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Sip & Savor: Sip Into Summer with Sauvignon Blanc

Jun 05, 2015 11:33AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Chris Lawson

Sauvignon Blanc is a grape variety that is truly international. This grape variety is grown in the U.S., South America, and Europe: specifically in France, Spain, and Italy. It is also grown in many regions of South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. And it is controversial wherever it is grown. This is because it varies widely in response to differences in vine growing and winemaking technique.

Styles and Characteristics

Sauvignon Blancs are basically produced in two different styles. The first style emphasizes the varietal flavor. These wines are crisp, dry, and high acid with strong varietal flavors that range from grassy-herbal to fruity. Wines produced in this style are perfect to pair with lighter foods and should be drunk when young. Winemakers who produce Sauvignon Blanc wine in the second style add oak aging. Wines made in this style retain the natural varietal fruit and herbal qualities and add a creamy quality and the spicy-vanilla tones, which oak adds to wines. Wines produced in this style have a rounder texture but need a little more time to age for the wine to develop fully. These wines can be drunk a little later and are a better match with richer foods. It’s called Sauvignon in France.

In France, Sauvignon Blanc has its roots in Bordeaux. Known simply as Sauvignon (the French think the use of blanc, which means white, is redundant), it is blended with Sémillon to enliven and add zest to the white wines of Graves and Sauternes. But Sauvignon Blanc is best known for the varieties from the upper Loire regions of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire, where it is known as Pouilly Fumé. The influence of the climate moderating Loire River and the variety of soils in the area, from limestone and gravel to flint, have a profound influence on the wines produced in these regions which border opposite sides of the Loire River. Sauvignon Blancs from Sancerre are fresh, fruity, and aromatic with the lighter style of the variety. They emphasize acidity and crispness, often have a steely taste and are usually best when consumed young. Pouilly Fumés are highly perfumed wines with a pronounced “smoky” flavor (hence the French term fumé which means smoke). Dense and longer lived than Sancerres from aging in oak, these wines are fuller bodied and racy with lively thirst quenching acidity.

Sauvignon Blanc in California

In California, winemakers began by producing the typical herbaceous, fruity, true varietal styles of Sauvignon Blanc. When Robert Mondavi began using some oak aging, he borrowed the term fumé from the French and began labeling his Sauvignon Blanc wines Fumé Blanc. Later picked up by other producers, both Sauvignon Blanc and Fumé Blanc are used by California wineries on their labels. Some claim that Fumé Blanc is used to designate those wines that are oak aged from those that are not, but it is really simply up to the discretion of the winery and the marketing team as to which term to use. In general, California Sauvignon Blancs are usually medium-dry with light body, in the fruitier, grassy-herbal style and are best consumed young, although many are now oak aged with the roundness and creaminess which oak adds. Like other varieties, they are each the distinct product of their individual winemaker and winery.

New Zealand’s Claim to Fame

It is impossible to discuss Sauvignon Blanc wines without including the wines from New Zealand, which are internationally acclaimed. The wines are produced in the Sancerre style with aggressive varietal flavors and bouquet and emphasis on crisp acidity. They have distinctive ripe gooseberry flavors not found in Sauvignon Blanc made anywhere else in the world. The success of the Sauvignon Blanc variety is believed to be attributed to the cool climate of New Zealand, which lengthens the ripening time allowing the grapes to mature more fully. Whatever the reason, Sauvignon Blanc wines from New Zealand are very different from wines produced from the same grape anywhere else in the world.

Sauvignon Blanc and Food

Sauvignon Blanc in any style is an excellent companion to foods. The herbal qualities enhance the flavors of food and the crisp acidity cleanses the palate. They are particularly good with classic summertime foods and seem to have a natural affinity for poached, broiled, or grilled seafood, salads, and lighter summer fare. These wines are also very affordable with moderate prices. Since there is such a wide range of styles and flavors available within the varietal, we suggest you try different Sauvignon Blanc wines and decide which style most appeals to you.

Chris Lawson is a founding partner of Fishpaws Marketplace and industry expert of wines, spirits, and beverages.