Sauvignon Blanc - Diving into the gooseberry bush

The name card of Sauvignon Blanc is neon green and it’s on buzzing mode. If Chardonnay is the silk tie wearing dandy then Sauvignon Blanc is a skateboarder in a baseball cap. It’s the super kid of the single varietals, as well as the world’s most easily recognisable variety: its freshly cut grass, gooseberry, elderberry, crispy acidity and explosive fruitiness make it non-confusable, even for beginners. 

Montes Montes Montes Cloudy Bay Cloudy Bay Errazuriz Matua Pascal Jolivet Pascal Jolivet Villebois Gilvesy

Its sign was a cat at kindergarten

Sauvignon Blanc means wild white. From DNA tests we know that the world’s most popular wine grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, came into being from the spontaneous crossing of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc somewhere around the 18th century in Bordeaux. Sauvignon Blanc is also an indigenous Bordeaux varietal, one of its ancestors is Traminer, while Chenin Blanc is its direct sibling. While it might have been more appropriate to call it “wild green” considering the wine made out of it, identifying it is child’s play for beginners: the grass, the gooseberry, the elderberry, the cat pee make for such a distinctive combination of aromas that it’s hard to miss. It is, in fact, the metoxypyrazine enzymes known from green pepper that are responsible for the pronounced aromas. (This is the same green pepper note that also occurs in unripe Cabernet Sauvignon).

Oz Clarke’s famous quote, which has gone through several modifications over the years, goes something like: sampling Sauvignon Blanc is like diving into a gooseberry bush that a tom cat peed on. No one would balk at the prospect of having gooseberry, grass or elderberry put into our glasses, yet it’s unlikely that anyone would willingly vote for the cat’s pee. However, scents conjured up by wine act differently and on another level than the actual physical phenomena we originally link the aroma or smell with. It’s just like the ethereal aspect of poetry. As an aroma association, even something ugly can lead to aesthetic pleasure. 

 

When? In the spring and summer.

Why? Because it’s amazingly fruity, refreshing and thirst-quenching

With what? Fish dishes, asparagus, salads, goat cheese, white meat made with sauce

How much? One of the cheapest among the big varieties.

  

Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé

The home of the Sauvignon Blanc “aristocracy” is Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. The distinctive feature of barrel aged Sauvignon Blancs made here is considered to be the flintiness. The aroma profiles of the Loire Valley wines are usually more discreet and less colourful, the wines are leaner, more elegant and have a longer life compared to the New World ones. The wines of the leading estates – Henri Bourgeois, Alphonse Mellot, Didier Dagueneau and François Cotat – are among the best French whites, yet they are seldom expensive. One of the exceptions are the wines of the rebellious Didier Dagueneau Silex, who sadly passed away at a young age. His wines are regarded as the apotheosis of the variety and cost almost 100 euros per bottle. 

Many people believe the less the winemaker messes with it, the better the Sauvignon Blanc will be. They think barrel ageing robs it of its crowning glory of the unique and intense aromas, and makes it similar to Chardonnay, without having the chance to ever reach Chardonnay’s complexity. Yet others feel that steel tank ageing creates homogenous wines due to the domineering varietal character. That’s why certain cynical experts say that if you have tasted one Sauvignon Blanc, then they have tasted them all. How untrue this statement actually is can be proved by our current selection. 

 

New world vs. the Old World

A Frenchman would probably be struck down by a stroke if someone told him that Sauvignon Blanc was put on the map by an Australian and a Brit somewhere remote in New Zealand.

This is despite the fact that this is at least partially true. What is completely true however is that a global consumer would associate Sauvignon Blanc more with New Zealand than with Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. In New Zealand, thanks to the Matua winery, the variety is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The Matua winery was the first one to plant the variety in 1969, and with its first wine in 1974 so started the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc story. Indeed, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc would later conquer the world. Before the single variety approach made a star out of it, Sauvignon Blanc only appeared in important, yet disguised supporting roles, as in Bordeaux whites, in Sauternes sweets and Loire dries. But it had never experienced the triumph of having its name put up in lights. It had to wait until 1986 when the second vintage of Cloudy Bay was made in Marlborough, previously only known for its sheep farming, and became a blockbuster in the UK.

 

The Cloudy Bay story

Back in 1983, David Hohnen who is one of the founding members of Western Australia’s Cape Mentelle winery, tasted a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The experience was soon followed by firm action. In 1984, he learnt about New Zealand wines on the spot, and the following year he purchased a plot in Marlborough. The forerunner of Cloudy Bay was made in 1985, not in the most ideal of circumstances. The 40 tonnes of purchased grapes were processed in a winery 600 kilometres away and the chief winemaker, Kevin Judd, directed the cellar workers over the phone from Australia. The second vintage made it as far as the UK, and the press and consumers fell for it immediately. The Cloudy bay legend was born, and through it, so was a new wine country: New Zealand. In 2003, the ever so successful winery was acquired by LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy), which is well-known for its luxury products. In 2009, production reached 1.2 million bottles a year. Founding winemaker, Kevin Judd, also left the same year.

It was Cloudy Bay that made Sauvignon Blanc a star within a fortnight. The sound of cash tills chinking woke up the other New World wine powers and soon Chile, South Africa and California started pouring out crispy, fresh, mainly steel tank-made Sauvignon Blancs.

Unusual as it might sound, even the French joined in: under the command of the business-savvy genius Bernard Magrez, Dourthe No. 1 was put on the market as soon as 1988. This pristinely pure Sauvignon Blanc is made from bought in grapes in Bordeaux and almost a million bottles of it are sold annually. The rise of Sauvignon Blanc is well reflected by the fact that based on the size of vineyards in France, it was the 13th in 1968 and by the turn of the 21st century it was the third most planted white variety.

 

Universal restaurant wine

Sauvignon Blanc is the energy drink of restaurants, the adrenaline spritzer for the taste buds. It’s refreshing, thirst-quenching, galvanising, appetising and seductive like a chilled, minty, exotic fruit cocktail. Owing to its lively acidity, it’s also a natural born partner to food. It’s especially a blessing with saucy dishes as it cuts through the dressing. It can even tame asparagus, which is otherwise considered a wine-killer, which in itself is an unparalleled performance. Nevertheless, it’s in its element besides fish and seafood. The real foodies swear by a goat cheese-Sauvignon Blanc combo. In 2012, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc overtook Chardonnay in Great Britain, and became the most popular gastro wine. In restaurants, Sauvignon Blanc is the real smart choice: it’s hard to spoil, not expensive and is at its best young.