Maligned by many, adored by more, Sauvignon Blanc divides wine-drinkers – and no more so than the wine-drinking elite. But why? Vinfolio’s Sophie Thorpe talks to the people behind some of the world’s best examples to explore the grape’s status today
It’s easy to sneer at Sauvignon Blanc. Its success has been its downfall. It’s one of the most popular varieties planted around the world – coming in just behind Airén (grown widely for distillation, rather than wine) and Chardonnay. In New Zealand alone – a nation that has fully tied its cart to Sauvignon Blanc – 26,559 of its 41,603 hectares of vines are dedicated to the grape (for context, the entirety of Burgundy represents a little over 28,000 hectares). It accounts for over 86% of the nation’s wine exports (the next most exported variety is Pinot Noir, at less than 4%). And yet, wine cognoscenti are inclined to dismiss it.
The variety’s historic heartland is the Loire, where it was first recorded in the 16th century, but has since spread rampantly around the globe, finding its way into almost every corner. Indeed, there’s even a remote stretch of Burgundy dedicated to the grape (Saint-Bris). It also gave us Cabernet Sauvignon, of which it is a parent, along with Cabernet Franc – which is some legacy.
In her benchmark Vines, Grapes & Wines, Jancis Robinson MW describes Sauvignon Blanc as “aggressively recognisable”. With descriptors such as cat’s pee, gooseberry, passionfruit, capsicum, grapefruit and cut-grass stereotypical, it’s hard to disagree – but there’s much more to the grape. Today, the distinctive variety is responsible for the flinty styles of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, more waxy, textured Bordeaux Blanc (where it is most often – but not always – blended with Semillon and aged in oak), the exuberantly pungent styles of Marlborough, richer, weightier northern Italian examples (not to mention many with extended skin contact) – and everything in between.
Château Margaux’s Pavillon Blanc is one of the most famous examples of Sauvignon Blanc – and rare in Bordeaux (at the top end of the category, at least) for not including any Semillon, which has never been planted on the site. Their archive has records back to the 18th century of a “vin de sauvignon” from the property. Tasting the wine, it’s always hard to believe it hasn’t been rounded out by its local partner – and this, Aurélien Valance, says is all to do with achieving the perfect level of ripeness.
“When [people] think Sauvignon Blanc, they think about unripe Sauvignon Blanc. When it is ripe, it can have very complex and floral perfume – but the problem is that it is very difficult to get it ripe and keep enough acidity,” the Deputy Managing Director explains. Working with old vines (around 50 years old), low yields and strict selection allows Margaux, however, to produce an exceptional, age-worthy white – one that “smells of Sauvignon Blanc – but not the Sauvignon Blanc that people are used to”.
For Christian Patat – the winemaker behind L’Età Più Bella and Ronco del Gnemiz, who also worked at Miani – the perfect harvest date is key to giving Sauvignon “verticality”, especially in Friuli where the wines are naturally bigger and richer than those from the Loire. If you pick too late, it becomes all about the variety – rather than the site. For him, Sauvignon Blanc is an “amplifier of different soils”, which is why he has ended up making six different single-site expressions with his wife at Ronco del Gnemiz, all made the same way so that the terroir shines through in each. Omri Ram – of Société Civile du Château Lafleur – echoes this idea, feeling there’s a particularly narrow window for picking Sauvignon Blanc, before the variety becomes a caricature of itself. He argues there is a “valley between two aromatic peaks” in which Sauvignon Blanc must be harvested, a window that lasts maximum three days, but as little as 20 hours in a hot vintage – so it’s essential to watch your fruit carefully, and make sure it’s on the right soils (with clay to help retain freshness and avoid hydric stress).
