Drawing a Blanc: Sauvignon Blanc Around the World

(Originally published October 2005)

While Chardonnay arguably remains the most popular white wine today there’s little doubt that Sauvignon Blanc has made serious inroads in popularity and this grape represents the most likely “challenger to the throne.” Sadly, though, there seems to be little said about the flavor and textural differences among the many regions producing Sauvignon Blanc wines. So, Hanes thought he would produce a “quick and dirty” overview of the current scene. That Hanes. always thinking.

First, the basics. Yes, Sauvignon Blanc makes a white wine. A curious fact about the grape, known to many wine geek types, is that Sauvignon Blanc is a “parent” of Cabernet Sauvignon. The latter has been shown to be the result of a spontaneous field crossing between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc (a grape which is used to make red wines) in the 18th century in some unknown vineyard in France’s Bordeaux region where Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc were inter-planted. So, a grape used to make white wines is half responsible for the existence of perhaps the world’s most famous grape used to make a red wine. The world is a mysterious and beautiful place.

Sauvignon Blanc is one of those grapes which can thrive under a diverse variety of growing conditions and it tolerates heat very well. Its vines are particularly vigorous and grow with abandon, something which has made it popular with growers since they get paid by the ton. However, winemakers and consumers do not always benefit from this vigor since the result may be too many branch shoots and/or grape bunches, dividing the vine’s energy among too many recipients and resulting in more dilute, underripe, herbaceous wines. One (actually Hanes) may suggest that when it comes to the qualitative “basement” of wines made from specific grapes Sauvignon Blanc may be counted among the worst offenders — a bad Sauvignon Blanc can be really, really bad.

Relatively speaking, Sauvignon Blanc has high acidity, an element which contributes to its commonly crisp and zesty profile. On the whole, it is lower in alcohol than other white wines which, with the higher acidity, keeps it refreshing without the burn.

Extended aging in oak barrels tends to obscure the clean, racy qualities of Sauvignon Blanc wines. Most of these wines are instead produced by fermenting and/or aging in stainless steel vats. When oak is used it is most often in older, more neutral barrels and for shorter periods of time than many other white varietals.

Generally speaking, Sauvignon Blanc pairs best with seafood dishes. This is especially so of shellfish and lighter fish such as filet of sole or flounder. It can also prove tasty alongside Asian cuisines, particularly those with savory sauces such as curry, hoisin or red pepper flavorings. It also goes well with an empty glass and a case of delirium tremens.

Here’s what Hanes believes to be the deal with Sauvignon Blanc around the world…

French Sauvignon Blanc remains the “benchmark” against which the rest of the world is measured. While this is slowly changing, them’s the facts.

Loire Valley Just about ground zero for the most prestigious and well-regarded dry Sauvignon Blancs in the world. The most recognized appellations remain Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre followed by Cheverny, Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Touraine. Chalk, marl, silex and flint are found in the soils here which help to produce wines with a decided stony, chalky profile. Lemon citrus, grass and leaner pear, apple, peach fruit are also typical flavor components. The strength of the acidity shines through (or at least should) here, highlighting the soil flavors even more. On the whole, these are Sauvignon Blancs for people who like them crisp and fresh rather than fruity or softer in texture.

Bordeaux The best dry wines are from Graves or Pessac-Léognan while boatloads of potable stuff comes from the Entre-Deux-Mers region. The rocky terrain can give the wines some character but dilution remains a problem at times making the wines lighter than desired and with weak finishes. These issues are sometimes addressed by blending Sémillon with the Sauvignon Blanc. And sometimes this addresses these issues. The better wines offer more by way of melon, pear, apricot fruit flavors with more mineral water and stoniness than explicit chalkiness. There’s some white citrus and florality too and, depending on the presence and percentage of Sémillon, a rounder, fuller texture.

To make the discussion of Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux complete it must be noted that the famed dessert wines of the Sauternes and Barsac sub-regions are also a result of blending Sauvignon Blanc with Sémillon (and to a lesser extent Muscadelle as well). Traditionally, Sémillon has represented the majority portion of these wines however Sauvignon Blanc appears to be taking on a greater role percentage-wise.

Les Autres Sauvignon Blanc has made its way across France and can be found to greater or lesser degrees of success in wines from the Midi, Vin de Pays d’Oc, Côtes du Marmandais and other small regional pockets. If you come across wines from these places there’s a good chance that (a) the grape will be part of a blend and/or (b) the wine will be very cheap or very expensive.

Pretty much the contemporary “800 pound gorilla” of the world, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is almost a category to itself despite its popularity only truly beginning to take hold in the 1980’s (having been introduced to the country’s Marlborough region in 1973). The flavors associated with “Kiwi” Sauvignon Blancs are noticeably distinct and have helped set them apart from their global competition (offering many choices at lower prices hasn’t hurt either). Common descriptors include the ever-popular “cat pee” (it’s true), gooseberry, white grapefruit, asparagus, chili peppers, minerals and mint. The fruit flavors run towards the more “tropical” side of things with peach, guava, papaya, passion fruit, pineapple, nectarine aspects. While dry these wines rarely suffer from a lack of that fruit, doing an excellent job of “splitting the difference” between cleanliness and vivid flavors. While Marlborough is still the most recognized region, other regions such as Martinborough, Hawkes Bay, Nelson and Wairarapa are growing in consumer awareness and eventually qualitative distinctions among the regions may become apparent to consumers outside of New Zealand. Prices range from super cheap to around $30, reflecting the diversity of producers and product offerings. Most medium-sized or larger retail stores will stock at least four different NZ Sauvignons at once and they all usually sell at a brisk clip.

