Given the rise in popularity and enormous sales growth over the past 25 years you would be forgiven for thinking that ‘yes’ our friends from NZ were the founders of Sauvignon Blanc. But to find the true origins of the variety we have to go back a lot longer than 30 years.
Documentation has been found that mentions the presence of Fiers (an old synonym for Sauvignon Blanc) in the mid 1950’s. The region was not Marlborough NZ, but Val de Loire in north west France.
Sauvignon Blanc is thought to have obtained it’s name due to the leaves having a similarity to wild vines. Sauvage in French is translated to ‘wild’. It is widely planted throughout France and is in the top 5 white varieties by area. Despite this, there are two regions that have surpassed all others in recognising the quality of Sauvignon Blanc.
Regarded as the birthplace of Sauvignon Blanc the Loire Valley is considered the best place to find 100% Sauvignon Blanc expressions. While further south in Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc plays a vital role in the blended white wines along with Semillon and to a lesser extent Muscadelle in the sweet wines of Sauternes.
Two villages that sit right across from each other some 450 km from the ocean in the upper Loire Valley are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Sancerre wines in general are savoury, herbaceous and carry a nerve of acidity keeping the wines fresh, crisp and totally quaffable.
Pouilly-Fumé wines are more textured and layered with complexity often derived from some time in oak. Fumé is a reference to the limestone soils that hold some flint giving the wines a smoky aroma.
In America Robert Mondavi (Californian winemaker) called Sauvignon Blanc ‘Fumé blanc’ to distinguish it from the sweeter Sauvignon Blanc wines of the time. Sancerre wines tend to be drunk in the first two to four years while Pouilly-Fumé if made well can develop nicely over five to eight years.
In Bordeaux there is a huge production of Sauvignon Blanc blends that are simple straight forward easy drinking. The best dry Sauvignon Blanc blends for me are coming out of the Graves region.
Generally more Semillon than Sauvignon Blanc and aged in small oak for up to 18 months before being bottled. These wines resemble the weight and texture of a fine Chardonnay with more citrus and herbaceous flavours. They are wines that improve considerably with time in the cellar developing nutty, honey and spice flavours over a 10 to 15 year time frame.
The first reference to Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand was in the late 1960s early 1970’s. What a rise to fame it has now had. The best wines from NZ are fresh, bright with flavours of tomato bush leaves, passionfruit and kiwi fruit. Typically Sauvignon Blanc is fermented in stainless steel tanks at cool temperatures to retain fresh aromatics in the finished wine. There are now a number of producers looking to develop more complexity in their wines by utilising oak fermentation and time on lees (the dead yeast cells once the fermentation has stopped).
Marlborough is the most famous region for Sauvignon Blanc given its weight in plantation and quality of wines. Don’t be scarred to try some from other areas, with Nelson and Wairarapa (soon to be known as Wellington Wine Country) my picks for alternative styles.
If you haven’t picked up on it already Sauvignon Blanc does best in cool climates. So in Australia we look to the high altitude and southern regions for the best wines. Adelaide Hills in South Australia has forged a high quality reputation for Sauvignon Blanc mainly on the back of the outstanding Shaw and Smith Sauvignon Blanc. There is also a strong following of the single varietal and Semillon blends with Sauvignon Blanc out of Margret River.
The region that has most surprised me (and it shouldn’t have given the climate) is Tasmania. The Sauvignon Blanc from here is outstanding rivalling Marlborough with the scents of passion fruit and tropical melons. The balance of these wines is also something to applaud. Along with the fruit is a core of acidity keeping the wine fresh and lively while carrying the flavour over the palate for a long lasting taste sensation.