Sauvignon Blanc - global success

The variety of grape is one of the most important factors when it comes to deciding what to purchase. Some become trends that function almost independently from their origin. Sauvignon Blanc is cultivated across the globe today. It is regarded as a high-quality white wine that can hold its head up high.
Photo: Austria - Steiermark
Photo: South Africa
Photo: Terlan, South Tirol
Photo: Chile
Photo: New Zealand
Photo: Friaul
Photo: Tasmania
Photo: Napa Valley

The title already alludes to this. The first "Sauvignon Blanc Celebration" in February 2016 was not meant to be a conference, but instead more of a celebration. And that was then also the mood that resounded. In Marlborough New Zealand, the speakers tried to sum up the identity of the variety using catchy names and came up with images of "loveable Labrador" of the wine scene, to "Pizza Margherita" and right through to "rock star". Due to the "meteoric rise", someone even put forward the comparison with David Bowie.

They were all probably right. In one way or another. The recognition value of the gooseberry-litchi-passion fruit note is reliably high, particularly in the fresh-fruity variants. "A good Sauvignon Blanc", raved book writer and TV presenter Oz Clarke, "puts a smile on your lips". Currently, also more and more with some bubbles. Sparkling Sauvignon Blancs meet a wide taste span for accessible wines. Other winemakers, such as Pinot Noir specialist Schubert, produce the variety with a depth of richness generated through fermenting in oak casks. When harvested shortly before being fully ripe, notes of fresh grass and bitter herbs can also be detected. What is otherwise criticised as being unripe in other grape varieties, in the case of Sauvignon Blanc it is regarded as being chic. That is practical for the winemaker. Despite the variety being prone to diseases, the cultivation and ageing are mostly free of storage and cheap to complete. Decent quality wines are available starting from just a few euros.

Indeed, the Sauvignon Blanc has been one of the very large global success stories since the late 20th century. It can certainly be said that it began in New Zealand. The first vineyard there was planted with Sauvignon Blanc in 1973. Starting in the 1980s, the fruity wines started to become popular internationally. In particular, the cold fermented style with lots of fruit and freshness left many competitors in its wake. Between the sweet varieties from California and the overly neutral tasting wines from the Mediterranean region, a Sauvignon Blanc was always a very pleasant exception.

That a high concentration and depth can exist in conjunction with a precise fruit was first proven by Cloudy Bay. The vineyard was founded in 1985 in the Marlborough region, from which most of the Sauvignon Blancs still originate today, and started bottling wines which would soon be counted among the very best in the world. They are the reference with which to judge the quality of the grape. An almost unique rise, which at the same time marked the replacement of the heavy cask-characterised Chardonnays of the 1990s. Marlborough still stands for a clear fruit-emphasised style right up until today.

Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is stocked among the premium segment in many countries, and in the United Kingdom it is even the market leader. Even in Germany, where New Zealand wines only occupy a niche segment, 85 percent are Sauvignon Blancs. Wine production today is worth in the region of €900 million to the New Zealand economy and is the country's 6th largest export product, and the winemakers aim to double the volume by the year 2020. The vines already grow very tightly together in Marlborough. The spaces where new vines could be planted are limited. But regions like those in Hawke’s Bay are increasing - not only the area of grapes being grown but also the quality. The cool-sunny climate that prevails on New Zealand's two islands allows the grapes to ripen while maintaining the acidity and is practically ideal for this particular type of grape vine. The lust-for-life mentality of the New Zealanders also definitely matches. Evidence of this is the fact that after developing the new Sauvignon Blanc style, they then came up with bungee jumping.

Botanically at the other side of the world

Graphic: map of New Zealand
The style of producing wine even has "reason of state". Harvested when perfectly ripe - better with the machine than by hand - and the cold-reductive fermentation produce a wine that is exotically fruity, practically free of any sub-notes of flavour. The New Zealand government requires winemakers to produce an export certificate in which the above characteristics are tested, amongst others. Even the research into the production of low-alcohol wines using a new fermenting method is supported by state authorities. This makes the modern Sauvignon Blanc the perfect choice for people who do not like much experimentation but want a good "down-to-earth" wine. Women are very often said to be the primary purchaser of this uncomplicated and fruity Sauvignon Blanc. Those in the know sometimes ironically call it "soccer mom’s favourite".

