Saturday, October 26, 2019

Sauvignon Styles

What's happening lately with Sauvignon Blanc?  For years, wine press activity has been more about Sauvignon Blanc the wine than Sauvignon Blanc the grape. But that only seems natural, because we wine writers tend to focus more on the liquid that ends up in the consumer's glass. 

Over the next two postings, we'll cover the stylistic versatility of Sauvignon Blanc. In broad general terms, those styles can be divided into Old World (mainly France and Italy)  and New World (primarily New Zealand and the U.S. West Coast). Old World styles are addressed here and New World styles will be covered November 6, 2019.

To help set the stage for the wine styles, here are a few words on the nature and growth character of Sauvignon Blanc the grape and how the grape is handled in the winery. 

Image result for free sauvignon blanc grape photos
Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc in the vineyard can be a challenge. Planting in light soils is preferred, as is keeping the vine's production under control. Vegetation growth can be vigorous and needs to be controlled, or the grapes become aggressively herbaceous, even with a strong smell sometimes referred to as "cat box." Key is to achieve sauvignon's distinctive grassy aroma, coupled with a light herbaceousness and piercing acidity.

In the winery, Sauvignon Blanc can either be fermented in stainless steel, then straight to bottle, with no oak. Or, after the tank fermentation, the wine is racked in to oak barrels  for a short period. There is some barrel fermentation of Sauvignon Blanc, mostly in Bordeaux and the odd Pouilly Fume. After introducing the world to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Cloudy Bay waited a few years and then added Te Koko, a barrel fermented and French oak aged Sauvignon Blanc. 

Advocates of oak-aging Sauvignon Blanc, like the added texture and body-feel and don't mind losing some of grape's fresh, fruity character. Oak aging Sauvignon Blanc moves the style closer to that of Chardonnay and further away from traditionally unoaked white wines like Riesling and Chenin Blanc. It's a personal preference. 

Old World Sauvignon Blanc

The origin of Sauvignon Blanc is undoubtedly France, but where: Bordeaux, Loire, Languedoc-Roussillon in the southwest? There is no agreement, although the favorite choice swings slightly toward Bordeaux. Wherever, Sauvignon Blanc is a valued grape in the Graves area of Bordeaux and in Sauternes and Barsac. And the grape has made a name for itself in the upper Loire River valley regions of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire. 

Sauvignon Blanc Harvest in the Graves

The Graves district lies immediately south of the city of Bordeaux. Until 1987, dry white wines, made primarily from Sauvignon Blanc, were known variously as Graves, Graves Blanc and Bordeaux Blanc.

In 1987, an appellation with the unwieldy name of Pessac-Leognan, was carved out of the Graves, retaining all of the best chateaux. P-L wines are mainly red, based on Cabernet Sauvignon, with a small percentage of the acreage devoted to white varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle. The last two grapes are legally permitted but not widely used.

The most available (and most expensive) examples of Pessac-Leognon white wines include Chx. Haut-Brion Blanc and La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc, plus Chx. Haut-Lafitte and Ch. Pape-Clement. Better value examples include Chx. Couhins and La Louviere. There is a wide range of prices for Pessac-Leognon, $25 to approximately $160.

Graves Blanc wines have a distinct earthiness with citrus notes and mouth-watering acidity. All of this is tempered with the softness of Semillon and hints of French oak. 

Sweet Bordeaux
Further southeast of Bordeaux city, but still in the Graves district, are Sauternes and Barsac, where Sauvignon Blanc takes on a different guise. Semillon is the leading grape, backed up by Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris. Here, as in Pessac-Leognon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris are not widely used. 

What sets Sauvignon Blanc apart in Sauternes from its place in Pessac-Leognon is botrytis. Grandly known as the "Noble Rot," botrytis is a beneficial mold that attacks the berries, reducing the water and concentrating the sugars. Botrytis is one of the odd natural occurrences in grape growing; it looks gross but what it does to the wine is delicious. 

The cool Ciron river flows between Sauternes and Barsac into the warmer Garonne, forming evening mists that linger through the next morning, when they are burnt off by the warming sun. The humid conditions, when they occur, form the botrytis and  the character of Sauternes. 

Botrytis transforms the pungent green fruit character of Sauvignon Blanc and figgy Semillon to a more complex ripe fig/honey and waxy taste. Top tier Sauternes to consider are Chx. d'Yquem, Suduiraut, La Tour Blanche and Rieussec. Chx. D'Arche, Filot and de Malle are good quality at a more affordable price. Barsac producers of note include Chx. Coutet, Climens and Nairac.

One odd example of the sometimes undecipherable French AOC rules is that all wines produced in Barsac may use either the Barsac or Sauternes appellation but not the reverse.  Most Barsac producers say that is a "no brainer." 

A Pair of Loire Sauvignons
About midway between Paris and the northern extreme of Bordeaux lies the Loire Valley, arguably one of the most picturesque spots in France, replete with intricately designed gardens, castles, vineyards and a wide range of still and sparkling wines.  

In the upper reaches of the Loire river are two of the best examples of French Sauvignon Blanc: Sancerre and Fume Blanc. In reality, there are two types of Sancerre; the older grassy style and the "newer" peachy, ripe melon style. This stylistic dichotomy also reflects the older and newer generations of winemakers.

Hilltop Village of Sancerre in the Upper Loire River Valley
The left-bank vineyards of Sancerre sit high above the river, where racy, pungent Sauvignon Blanc is blended with Semillon up to 80% and sometimes a little Muscadelle. Sauvignon Gris is also permitted. The green fruits flavors, with mineral and citrus backnotes, can become too herbaceous in cool years.

Across the river, Pouilly-Fume is said to reflect its rocky terrior, with a certain minerality often described as gun flint. As with Sancerre, the flinty traditions of past Pouilly-Fume  are moving toward the demand for more fruit-forward wines. Sauvignon Blanc is the sole grape and the wines can be perfumed, delicate, with a mineral/flinty back note.

The meaning of fume in the name has two versions. Fume is the French word for "smoke," thus the "smoky/flinty" character.  A slight variation holds that fume means the presence of morning mist (smoke) in the vineyards; same story, different version.

With some exceptions, like Didier Dageneau's eccentric wines, most modern Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume are difficult to tell one from the other by the casual wine drinker. So, if you like French Sauvignon Blanc (Bordeaux or Loire), sample a few different styles to find your favorite. Look for Lucien Crochet, Henri Bourgeois and Vincent Pinard.

In Italy, Sauvignon Blanc is found mainly in the northern districts of Alto Adige, Collio and Friuli. It is made as a varietal and also as part of a blend with various local varieties like Tocai and Vermentino. The style of Italian Sauvignon Blanc is unoaked with mildly herbal and citrus notes, with good acidity.


Next Blog: New World Sauvignon Blanc

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