A Six-Bottle Master Class to Sauvignon Blanc

White wine bottles stowed in winery for aging process.
Getty

Sauvignon Blanc’s popularity is undeniable. This green-skinned French grape became synonymous with New Zealand, where herbaceous, zesty bottlings from Marlborough turned Sauvignon Blanc into a household name.

Today, consumers can explore modern classics from Napa Valley and New Zealand, or compare wines from the historic regions of Bordeaux and the Loire Valley.

Sauvignon Blanc shows a range of flavors and textures, which depend on its origin, climate and how it’s aged. Bottlings range from lean and herbaceous to full-bodied and tropical. A side-by-side analysis is the best way to recognize such characteristics.

Organize your tasting by three key categories: Old World Bordeaux versus Old World Loire Valley; New World New Zealand versus New World Napa Valley; and unoaked versus oaked. As you taste, search for aromas and flavors, but also think about texture. Does the Sauvignon Blanc’s acidity appear sharp? Or does the wine feel round and creamy?

Of course, you’ll need to pick up a few bottles, so we’ve included tips on what to seek out. Feel free to ask your retailer for exact bottle recommendations.

The Two Grapes that Define White Bordeaux Wine

Old World Bordeaux vs. Old World Loire Valley

France is Sauvignon Blanc’s homeland. Experts believe the grape originated in Bordeaux, where it’s blended typically with Sémillon to make white wine.

Bordeaux’s white wines remain among the world’s great underrated bottlings. The union between Sauvignon Blanc, known for its aromatics and acidity, and Sémillon for body and texture, has been copied by winemakers around the world.

Flavors in Bordeaux’s white wines range from citrus, hay and herbs to peaches, pears, figs, honey and nuts. Fruity, easy-drinking versions are common to Entre-Deux-Mers.

Producers in the Left Bank appellations of Pessac-Léognan and Graves are better known for aging their versions in oak barrels. They create elegant, structured offerings that can mature beautifully for years.

Bordeaux vs. Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc Flight
Wine 1: Look for white wines from the Bordeaux appellations of Pessac-Léognan, Graves or Entre-Deux-Mers. Your retailer can point you in the right direction to find a bottling that leans heavy on Sauvignon Blanc.
Wine 2: Seek out a Sancerre to discover quintessential Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc.

In the New World, wines are labeled by variety, while the French do so by region. For example, many consumers don’t realize that Sancerre is Sauvignon Blanc. Yet, Sancerre from the Loire Valley, along with Pouilly-Fumé, has produced varietal Sauvignon Blanc for centuries.

Subtle differences emerge between these competing appellations in the Loire Valley, though wines generally have precision and purity not found elsewhere. In general, these wines are flinty and herbaceous, with grapefruit and grass aromas. Notes of smoke can appear in some Pouilly-Fumé bottlings. The Loire’s cool climate imparts wines with freshness, while it also restrains alcohol levels.

bunches of ripe Sauvignon Blanc grapes in vineyard
Ripe Sauvignon Blanc on the vine/Getty

New World New Zealand vs. New World Napa Valley

Most critics credit New Zealand with Sauvignon Blanc’s rise to stardom. Given how quickly it shot to the top, it’s surprising that Marlborough, on New Zealand’s South Island, didn’t have a single Sauvignon Blanc grape until 1973.

By the 1980s, New Zealand had become the variety’s New World home. In 1986, Cloudy Bay’s debut put the region on the map. The brand’s global success is a case study in marketing achievement.

The distinct wines of Marlborough are as much the result of terroir as an intentional style. Dry, sunny conditions in an otherwise cool-climate region contribute to the wine’s trademark freshness and flavor.

Zesty in high acidity, aromas include gooseberry, elderflower, green pepper, lemongrass and grapefruit. The aromatic intensity of Kiwi Savvy B is so pungent that you can smell it a foot away.

Though there are many fantastic wines that carry the fingerprint of site and individual winemakers, Marlborough leaned on a globally accepted method of production. It entails machine-picked grapes that are fermented in stainless steel, with the wines bottled and released young. They offer clean, lively drinking at an affordable price.

New Zealand vs. Napa Sauvignon Blanc Flight
Wine 1: Seek out an unoaked New Zealand option from Marlborough to explore the style that started the Sauvignon Blanc craze.
Wine 2: Ask for an unoaked Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley or one of its many subappellations (like Oak Knoll District or Rutherford).

Many New World producers have tried to copy New Zealand’s success. Napa Valley’s distinct style, however, evolved from Robert Mondavi’s early efforts in the famous To Kalon vineyard planted in the late 1960s. Today, Sauvignon Blanc is the second most planted white grape in Napa County, right after Chardonnay.

Napa Valley has similar dry and sunny weather compared to Marlborough, but a warmer overall climate. This enables the grapes to fatten on the vine. Plump with sugar, Napa’s Sauvignon Blanc ferments into bigger, riper, higher-alcohol wines.

Citrus and red grapefruit give the impression of freshness as a foil to the wine’s richness and fullness. Other flavors include melon, hay and herbs like basil and mint. Many Napa producers play with old and new oak, lees stirring and other techniques in fermentation and aging that create complexity and texture.

How White Wine is Made

Unoaked vs. Oaked

From France to Napa Valley, Sauvignon Blanc expresses the terroir of its site. However, the winemaker shapes its final taste. The vessel in which the wine ferments and matures plays a part in that.

Stainless steel preserves primary fruit flavors and aromas. It also prevents oxidation, due to its impermeability. Sauvignon Blanc aged in stainless steel will be fresh, clean and fruit-forward. Though New Zealand first employed stainless steel for the variety, many producers now explore how to add more dimension through barrel-aging and related techniques.

The most famous oaked Sauvignon Blanc in America is Robert Mondavi’s series of Fumé Blanc. Mondavi created the style when American consumers eschewed herbaceous, tart wines. The name, Fumé Blanc, references Pouilly Fumé in the Loire Valley.

Though oak barrels go in and out of style with Sauvignon Blanc, there are a few reasons to use them. Oak creates texture, adds flavor and encourages malolactic fermentation (MLF).

Unoaked vs. Oaked Sauvignon Blanc Flight
Wine 1 & Wine 2: Ask your retailer to provide one oaked Sauvignon Blanc and one unoaked version, ideally from the same region so you can compare across the styles without comparing regional differences. Both examples can be commonly found in regions like California, New Zealand and South Africa.

Winemakers generally employ used barrels that no longer impart flavor to create palate breadth and creaminess in Sauvignon Blanc. The porosity of the wood allows for micro-oxygenation of the wine. Leaving the lees (dead yeast) in the barrel and stirring them occasionally (bâtonnage) gives Sauvignon Blanc a rounder, fuller body.

If a winemaker wants to add subtle flavor, they do so with new oak. The toast level of the wood determines its impact on the wine. Typical flavors include vanilla, nutmeg and clove.

Sauvignon Blanc has high acidity, which winemakers often tame with barrels. Because barrels don’t control temperature, they provide an environment for MLF to take place as the wine warms. MLF turns tart malic acid into softer, creamier lactic acid, which reduces the impression of sharpness.

Thus, flavor, structure and price will be the key differences between unoaked and oaked Sauvignon Blanc wines.

Published on May 18, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings