Celebrating Sauvignon
Decanter|November 2019
It’s one of the most popular and widely planted white grape varieties – and with good reason, says Rebecca Gibb MW in her round-the-world guide to Sauvignon Blanc.
Rebecca Gibb MW

It’s Israel’s most-planted white grape and has been recommended as a cure for constipation in the past, but that’s not what has put Sauvignon Blanc in the number 11 spot in the world’s most planted stakes. The stereotypical party-in-a glass style, celebrating all things fresh and fruity, has made it one of the world’s most popular white grape varieties, and yet it is often treated with disdain by its makers and vendors. In Australia and New Zealand, a number of producers whose livelihood relies on the success of this grape have disparaged it as ‘bitch diesel’, and that is a disservice to a variety that is able to express its place and attain finesse when treated with respect.

Humble beginnings

Sauvignon Blanc’s roots can be traced back to the Loire Valley. In 1534, Chinon-born mathematician and writer François Rabelais mentioned it under the synonym Fiers, suggesting it was good for those experiencing slow bowel movements. However, it was another 200-odd years before any mention of it was made in Sancerre or Pouilly-sur-Loire, the two villages that are now synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc greatness. Before that, Pinot Noir was king in Sancerre, while Pouilly growers churned out Chasselas for the Parisian fruit market until phylloxera marched through the area’s vineyards. Even so, Sauvignon’s future still wasn’t assured: in the immediate aftermath of phylloxera, lowly hybrids were popular. Yet, in the past century, this aromatic variety has slowly tightened its grip on the lands of the Central Loire Valley, where it has revealed its rightness and righteousness.

Sauvignon Blanc’s climb up the ladder of most popular grape varieties is a very recent phenomenon. In 1990, when the first bottles of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc were trickling into the UK, it was the 25th most-planted variety, covering just 47,000ha of the Earth’s surface. Today, less than 30 years on, that figure has almost tripled to 123,000ha.

What has caused this ascent? Mimi Avery, brand ambassador for Bristol-based wine merchant Averys, whose father started importing New Zealand wine into the UK a year before the first commercial Sauvignon Blanc was released, says: ‘Sauvignon’s timing was a perfect storm. UK supermarkets had brought wine to the masses but whites were often sweet. New Zealand Sauvignon provided delicious fruitiness and no oak, unlike many Chardonnays. It was exactly what people wanted. As a result, Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand – and the rest of the world – became more popular.’

On the edge

Sauvignon Blanc has found many places to call home, but it is in the coolest spots that it reveals its piercing fragrance and laser-like precision. The historic home of the variety, France, hosts the world’s greatest concentration of Sauvignon Blanc vines, at almost 30,000ha. About one-third of those vines are planted in the Loire Valley, home to Sancerre, Pouilly- Fumé and its satellites. But much like the playing style of the late rugby player Jonah Lomu, the Kiwis aren’t letting anything get in their way – including a 450-year headstart in the Sauvignon Olympics.

From the first Sauvignon Blanc vine planted in Marlborough in 1975, there are now more than 20,000ha of Sauvignon planted across New Zealand and it continues to spread, occupying every spare sliver of Marlborough dirt. While it does grow in warmer climes –500ha in both India and Morocco are dedicated to the variety – its brilliance is dulled, the razor-sharp precision and dazzling fragrance muted.

Youth or maturity?

It’s true that most Sauvignon Blancs are best in their youth when they exude fruity appeal and vivacity. But you needn’t rush to open the best examples. Mature Sauvignon often develops an appetizing Chenin Blanc-like character with lanolin and almond flavors at seven or eight years old; while the 2006 Cloudy Bay currently exhibits Semillon-like lime notes and steeliness. And they can go on and on, says Arnaud Bourgeois of Henri Bourgeois. ‘We recently drank La Bourgeoise 1985. It had an amazing, smoky nose and honeyed, waxy flavors.’

France

The Loire

The historic home of Sauvignon Blanc and the reference point for New World winemakers seeking to benchmark their Sauvignon styles is surely Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.

The Central Loire vineyards, which include the satellites of Menetou-Salon, Quincy, Reuilly, and friends, are dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, and this area accounts for around half of the land dedicated to this variety in the Loire. On the margins of viticultural possibility, Sauvignon takes time to reach its finest expression, which is a true reflection of its place rather than the grape. Its restrained yet tangy aromas offset by chalky, stony or smoky impressions, distinguish it from its New World counterparts.

Conscientious growers have been increasingly respectful of their sites in the past 30 years, moving away from conventional farming towards organic practices, lowering yields and waiting for ripeness beyond pure sugar ripeness. Arnaud Bourgeois of Henri Bourgeois says: ‘We are looking for elegance, for finesse. If you have a wine that had intense aromatics, that would cover the minerality. We press directly to have a terroir expression.’

FIVE OF THE BEST DOMAINES

François Cotat; Didier Dagueneau; Alphonse Mellot; Vincent Pinard; Domaine Vacheron

Beyond Sancerre and its satellites, head westward along the Loire and there’s a hotbed of talented Sauvignon producers in the Touraine region. Many young winemakers are arriving, attracted by the lower cost of entry compared with Sancerre (€11,000 versus €160,000) and even Menetou-Salon (€75,000). Due to the growing market demand for Sauvignon Blanc, the aromatic variety now represents more than two-fifths of the Touraine AP vineyard area. Touraine-Oisly and Touraine- Chenonceaux are two recent additions to the appellation roll call, whose rules include lower yields and an extended period on lees, and play host to a number of ambitious producers.

Bordeaux

It is better known for its reds and sweet whites, but the dry Sauvignon Blancs of Bordeaux often blended with Semillon and occasionally a splash of Muscadelle, have made huge strides since Denis Dubourdieu and his colleague focused their research efforts on the science of Sauvignon (see p43).

‘When I came into the wine trade in 1981,’ says wine consultant Richard Bampfield MW, ‘I remember selling generic white Bordeaux Blancs that were mainly Sauvignon Blanc. They were dull and grubby, but most of the whites at that time were pretty bad.’

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