Aug 19 2008

What is Sauvignon Blanc?

Sauvignon BlancIt’s the middle of summer and wine drinkers want to know more about that crisp, refreshing, citrusy, white wine with hints of grapefruit and grass.  Sip it on the porch or pair it with herbed chicken off the grill, here’s the scoop on Sauvignon Blanc.

Our Current Sauvignon Blancs selections

Sauvignon Blanc is a green-skinned grape that primarily produces medium bodied, citrusy dry white wines.  It is also a component in the luscious desert wines of Sauternes, France.  Sauvignon Blanc is usually consumed young as its characteristic crispness and fruitiness tend to dissipate over time.  Some exceptions include some Sauvignon Blancs from Bordeaux, France and others from California crafted in a similar style which are blended with other varietals and can maintain their flavor over time if not improve with age.  The elegant Sauvignon Blancs of the Loire Valley, France are perhaps the purest expression of the varietal.

Common Flavors Profile
Grapefruit and fresh cut grass are common flavors associated with Sauvignon Blanc, but its often intense herbaceous character and potentially piercing acidity can lead to some interesting flavor descriptions.  “Cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush” is a personal favorite and apparently quite accurate to those familiar with gooseberries.

Sauvignon Blanc was originally discovered growing wild in Bordeaux where it was given the name Sauvignon, meaning ‘savage.’ It made its debut in California in 1878 when a grape grower from the Livermore Valley acquired vine cuttings from the renowned Chateau Yquem in Bordeaux.  These first vines grew very successfully in the temperate climate and gravelly soil of the Livermore Valley.  In other areas of California Sauvignon Blanc tends to be overly aromatic, even stinky, with unappetizing aromas of asparagus, brussel sprouts and too much cat pee without enough gooseberry to balance it out.  At first, Americans were turned off by these smelly wines but they were buying loads of Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux, labeled Fumé Blanc.  French Fumé Blanc was blended with Sémillon and oak aged to balance overly aggressive aromas. American wine producer Robert Mondavi didn’t miss a beat.
Mondavi began aging his Sauvignon Blanc in oak and blending it with Sémillon in the style of Bordeaux to tame unpleasant odors and round out acidity.  Most importantly, Mondavi took a cue from the French and began labeling his wine Fumé Blanc.  The labeling shift associated Mondavi’s wines with high quality French styles and sales of his wine skyrocketed.  The Fumé Blanc label initially implied oak aging and blending for full bodied style vs. crisper, grassier pure Sauvignon Blanc.  As wines labeled Fumé Blanc saw a rise in sales over wines labeled Sauvignon Blanc these definitions became blurred, often intentionally as wine makers sought to drive sales.
The resulting confusion over labeling along with the growing popularity of Chardonnay in the mid-1980s curtailed the velocity of Sauvignon Blanc’s rise to fame.  Winemakers began to focus on creating inexpensive, fruity, aromatic Sauvignon Blancs for the everyday consumer.  Today’s California Sauvignon Blancs tend to be fruity with crisp acidity, sometimes a bit of grassiness and characteristic citrus flavors, especially grapefruit.

Other Growing Regions
Some of the highest quality Sauvignon Blanc in the world comes from the Loire Valley in France, especially from the sub regions of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé.  Wines from this region are generally bone dry, un-oaked and very elegant.
Other growing regions include New Zealand where cold-fermented, early-bottled Sauvignon Blanc with its pungent aroma, gooseberry flavor and bracing acidity is what put New Zealand on the wine map and what continues to propel New Zealand wine exportation.  New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs do not shy away from grassiness; on the contrary, weedy green flavors are sought after.  In South Africa, Sauvignon Blanc is nearing cult status as the white varietal, especially in the region of Stellenbosch.  South Africa has recently been producing some Sauvignon Blancs of note, especially in Chile but it is yet to be seen where this potential will lead.  It is also grown with less attention in Germany, Italy, areas of middle and Eastern Europe, and Australia.

Producing a high quality dry Sauvignon Blanc requires rapid crushing, sterile conditions, low temperature fermentation and stainless steel.  Harvest time is crucial as harvesting too late results in low acidity and the loss of fruity aromas, creating a bland wine, but harvesting too soon results in high acid levels which produce a harsh, tart wine.

Food Pairing
Herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc is a versatile food partner.  It goes great with light herbed foods like fish or chicken with dill or thyme, and even Mexican food with cilantro.  It has had a long happy marriage with garlic; garlicky chicken, bruschetta, and garlic bread make a nice match.  A very crisp dry Sancerre pairs perfectly with oysters on the half shell, and calamari with fresh squeezed lemon brings out Sauvignon Blancs citrus flavors.  It is also one of the few wines that pairs well with sushi.

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