WineInk: Sauvignon Blanc
A Spring into Summer Treat
This time of year, I tend to come out of my red-wine drinking cocoon and start to open a few white wines. I might twist the cork of a Kendall Jackson Chardonnay from Sonoma, turn the cap on a 2021 Martin Codax Albariño from Rias Baixas, Spain or pop the top on a can of Sofia Coppola’s Blanc de Blanc California sparkler.
But I don’t think I drink enough Sauvignon Blanc.
If you read the wine press these days, it would seem that it is only me who is not drinking enough Sauvignon Blanc. It would appear that the grape is having a moment. Especially Sauvignon Blanc from California. Last year, sales of California Savvy rose slightly more than the wine market as a whole, showing a 1.5% increase in sales according to — get this — Silicon Valley Bank (SVB). Yes, that bank.
It may not sound like much, but in a down market, any increase is a positive. And there are more vineyards being planted to Sauvignon Blanc in northern California. The same SVB study showed Sauvignon Blanc plantings more than doubled in California in 2022, with the addition of 1,744 acres across the state.
Oh, and today just happens to be International Sauvignon Blanc Day.
“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 grape, 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 wines in both cool and warm climates.
Among wine drinkers, there are several occasionally conflicting opinions on the grape. Many love it. And why wouldn’t they, considering the bright acidity, the distinct flavors of apples and melons, or in some cases, wet stones, and the way it pairs with food? All these factors 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, saying they 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. But even among this group of consumers, the new fruit-forward, fresh, acidic styles of the interpretations being produced in Napa and Sonoma in California are gaining in popularity.
Winemakers in different regions of France use the versatility of the grape to make wines in a number of different styles. In some places, like the Loire Valley, it may be made to manifest that bone-dry, flinty, crisp, and refreshing minerality that makes it perfect to pair exquisitely with shellfish. Here, the wines use the name of the villages, like Sancerre, on their labels rather than the name 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.
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 which sits across the Loire River from Sancerre.
In Bordeaux, while there are wonderful, dry, white-wine bottlings made with Sauvignon Blanc that will make you blush, many of the sweet Sauternes wines from the Graves region are produced from blends of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes. These plantings have been affected — and enhanced — by what is known as the “noble rot,” the Botrytis cinerea fungus that promotes a surge of sugars from the grapes and propagates the creation of some of the most expensive wines produced with Sauvignon Blanc as a supporting player. 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 these sweet blends. The 300-acre Château d’Yquem, owned today by Louis Vuitton-Moët Hennessy (LVMH), is planted exclusively to Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc in an 80:20 ratio. And back in the 1880s, when the first Sauvignon Blanc was planted in Livermore County in California, it came from cuttings from Bordeaux, including some from Château d’Yquem itself.
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 perhaps contributed the most to, the growing popularity of the grape.
In the mid-1980s, an Australian winemaker from the Margaret River, David Hohnen, who had already helped pioneer one region with his wines from Cape Mentelle, 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 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. His Cloudy Bay helped put the wines of New Zealand on the world wine stage.
While New Zealand’s wine production has blossomed to include wonderful Pinot Noir and other varieties, 85% of the country’s wine exports are wines made from 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.
Today, like Château d’Yquem, Cloudy Bay is part of the LVMH empire, which is owned by Bernard Arnault, who this past month was proclaimed to be the richest man in the world.
Coincidence? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Savvy and sauvage indeed.
Ladera 2021 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc
Of course, we make great Sauvignon Blanc in this country, and this fresh, fruit-forward example from Napa Valley showcases just that.
Made from fruit sourced from the Ryan Vineyards in the Oak Knoll appellation, this wine shows the deft skills of Kiwi winemaker Jade Barrett. Melon and mango combine with citrus and grapefruit on the palate to offer a basket of summer sunshine. From the outstanding 2021 vintage, the Ladera Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc marries time, talent, and the best of Napa Valley in a brilliant bottling.