Sauvignon Blanc has been slowly gaining traction here as experiments have taught lessons about where or where not to grow the grape, cooler climates preferred. Chardonnay still beats the pants off of Sauvignon Blanc in Australia but a few of the better ones are making it to American shores. The downside here is that because these are the best examples they come at prices that may inhibit building quick market share. The actual flavors are not all that different from New Zealand but with less cat pee, herbaceousness while the level of acidity varies greatly. Hanes’s random sampling of these wines also appears to indicate a stronger chance of encountering a creamier mouth feel.

Beyond France, the United States and New Zealand here is the true wild card. Potential purchasers will find a fairly broad array of choices among many different price points from around $8 to a little over $20. Although Chenin Blanc (aka Steen) is more widely planted, the American thirst for Sauvignon Blanc seems to bring more of the latter here. Stellenbosch and the Coastal Region seem to be doing the best job so far, or at least that’s what gets exported to America the most. What makes these wines more distinct is how they combine fuller body and weight with strong acidity for cleanliness. Taken broadly, these Sauvignons possess white grapefruit, lemon to lime citrus and noticeable floral and smoky components. The unique South African soils give these wines an earthy appeal beyond the more basic minerality and sometimes even a light gamey quality. The fruit flavors tend more towards pear, apple and melon than tropical fruit. These are mouth-watering wines which will certainly only grow in popularity over time.

The Sauvignon Blanc grape came to California in the 1870’s and has steadily gained in popularity. The ripeness achieved in California often gives their Sauvignon Blancs more richness and body than elsewhere in the world. Rather than being overly grassy they push the fruit to the forefront with melon, fig, peach, apricot, guava flavors. The citrus flavors run the full gamut from orange, lemon, lime to pink grapefruit. The level of acidity varies a great deal and makes it difficult to make any sweeping generalizations — California, like all the places discussed herein, is a big place. That said, brisk and invigorating Sauvignon Blanc may not be California’s strongest suit and, if it is, chances are the prices will be towards the higher end of the spectrum. Under $15, and especially under $10, you are getting less body and flavor intensity, however, this may also translate into crisper wines.

As is the usual wont, Californian winemakers aren’t shy about busting out the oak barrels. Back in the 1970’s Robert Mondavi came up with the marketing angle of at once softening the flavor profile of Sauvignon Blanc via oak barrel aging while at the same time harkening back to the storied history of the grape in the Loire by labeling his wines “Fumé Blanc,” a nod towards Pouilly-Fumé. these tweaks made Bob major coin and spurred on a whole marketing trend in California which persists to today. So, yes, anytime you see a bottle labeled as “Fumé Blanc” the wine is actually Sauvignon Blanc.

The Rest of the United States Again, being one of the more popular white wines, Sauvignon Blanc is planted all over the country. In some places the wines turn out nicely, in others they are textbook exercises in wishful thinking. Duh. Washington State seems to be trying hard but, to Hanes, they can come off as underripe and somewhat dilute a lot of the time, particularly on the inexpensive side. This despite the strategy of sometimes blending in some Sémillon. More or less ditto for New York, except that the wines usually cost a little more for the honor. Nothing else from around the country has so far made Hanes want to keep typing.

If money is no object Italy can be a great place to explore Sauvignon Blanc. This is especially so in the two areas of Alto Adige/Südtirol and Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the northern part of the country. These wines start price-wise around $16 and can hit $50 or more. Ouch. However, if you like a Sauvignon with purity, a racy character, acidic verve and zest check these out. They display wonderful stony, minerally dimensions with lemon/lime citrus and apple, peach, pear fruit of flavor and not sloppy juiciness. Excessive herbaceousness is rarely an issue. If you are coming over to Hanes’s place feel free to bring a Sauvignon Blanc from Northern Italy.

Before the explosion in popularity of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc wines Chile was the place to go for cheap versions of the wine. Well, the wines are still cheap (especially if you are looking in the $8 and under category) but the Kiwis are eating the Chileans’ lunch. Mostly because the Chilean wines are too simple and lacking in personality. It’s not that they all suck, it’s more that they come across as “generic white wine” a lot of the time with nondescript flavors and little length on the finish. Also, there is a greater chance for offputting bell pepper or herbaceous notes. The book isn’t closed on these wines but, with a few exceptions such as Concha y Toro’s “Terrunyo” Sauvignon Blanc, there’s a lot of work to be done to reassert Chile as a viable threat to New Zealand on the inexpensive end of the spectrum.

Hanes has seen few Argentinean Sauvignon Blanc wines in the U.S. and tasted fewer. But it’s cool to just lump a whole country together with a whole other country. Sweet.

Just really starting to come into its own here, pretty much a bit player for now. Sauvignon Blanc is grown mostly in the Rueda region where it is used in a supporting role when blended with the Verdejo or Viura grapes (to be labeled as “Rueda” a white wine must have at least 25% Verdejo in it). Chances are that 100% Sauvignon Blanc wines will make it to the U.S. in greater numbers once the production steps up and the grape gains wider acceptance among the wine authorities. Note that Spain is another place unafraid of fermenting Sauvignon in barrels.

It’s a big world. Austria makes some absolutely killer Sauvignon Blanc, particularly in the Steiermark, Kremstal and Kamptal regions. Most of the best cost in the $30’s but there are nice, quaffable version to be found for around $15 which are usually labeled as “Klassik” or “Classic.” There’s just not a lot exported to the United States right now. Slovenia is also working hard at getting the quality of their Sauvignons up to snuff. Given the grape’s acceptance and general growth in popularity it’s most likely also grown in places like Switzerland, Greece, Germany, Slovakia, Hungary, who the hell knows.

Say what you want about Sauvignon Blanc, at least it’s not Chardonnay. Chablis excepted, of course.