Confirmed figures tell a different story, however. In the United Kingdom, it was recently met with surprise that the members of the British Houses of Parliament were also making their own contribution. In reply to enquiries, the administration responsible for the parliament buildings published that with 50,000 bottles, Sauvignon Blanc had been the most ordered beverage in the bars in Westminster between 2012 and 2013, ahead of beer.

The botanical home of the Sauvignon Blanc is at the other side of the world from a New Zealand perspective. It was first mentioned in 1543 in François Rabelais’ fantastical and grotesque chivalric novel "Gargantua". A better start as beside the feasting giant Gargantua, who recommends it with pastry, can hardly be imagined. The origins of the vine in Sancerre and Pouilly on the Loire were already known in the 18th century. Genetic research has shown that the vine is related, among others, to Chenin Blanc, Green Veltliner, Silvaner, Rotgipfler, Teinturier, Verdelho and diverse Pinots. Colour mutations such as Sauvignon Gris, Rosé, Rouge and synonyms such as Fié, from the Latin ferus, wild, indicate that it is a very old type of vine.

Together with Chenin Blanc, it is part of the basis repertoire of the Loire. Due to long contact with yeast, the wines here are often smoky, which is reflected in the name Fumé Blanc. Along the river, which is over a thousand kilometres long and passes through areas with different terroirs of flint stone and limestone, countless different styles of wines were created. This variety is only found here. These wines were especially popular internationally and the archetype in the seventies and eighties. On the Loire, an incredible forty percent of winemakers are women.

Château Margaux 1710

Photo: landscape of Kapfenstein
Even in the red-wine metropolis of Margaux, Sauvignon Blanc was already known around the year 1710. On the banks of the Gironde, the conditions are similarly good. It was here that the vine type spontaneously crossed with Cabernet Franc to Cabernet Sauvignon. In the humid river valleys south of the city of Bordeaux, it also provided the base ingredient for Sauternes, the finest and most expensive sweet wine in the world. The large volumes such as Entre-deux-mers ripen without being befallen by fungi in order to become fresh and fruity white wines which are popular at the moment. The majority of them are good wines to drink.

Superstars like Haut-Brion, Cos d'Estournel, Smith Haut Lafitte and – once again – Château Margaux make wines such as these. Even when they have to be bottled as simple Bordeaux wines in the defined red-wine area. With roughly 27,000 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc, the white wine type is cultivated on the third-largest surface area in France, the largest areas are in Roussillon and Languedoc. The vine does not flourish as well further south. Poggio alle Gazze dell’ Ornellaia in Tuscany or Miguel Torres with the elevated Fransola in Catalonia remain the exceptions. The combination of a cool climate and barren soil can be found in various places in North Italy. In Piemont, Angelo Gaja produces Alteni di Brassica, a wine that can serve as a reference. Other committed winemakers cultivate Sauvignon Blanc in South Tyrol and in Friaul.

From the craggy soils in the cold areas at the foot of the Alps, the best winemakers such as Cantina Terlano in South Tyrol or Marco Felluga in Friaul produce wines of great depth and ageing ability. The location factors are even right on the north side of the Alps. Sauvignon Blanc has been in Austria since the 19th century. The branch really came into its own at the end of the nineteen nineties. The regions Weinviertel, Burgenland and in particular the warm and humid Styria have made big names for themselves. Even when the terroirs are very different, the best Austrians captivate with concentrated mineral notes which can be understood as their own style.

The attractiveness of the vine type, of course, also did not escape the attention of winemakers in Germany, where they have been on the lookout for an alternative to the all-powerful Riesling. The cultivation surface areas in the particularly warm regions Palatinate, Baden and Rhine-Hesse have increased to a very respectable 850 hectares. It is the very top winemakers, however, who provide the aha-experiences. The fruit often tastes bitter like elderflower and black currants. Despite climate change, there is still a lack of sunshine. Still.