Patat – like the team at Margaux – is fortunate to farm old Sauvignon vines, between 40 and 50 years in age. This is ancient for the variety, which is naturally vigorous and very susceptible to Eutypa and Esca (grapevine trunk diseases which slowly kill the vine), meaning finding vines above the age of 30 is increasingly rare. Marco Simonit – the man behind the Simonit & Sirch method and master pruner to the world’s leading producers – feels that vine age, however, is key to making a “vin de lieu” (a wine of place) – and therefore combatting the onset of disease is essential for crafting great Sauvignon Blanc. He notes how it’s not just that Sauvignon (referenced affectionately as “this guy” during our conversation) seems to be more inclined to develop Eutypa/Esca, but it suffers more when diseased – showing its symptoms much more than other vines, as is most clearly seen in Bordeaux where it is farmed side-by-side with Semillon.
“I think we need to reconsider the spacing and architecture of the vines,” Simonit says. He feels that these older vineyards have survived thanks to their wider spacing, allowing each vine more room to sprawl naturally. Robert Mondavi’s I Block is a prime example – the plot of Sauvignon Blanc in To Kalon planted in the mid-1940s. These untrellised, freestanding tree-like plants stand proud and sparse, producing wine that – in Mark de Vere MW’s words – offer “a different type of complexity, elegance”, yielding just half a ton an acre. Simonit is convinced that the increased vine density of the last 30 years has contributed to the higher incidence of grapevine trunk diseases, and this type of “dynamic” architecture, exemplified by the unfashionable California sprawl, may be the solution to Sauvignon Blanc’s short life-span, helping minimize pruning cuts and giving it the space it needs – but does need to be adapted to the individual site and climate.
Andy Erickson – winemaker at Favia and star consultant – now makes wine in To Kalon (under the To Kalon Vineyard Company label) – but has fond memories of I Block, as he would trespass to taste the Sauvignon Blanc at harvest time – loving the flavor of the grape just on the cusp of harvest. He was the one who suggested planting Sauvignon Blanc at Screaming Eagle – which produces a tiny amount (30-50 cases only) of incredibly sought-after Sauvignon. There was a tiny corner of the vineyard with more alluvial, clay soils – a site that wouldn’t produce a Screaming-Eagle-grade red, so he suggested it be used for Sauvignon Blanc and Musqué (an aromatic clone of the variety, also planted at Eisele Vineyard – where it represents 80% of the vineyard). “The challenge with Sauvignon Blanc is you really need to plant it on Cabernet Sauvignon ground to make the best wines, and so it takes someone who’s really passionate – or maybe a little crazy to do that,” Erickson says.
While the Loire’s top wines have always been accepted as fine wine, as with top white Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc under its own name didn’t make it big until the late 20th century. Robert Mondavi shifted perceptions in California – but only by rebranding the variety. In the late 1960s, at a time when most Sauvignon Blanc in America was low quality and sweet, he created Fumé Blanc – legally registering the term as a synonym for Sauvignon Blanc with the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). With its European feel (inspired of course by Pouilly-Fumé), he made dry, serious Sauvignon Blanc – and, at the top end, fermented the wine in oak. At the time, it was radical – and soon the wines earned international acclaim.
Meanwhile, something was going on Down Under. David Hohnen – who had just won a Jimmy Watson trophy for his Cabernet Sauvignon at Cape Mentelle, Margaret River – was visited by a handful of travelling Kiwi winemakers. They left him with a bottle of something new, a Sauvignon Blanc (which had only been planted for the first time in New Zealand in 1973). “He hadn’t tasted anything like it before,” Jim White, Cloudy Bay’s Technical Director, tells me. Hohnen happened to have a Kiwi cellar hand at the time, and asked him to bring back more Sauvignon when he went home for Christmas. In 1984, Hohnen went to New Zealand. He persuaded Kevin Judd – then winemaker at Selaks – to come make wine for him. They couldn’t find Sauvignon Blanc at first, so the first vintage in 1984 was a Marlborough Semillon. The following vintage, they bought a truckload of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, and ferried it all the way up to Gisborne to make the wine.
