Sauvignon Blanc is a white-wine grape from western France, now successfully grown in emerging and established wine regions all over the world. The variety produces lightly colored, aromatic dry white wines with fresh acidity.
Origin stories for Sauvignon Blanc abound although more recent theories put the variety as a cross between Traminer and Chenin Blanc, likely in the Loire Valley.
Along with Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc is also the parent of Bordeaux stalwart, the dark-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon. They are both vigorous growers that produce generous yields and are inclined to produce overly dense canopies in cooler climates.
Both parent and offspring have now become two of the most widely planted vine varieties in the world.
There is still discussion as to Sauvignon Blanc’s actual origins, with both Bordeaux and the Loire claiming to be the grape’s homeland. The grape’s versatility means its regions and styles are remarkably diverse, both within France and internationally.
The Upper Loire regions of Sancerre and neighboring Pouilly-Fumé are, arguably, the iconic appellations for Sauvignon Blanc both in France and for wine lovers worldwide. While Bordeaux also claims the variety, it is (in keeping with the winemaking of the region) often made as part of a blended wine.
In the white wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, however, the grape appears alone, often seeing little to no oak, although top examples can undergo some oak aging. Here the wines are mineral, citrusy, steely, bright and reasonably long-lived. Pouilly-Fumé wines get their name from the characteristic smokey, gunflint aromas associated with the wines of the area – “Pouilly Fumé” means “smoked Pouilly”. This flinty aspect of the Sauvignon Blanc aroma is often found in Sancerre wines too and the struck flint aroma reportedly derives from the presence of high levels of chert (silica) in the local limestone soils.
Bordeaux vies with the Loire in claiming to be Sauvignon’s homeland (its hallmark variety Cabernet Sauvignon is the offspring of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, for example) however, it is relatively rare to find Bordeaux white wines that are 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc.
In most cases, however, the prestigious white wines of Bordeaux are produced from blends of Sauvignon and Semillon (sometimes with a little Muscadelle), most readily associated with the Pessac-Leognan and wider Graves appellations south of Bordeaux city. These wines are made with varying proportions of the two grapes and are generally fermented and/or aged in oak barriques, giving a signature texture and a mix of herbal and tropical fruit aromas.
While the Loire and Bordeaux fight over the claim to Sauvignon Blanc’s roots, New Zealand (and, in particular, the Marlborough region) has completely redefined the global standing of the variety. The rapid development of the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, from its infancy in the 1980s to global recognition within a decade or so, is one of the most dramatic events in the world of wine.
Producing highly vertical, unique yet readily identifiable wines with aromes of gooseberries, grapefruit, blackberry leaf and passionfruit, Sauvignon Blanc has captured a vast market around the globe, from the United States and Canada to the UK and northern Europe, Australia and Japan.
The success of varietally produced New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in export markets worldwide has led many countries and regions to mirror the no-oak, high acid, pungent aromatics of Marlborough. Chile (particularly the Casablanca and San Antonio valleys) and South Africa produce noted examples.
Even in Australia the variety can thrive in the cooler coastal areas of the south while in Europe, more commercially-minded regions have adopted the New Zealand model. Aping a more Bordeaux style of barrel fermented dry white wines, the pairing of Sauvignon and Semillon has become the staple white blend in Australia’s Margaret River region.
In Europe, the cool, sunny sub-alpine slopes of Alto Adige, Friuli and Emilia in northern Italy produce high quality Sauvignon Blanc, which is used in blends with native varieties like Friulano or on its own. In Spain, the variety is sometimes encountered in the white wines of Rueda, as the variety has remarkably similar qualities to the local Verdejo.
A relatively robust, vigorous vine, Sauvignon Blanc adapts readily to all kinds of growing environments. Because it ripens early, it can be grown in relatively cool climates – its Loire homeland being the most obvious example – while its naturally high acidity allows it to retain a level of freshness even in warmer areas.
However, to achieve the true, forward zing that best characterizes Sauvignon Blanc wine, a cooler terroir is needed, ideally with persistent bright sunshine and a dry harvest period.
Sauvignon Blanc leaves are small to medium-sized, circular and pentalobed. Clusters are medium-small, cylindrical-pyramidal, oblong, averagely compact and with an obvious wing. Its berries are greenish in color, medium-small of ellipsoid shape. The flesh is quite fleshy with a slightly herbaceous hint.
Classic Sauvignon Blanc aromas range from grass, nettles and asparagus to green apples and gooseberries, and to more esoteric notes such as blackcurrant leaf and gunflint. In New World regions and warmer climates, aromas can push into more tropical areas, and include grapefruit, mango and star fruit. Thiols (such as 4-methyl-4-mercaptopentan-2-one, or 4-MMP) and methoxpyrazines (associated with green, bell pepper notes) are generally credited with giving Sauvignon Blanc its somewhat unique green, grassy, aromas, especially in Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
Sauvignon Blanc produces wines with a light to medium body and high acid levels with moderate alcohol. It is generally held that producers wishing to increase complexity will need to do work in the vineyard to restrict yields and, alongside this, lees stirring (bâttonage) may give additional body to the wines. In more commercial, early-release examples, the high, lingering acidity is often counterbalanced by low to moderate levels of residual sugar.
Crisp and aromatic, with grassy notes, and plenty of citrus flavors, Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most food-friendly, white wines. It pairs well with seafood, chicken, green vegetables and even asparagus, and herb-forward sauces like pesto, chimichurri, and mojo sauce.