With pseudonym in California

Photo: the Golden Gate Bridge in California
In the Balkan region, Romania and Moldova cultivate surface areas of 3,200 and 8,150 hectares. The hot summers, however, are problematic for better qualities - with the exception of Slovenia. On the island of Sicily, where a lot of vine types find the perfect place to thrive, Sauvignon Blanc also feels very much at home. The slopes of Mount Etna with their massive differences in temperature are rightfully regarded as a hot tip.

While the manufacturer prices increased in old Europe, Sauvignon Blanc has not only found a new home in New Zealand. In California, the vine type Blanc had first to measure up with the Chardonnay. Since the 1960s, the reputation of the sweet Sauvignon Blanc was ruined to such an extent that the marketing genius Robert Mondavi took over the name Fumé Blanc in order to refer to better wines in Loire style. With success. The herbal character, however, was not always well received. Just as poorly received was the famous note of cat urine of harvested unripe grapes.

The winemakers continued to experiment, adapting the pruning and the fermentation, and Sauvignon Blanc now grows in some of the best locations. The Central Coast with Santa Ynez and recently also Napa are regarded as cool spots. The winemakers have a grip on the bitter notes or mitigate with concentrated soft fruits. The best ones again come from the large red wine vineyards such as Chateau Montelena, Grgich Hills or Mondavi. Although the sales figures are stagnating, the Sauvignon Blanc is still regarded as a top type of vine. Bottle prices of 100 dollars are possible, available on allocation.

In South Africa Sauvignon Blanc is right up there beside the Chenin Blanc, which is regarded as the unofficial national vine. But the influence of the Antarctic offers the best conditions. Sauvignon Blanc is to be found almost everywhere. The dynamic wine production in South Africa has ingenious possibilities of expression such as grassy-fresh as in Elgin, to salty in Elim and right through to tropical-fruit bombs from avant-gardists such as Neil Ellis in Stellenbosch. In addition to intensive mineral notes, the wines have pleasant, full-bodied flavours. Many winemakers emphasise its fruity intensity, with which South Africa has overhauled the Chardonnay and which continues to put a twinkle in the eye of many tourists when they get home.

The mildly exotic and fruity side of the wine can also be encountered in Chile, where Sauvignon Blanc has developed into one of the most important drinking wines. The area north of Santiago is producing increasingly good wines. Chile has in this respect come up with its own term for Sauvignon Blanc, with many old vines in the Curicó and Maule regions probably being Sauvignonasse or Friulano vines in a botanical sense. The types are not differentiated in terms of their names. Chile’s terroirs make a big contribution to creating its own profile. Even wines produced in large volumes, such as Aurelio Montes’ Outer Limits from areas close to the coast offer many mineral notes.

Between Inca city and salt desert

Photo: wine cellar
In extreme climates like the Atacama Desert, Sauvignon Blancs grow despite very limited water resources with very complex mineral notes. Fighting the climate, as with climate change, is something that Chileans are used to. It pretty much sounds logical then that Montes established a trial cultivation in Peruvian Machu Picchu. His Sauvignon Blanc vines are in the direct vicinity of the Inca city at over 5,000 metres.

Surprisingly little Sauvignon Blanc has been cultivated in Australia up to now. Perhaps the wines produced by its neighbour New Zealand were simply too good, and many Australian regions too hot. Juicy Sauvignon Blancs come from the Adelaide Hills, Coonawarra, Western Australia. The cherry on top are wines from the island of Tasmania. The island's climate between the south coast of Australia and the Antarctic has long stood for Pinot Noir and sparkling wines. "Lady A" from the vineyard of the same name Domaine A at the Coal River orientates itself on oak-barrel aged Bordeaux', fermented and stored in French oak barrels. With its pure fruit, notes of lavender, vanilla and its almost unexplainable depth, it gives an insight into what can still be expected from the Sauvignon Blanc.