand the wine. Wanting to market the wine to distinguish its dry version, Mondavi rebranded it as “Fume Blanc,” a reference to the PouillyFumé wines of the Loire Valley.
Mondavi Winery still makes a very fine example, especially the Robert Mondavi To Kalon Vineyard “I Block” Fumé Blanc, of which only a tiny amount is now made, given that the vines, planted in 1949, are the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vines in Napa Valley, and may well be the oldest Sauvignon Blanc in California.
Although wine has been made in New Zealand since the 19th century, its modern wine industry wasn’t born until the 1970s. The first Sauvignon Blanc of note was made by Montana (now Brancott Estate). In 1973, the winery looked to expand beyond its Hawke’s Bay vineyards in the North Island by planting 2,900 acres of vines in the then-unheralded Marlborough region, on the northeast tip of the South Island.
At the time, Sauvignon Blanc was still overshadowed by varieties like Müller-Thurgau and Chenin Blanc, Marlborough’s more commonly planted varieties. But then two major events in the mid-1980s altered the course of New Zealand’s winegrowing future.
The first occurred when, due to a wine glut, the New Zealand government paid growers to rip up their vines. Many used the cash to uproot their less desirable varieties and replaced them with more profitable ones like Sauvignon Blanc.
The second event was an outbreak of phylloxera. While this dealt a blow to the industry, it gave growers another opportunity to replace their old varieties with the likes of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, this time on phylloxera-tolerant rootstock.
The actual grape
The Sauvignon Blanc vine buds out relatively late, and has slightly rounded leaves similar in appearance to Cabernet (Franc and Sauvignon). Grape clusters are large to medium-sized with big round berries that turn yellowish-green after veraison (color change), and may become lighter green by harvest.
Where it can grow
Sauvignon Blanc is planted worldwide. It’s not as finicky as other wine grapes, like Pinot Noir.
The Sauvignon Blanc vine often buds late but ripens early, which allows it to perform well in sunny climates when not exposed to overwhelming heat.
A relatively robust, vigorous vine (which explains its popularity with viticulturists), Sauvignon adapts readily to all kinds of growing environments. Because it ripens early, it can be grown in relatively cool climates – its Loire homeland being the most obvious example – while its naturally high acidity allows it to retain a level of freshness even in warmer areas. However, to achieve the true, forward zing that best characterizes Sauvignon Blanc wine, a cooler terroir is needed, ideally with persistent bright sunshine and a dry harvest period.
The best example of a region like this would be in New Zealand. Marlborough’s climate: long, warm days and cool nights, acidity-enhancing maritime influence, minimum rainfall at harvest and free-draining soil.
New Zealand has about 50,000 acres of Sauvignon Blanc growing. This grape in this region makes up about 90% of the Sauv Blanc produced in the country.
How it’s made
More about New Zealand…while current winemaking technology is almost universally sterile and hygienic worldwide, the natural antibiotic properties of alcohol production were more heavily relied upon in the 1970s when the New Zealand wine industry started. This pervasive use of stainless steel had a distinctive effect on both New Zealand wine styles and the domestic palate.
The early wines which made a stir internationally were lauded for the intensity and purity of the fruit in the wine. Indeed, the strength of flavor in the wine accommodated very dry styles, despite intense acidity. While stainless steel did not produce the intensity of fruit, it allowed for its exploitation. Even today, New Zealand white wines tend toward the drier end of the spectrum.
While most of the world labels it as its own varietal, in Bordeaux, Sémillon, Muscadelle and Ugni Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc is one of only four white grapes allowed in the production of white Bordeaux wine.
In the French region of Sauterns, Sauvignon Blanc is blended with Semillon to produce a late harvest wine. Because of the low yielding vines, these wines are highly sought after and command a very high price.
Most Sauvignon Blanc is fermented at relatively low temperatures in stainless steel with the intention of preserving every bit of youthful fruit and sharp acidity. Most aging is done in steel as well. Any oak used is usually an older or neutral barrel to soften the acid and not lose the fruit components.
The wines are in general designed to be drunk as young as possible, although some of the fruit from particularly low-yielding vineyards can be concentrated to withstand oak ageing and may need a year or so in bottle before showing their best.
What does it taste like?
The key selling point of Sauvignon Blanc is its straightforwardness – the flavors are rarely hidden away in the background. Also, there is a particularly close correlation between the perceived flavors and their descriptors, making Sauvignon Blanc an ideal wine with which to begin wine-tasting lessons.
Classic Sauvignon Blanc aromas range from grass, nettles, blackcurrant leaf and asparagus to green apples and gooseberries, and to more esoteric notes such as cats’ pee and gunflint. The latter is a sign of a wine from Pouilly-Fumé, where the struck flint aroma (known there as pierre à fusil) derives from the presence of high levels of chert in the local limestone soils. This effect is so pronounced and consistent that Sauvignon Blanc was once widely known as Blanc Fumé in this part of the Loire.
Since climate doesn’t play a major role in dictating the fruit flavors, Sauvignon Blanc tastes nearly the same wherever you plant it. Broadly speaking, warm regions such as California, Chile and much of Australia tend to give more tropical styles. Temperate zones such as in Bordeaux or northern New Zealand create wines marked out by stonefruit notes.
In-Depth Varietal Comparisons
If you have any experience with Sauvignon Blanc then you may find some of these comparison pieces interesting, helpful, and educational.
► Differences Between Sauvignon Blanc & Chardonnay
► Differences Between Sauvignon Blanc & Pinot Grigio
► Differences Between Sauvignon Blanc & Moscato
► Differences Between Sauvignon Blanc & Pinot Noir
► Differences Between Sauvignon Blanc & Riesling