Wine Basics: Sauvignon Blanc: Grape Variety Masterclass
What does it taste like?
- Fresh-cut grass
Where is it grown?
The focal point of sauvignon blanc production in the Loire Valley, both in terms of quality and quantity, is the Central Vineyards. Home to the renowned appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé it is here that the distinctive aromatics are perhaps exhibited at their best thanks, in part, to the mineral-rich, limestone soils but also to the climate.
The climate of the valley is particularly suited to slowing the ripening on the vine, allowing the grape more time to develop a balance between its acidity and sugar levels; key to the development of intense aromas. Terroir plays an important role here; the chalk and kimmeridgean marl of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé producing wines of richness and complexity.
Straddling the Loire river, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé offer fresh, herbaceous, bone-dry, racy white wines with appetising flavour. The refreshing qualities, coupled with it rarely being subjected to oak ageing, make this an ideal wine to appreciate in all its youthful freshness. Ideal with fish, Sancerre is also particularly suited to the local goat's cheese.
The success of these appellations, particularly in the 1970s, has a downside in that prices can be high and quality is variable with not all wines bearing the name worthy of the hefty price tag. Those seeking wines of a similar style that are easier on the pocket may wish to turn to the neighbouring satellite appellations of Quincy, Reuilly and Menetou-Salon. The wines show the same refreshing, herbaceous aromatics supported by a good backbone of acidity but perhaps have marginally less finesse.
Downstream (west) from Sancerre is the region of Touraine and sauvignon's other largest concentration of vines in the valley. Here, a more delicate, lighter style of wine can be found with attractive floral aromas alongside the key herbaceous characteristics.
While famed for its production of age-worthy red wines, Bordeaux also produces some equally note-worthy dry and sweet white wines with sauvignon at their base. The focus of dry white wine production is in the region of Entre-Deux-Mers, a parcel of land "between the two seas" of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, along with Graves and Pessac-Léognan, located on the left bank. Sauvignon appears in its luscious, sweet form in the world-famous appellations of Sauternes and Barsac.
Significantly, it is here in Bordeaux that sauvignon is joined by its most frequent blending partner, semillon, along with smaller doses of muscadelle. Entre-Deux-Mers is home to blended, dry, early-drinking whites that exhibit traits of sauvignon's zesty, citrus, acidity married with semillon's body and substance – the sum being greater than the individual parts.
Graves and Pessac-Léognan, located south of Médoc, add a further string to sauvignon's bow in the form of oak ageing. As a single-varietal wine, sauvignon shows off its fresh, zesty flavour when unoaked. However, when blended with semillon, the addition of extra body and substance results in a wine that can take on oak-age characteristics. The gentle barrel ageing gives a longer lasting wine, with added body and subtle, toasted, nutty aromas and flavours.
Finally, to complete the list of sauvignon's many guises in Bordeaux, we reach Sauternes and Barsac where some of the greatest, most long-lasting, sweet wines are produced. The blend often comprises up to 80% semillon with sauvignon and muscadelle taking more of a back seat, mainly due to semillon's thin skin and therefore its susceptibility to noble rot. Sauvignon saves the day by adding its essential freshness and acidity to balance the rich, broad flavours of Semillon and help give the wine longevity. The wines are luscious, viscous and rich with the sweetness well-balanced by high acidity. Citrus fruit notes are joined by aromas and flavours of marmalade and orange peel, a classic flavour resulting from noble rot.
While traditionalists might argue that the Loire Valley is sauvignon's heartland, New Zealand's winemakers might argue that it is they who have really put sauvignon blanc on the map.
New Zealand has taken this white grape variety and put its own brilliantly zesty stamp on it, creating a wine style that hadn't really been seen before and that many now attempt to emulate. The best tend to be unoaked, combining delicious, tropical fruit flavours with lively, fresh-tasting acidity and a directness that makes them especially satisfying. South Island's Marlborough region sets the benchmark with its pungently aromatic wines with distinctive gooseberry aromas and flavours.
