The many styles of sauvignon blanc, and New Zealand’s influence on the grape
Sauvage. It’s such a great word. In English, the French word translates roughly to “wild,” “natural” or “untamed.” All good things. And France — Bordeaux and the Loire Valley more precisely — is home to the noble sauvignon blanc, or the savage white if you will, one of the great grapes of summer.
While sauvignon blanc may be indigenous to France, its passport has been stamped by winemakers throughout the world. From California to Chile, South Africa to New Zealand, the green grape grows with abandon and can turn out exceptional vintages in both cool and warm climates.
Among wine drinkers there are a number of opinions on the grape. Many love it. The bright acidity, the flavors of apples and melons — or in some cases, stones — the way it pairs with food, all combine to make it one of the most popular white wines in the world. But others, not so much. There are those who eschew sauvignon blanc, who don’t care for the herbaceous quality, the green flavors that remind some of bell peppers, or, in the case of “Savvy,” as they call it in New Zealand, freshly cut grass.
FRENCH SAUVIGNON BLANC
Winemakers in different regions of France use the versatility of the grape to make wines in a myriad of styles. In some places, like the Loire Valley, it may be made to manifest that bone-dry, flinty, crisp and refreshing minerality that allows it to pair exquisitely with shellfish. Here the wines use the name of the villages, like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, on their labels rather than the names of the grape. There may be no more revelatory dine and wine experience than sitting in one of the great brasseries of Paris with a tower of shellfish in the center of the table, showing off the red lobster of the Atlantic, paired with a freshly made carafe or bottle of a chilled, slightly straw-colored, sauvignon blanc.
In Bordeaux, while there are wonderful, dry, white wine bottlings with sauvignon blanc that will make you cry, many of the sweet Sauterne wines from the Graves region are made from blends of sémillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle grapes. These plantings have been affected by what is known as the “Noble Rot,” the Botrytis cinerea, fungus that enhances the sugars from the grapes and allows the creation of some of the most expensive wines produced using sauvignon blanc. Wine lovers going back to Thomas Jefferson have been entranced by these sweet elixirs of the wine world for centuries.
Château d’Yquem, one of the most prized white wines on Earth, generally features sauvignon blanc in a supporting role to sémillon. The 300-acre Château d’Yquem, owned today by Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton (LVMH), is planted exclusively to semillon and sauvignon blanc in an 80 percent to 20 percent ratio.
If sauvignon blanc has a patron saint, especially among modern white wine lovers, it would have to have been a man named Didier Dagueneau. A man as sauvage as the dry, crisp and exacting white wines he made in his organic vineyards in the Loire Valley, Didier died falling from the sky, like Icarus, in an ultra-light flying accident in 2008. His son, Louis-Benjamin, took the reins at the estate and today continues to make a revered single-vineyard sauvignon blanc, called “Silex,” that expresses the stony Pouilly-Fumé appellation.
THE KIWI REVOLUTION
While you can find solid, affordable sauvignon blanc from just about any of the world’s most important wine regions, it is New Zealand that benefited the most from, and contributed the most to, the growing popularity of the grape.
In the mid-1980s, an Australian winemaker from Margaret River, David Hohnen, founded a fledgling winery in sheep country at the northeastern end of New Zealand’s South Island, in Marlborough. He christened it Cloudy Bay. Along with British-born but Aussie-adopted winemaker Kevin Judd, he produced cool-climate sauvignon blanc that, to this day, remains one of the world’s most dynamic expressions of both the grape and the country of New Zealand. The wines have distinct aromatics that remind drinkers of the fresh green terroir of the island nation.
This year, New Zealand passed Australia in terms of dollars to become the third leading exporter of wine to America behind Italy and France. While New Zealand’s wine production has blossomed to include wonderful pinot noir and other varieties, 86 percent of the wine exports are wines made with sauvignon blanc. So successful have the Kiwis been in creating a market based on one grape that their model has been adopted by other nations seeking fortune in the vineyards by aligning with a single grape variety.
Savvy and Sauvage indeed.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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