With such a small population, machine harvesting was the only option in New Zealand – and this, combined with the additional skin contact from the fruit’s minimum 12-hour journey to Gisborne, extracted more tannin than they’d wanted, but also thiol precursors – the compounds responsible for Sauvignon’s pungent aromas. Hohnen didn’t put “New Zealand” on the front label, feeling people wouldn’t take it seriously. By 1986, they had built their own winery (having persuaded an angling-loving Scot to stump up a million dollars to fund the project, on the basis that he’d have access to the best trout fishing in the world). The vineyards needed work – and Hohnen’s experience was key, bringing knowledge of canopy management, reducing water and nitrogen and reducing yields. The wines took off, and Cloudy Bay was born.
For White, vineyard location is the foundation of top Sauvignon Blanc – needing stony, free-draining soils to contain the variety’s natural vigour, hence why they prefer the heart of the Wairau Valley. Combine this with enough leaf plucking to allow for sufficient airflow, but avoid over-exposing the fruit, and this allows them to harvest ripe fruit that still has beautiful acidity – echoing Valance’s views at Margaux. The important thing for them is to avoid the “big green monster” – ensuring they have no methoxypyrazines (green compounds), which happen to be some of the most stable compounds during maturation, and don’t disappear with time in bottle.
In New Zealand, the variety has been a victim of its own success – shoehorned as crisp, fresh and nothing more. And while that style brings undeniable joy, there are an increasing number of wines being made with wild yeast and oak to produce a less exuberant and primary style – such as Dog Point’s Section 94 and Greywacke’s Wild Sauvignon. In the Loire, it seems to be increasingly common to see oak, while in Bordeaux, there’s a shift away from, or toward reducing the use of, wood. As Pierre-Olivier Clouet of Château Cheval Blanc told me, in the past white Bordeaux was “too green, too excessive, too much, too oaky, too fat… too boring” – he feels that the answer isn’t necessarily to reduce the proportion of new oak, but to increase the size of barrels and age the wine longer, so that the oak adds a silkiness, density and bitterness to the finish – but not to the aromatics.
A common accusation of Sauvignon Blanc is that it doesn’t age – something many feel is a prerequisite for “fine” wine. But that simply isn’t true. If you’ve never tasted old Marlborough Sauvignon, you’re missing out. I had a bottle of 1999 Cloudy Bay a few years ago – and it was extraordinary. White, who has tasted many more mature vintages from the iconic estate than me, describes it as a little like old Semillon or Loire Chenin – developing toasty, honeyed notes, yet it retains the overt freshness and expressiveness of the distinctive style. Margaux was recently reconditioning their stocks of Pavillon Blanc, and Valance had the opportunity to taste vintages back to 1926 – almost all of which he says were fabulous. He feels it ages at least 20-30 years, and more in top years.
Today, things have come full circle – Sauvignon Blanc is a brand of its own, and Robert Mondavi is even dropping the “Fumé Blanc” phrasing from its more entry-level bottlings of the variety. But, despite this and the undeniable quality of the wines, Sauvignon Blanc never quite seems to steal the limelight. “There’s a glass ceiling for Sauvignon Blanc,” White says. “It’s about 93 points.” The Cloudy Bay team was delighted when their oaked, limited-edition Te Koko cuvée earned 95 points in Decanter last year – but it’s the exception, rather than the rule. And even though they’ve had wines score higher than Pavillon Blanc, they’ll rarely be considered in the same category as either those, or the likes of the Loire’s Dagueneau and Vatan. “It’s too easy for people to understand, it makes it too enjoyable – and therefore it’s no longer the coveted thing that you have to have years of education to appreciate,” White says.
In an age of unicorn-hunting, “popular” can be the ultimate insult. And yet there’s a reason that so many people have fallen for the charms of Sauvignon Blanc. Don’t let its commercial success put you off – there’s much more to this grape than first meets the eye.
– Sophie Thorpe
Keep an eye out for our pick of the best Sauvignon Blanc from around the world – or, in the meantime, read more Editorial