In recent years there has been much interest in Marlborough's exciting sub-regions as growers learn more about the different terroirs and skilfully produce wines to express these. The Awatere River Valley is Marlborough's coolest valley with the added chill in the air creating very attractive and delicate sauvignons.
The key to quality sauvignon blanc from Australia is temperature; the cooler the better. The isolated region of Western Australia provides just such conditions in Margaret River in particular. Here the cooling influence of the southern Indian Ocean tempers the heat creating a climate not too dissimilar to that of Bordeaux. And like Bordeaux, the region produces classy Graves-style whites from sauvignon-semillon blends. Straight varietal wines are less common but when produced make for wines that are softer and more subtle than their Kiwi counterparts yet with more tropical fruit flavours than one might find in Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé.
The best regions for sauvignon production in South Africa are also those cooled by the oceans. Constantia, located on the Cape Peninsula, is perfectly suited; virtually encircled by two oceans, it has a strong, maritime climate. Tropical fruit flavours are matched with pungent, elderflower aromas along with sauvignon's distinctive herbaceous quality.
Stellenbosch and Elgin, both east of Cape Town, gain their cool climate from both altitude (hillside vineyards) and a dominant sea breeze. The sauvignons are some of the ripest, in terms of fruit flavour, with vibrancy and acidity to match.
With the Atacama Desert in the north and Antarctica to the south, Chile encompasses every climate type on earth. Its saving grace, in terms of vine growing, comes in the form of the Pacific Ocean. The Humboldt current brings with it rolling sea fogs and breezes that, where the mountains are low enough, are able to move inland, bringing welcome relief for the ripening grapes.
Surprisingly, the coolest regions are found in the north, where this oceanic influence is at its greatest. The two valleys of Elqui and Limarí, with their limestone soils, produce a sauvignon more akin to its cousin from the Loire Valley. Refreshing and crisp with intense aromas of gooseberry and elderflower, this style sees a departure from the more tropical flavours of Australia and South Africa. The cool night time temperatures help retain the marked acidity, providing a mouth-watering drink.
Leyda Valley, south of the Casablanca wine region, provides equally fresh wines. The gooseberry and nettle aromas and flavours, more common in the northern hemisphere, are enhanced by the cool growing environment.
What style of white wine does sauvignon blanc make?
Zesty, fragrant sauvignon blanc is probably the most popular white wine variety in the world right now. But while tropical-fruit tinged New Zealand sauvignon style graces every wine list in the country, it's worth discovering that there's much more to this aromatic grape variety than Marlborough.
Where should I start with sauvignon blanc?
Old World: In general, sauvignon blanc is used to make dry wines, distinctive for their fresh acidity and beautiful perfume. In cooler climates the wines often have bright citrus and mineral notes combined with a green nettle character (Loire and Bordeaux). Oak ageing, lees stirring (the lees are natural yeasts leftover from fermentation) and malolactic fermentation (a chemical process which changes acidic malic acid into soft creamy lactic acid) can also produce sauvignons that are rounded rich and full (look to Graves and Pessac-Léognan in Bordeaux for these) and when blended with semillion, can be used to create the lusciously sweet dessert wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
New World: You'll find those distinctive ripe, exotic fruit and gooseberry flavours in warmer, New World climates (Chile, New Zealand and Australia).
In its homeland of the Loire Valley, France, sauvignon blanc showcases its aromatic character and refreshing acidity at its best in the form of pure, zesty wines.
The other key region in France for top-quality sauvignon blanc is Bordeaux. It is here that the variety finds itself in bed with its most frequent blending partner, semillon, creating arguably the world's finest sweet wines in the form of Sauternes and Barsac, along with good quantities of dry, fresh, white wines.
Outside of the old world, sauvignon blanc has found its second home in New Zealand, particularly Marlborough, whose vibrant, pungent wines helped put this country on the winemaking map in the 1980s. It is also found in the cooler, often maritime-influenced, regions of Australia, South Africa and Chile.