It starts paradoxically with reference to both the Old World (Europe) and New World of wines – probably in equal measure. The “spiritual home” of Sauvignon Blanc is found in the eastern section (or Central Vineyards) of the Loire Valley. Here, on well drained, chalky soils Sauvignon excels, as exemplified by the renowned districts of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, where dry, crisp and mineral Sauvignon wines made such an impression on the wine lover that their fame spread around the world. Fast forward to the 1980s and a relatively newly planted region in the northern end of the South Island of New Zealand – called Marlborough. Here the dry, perfumed and exotic Sauvignons again created so much attention that another, new, world standard expression of Sauvignon was formed.
So much so that the highly respected wine writer Oz Clarke wrote at the time (in 1991, in his ground-breaking book “New Classic Wines”); “A quintessential style of Sauvignon Blanc is now made in New Zealand, not France, and is a rare example of an old classic being stripped of its crown by a new”. The soil and climatic conditions are near perfect in Marlborough – nearly always sunny and dry, but never too hot. No wonder the Maoris called the region “Kei puta te Wairau” – the “place with the hole in the clouds”.
Today these two great expressions of Sauvignon are as respected and enjoyed as ever before, but maybe the two styles have moved a little closer towards each other – with top Loire examples being slightly riper and more exotic, whilst top Marlboroughs have become more restrained and mineral.
And quite simply, you cannot ignore the sheer exuberance, aromas and fruitiness of Sauvignon – it shouts from the glass and dances on your palate. The header picture symbolises just a few of the many varied smells and flavours which make this grape and wine so appealing. And – with a few noble examples – it doesn’t require oak, or over manipulation by the winemaker to create a “manufactured” style.
Like a lot of good things in life it has attracted many imitators, and today is a firm favourite grape in many countries. Other star areas which have emerged and challenge the status quo include South Africa – especially in regions such as Walker Bay and Elgin; also, Chile – especially in areas such as Casablanca and Leyda Valleys. And – it may surprise you - Sauvignon has long been the primary grape in the top quality dry white wines from Bordeaux, as exemplified in the revered area of Pessac-Léognan. These wines also, successfully, balk the tradition by being mainly barrel fermented. And… it is likely that Sauvignon may have originated from the Bordeaux region, not the Loire! And (this may also surprise you) it is the “mother” of Cabernet Sauvignon, when crossed many years ago with the black variety Cabernet Franc.
With leaves like dinner plates, this variety is highly vigorous and relatively easy to grow. Its kaleidoscope of aromas and flavours include – in cooler climates – grassy, asparagus, bell pepper and citric fruits – often led by pink grapefruit – and sometimes gooseberry. In warmer areas notes evolve to include elderflower, kiwi, and passion fruits. However, Sauvignon does not work well in hot growing areas where it loses its vitality and precise fruit flavours and aroma.
The vast majority of Sauvignons are best consumed young whilst still vibrant and fruity. If aged it tends to become more vegetal with notes of tinned peas, which not everyone finds so attractive. The one style which can be aged successfully, however, are the top quality barrel fermented white Bordeaux.
While a lot of Sauvignon is drunk on its own as an aperitif it does work well with a wide range of foods, including light meats, charcuterie, and vegetable dishes (not least new season English asparagus); also fish and especially sushi. A real surprise is how well the wine also works with young, fresh goat’s cheese! These wines, not unsurprisingly, work very well with lighter spring and summer dishes and – at last – are refreshing on warmer days.
Sauvignon Blanc is a wine for our times and well-balanced examples offer enormous pleasure.