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34. GRAPE VARIETIES Number 13: Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon, ah, Sauvignon! Such a crowd-pleasing, easy-drinking variety. It typically displays lots of aroma on the nose, and is light and unchallenging in the mouth. Great party wine. You will note that I have placed twelve other grape varieties ahead of Sauvignon Blanc. It does have the merit of possessing quite a bit of character, which other staples designed to please the masses like Ugni Blanc (known as Trebbiano in Italy) and Colombard lack. However, in general, Sauvignon Blanc produces simple wines that are not worth ageing. Even the very best Sauvignons are not particularly interesting – they are pleasing but not thrilling or fascinating.

It does best in a cool climate, such as the Loire or Marlborough in New Zealand – and more recently the Australians have discovered that they can produce good Sauvignons in the cooler Adelaide Hills, after spending years producing dull, flabby, overripe examples in warmer sites. Sauvignon without crisp acidity is a depressing experience.

Good Sauvignon wines will display lots of aromatics: variously, gooseberry, elderflower, nettles, cat’s pee, herbaceousness. They will have a freshness about them (from good acidity), with a hint of earthiness or minerality underlying the flavour.

It seems that Sauvignon started life in the vineyards around Bordeaux, and that sometime in the 18th century it was crossed with Cabernet Franc to produce Cabernet Sauvignon. It has now spread to many parts of France, particularly the Loire (Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé being the most famous manifestations), and all over the world: eastern Europe, Italy, Spain, Chile, California, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. In California Robert Mondavi put his Sauvignon into oak barrels and christened it Fumé Blanc, after Pouilly-Fumé. In my opinion, though, Sauvignon and oak barrels do not work particularly well together, unless the process is done very deftly. I have tasted Pavillon Blanc from Château Margaux, which is given Rolls-Royce treatment, including 100% new oak barrels, and correspondingly expensive, and I find it to be a very peculiar drink, absolutely not identifiable as Sauvignon Blanc.

As we saw last month, it is a component in Sauternes, being the junior partner to Sémillon, and is typically an equal partner with Sémillon in dry white Bordeaux. I have also tasted a number of 100% Sauvignon botrytised (dessert) wines, including one from Isabel Estate in New Zealand, and, while they are fine examples of their type, there is no doubt that they do not work as well as the Sauternes recipe.

There are also other Sauvignons: Jaune, Noir, Gris, Rosé, Violet, Vert and Sauvignonasse. The Jaune is the only one that is genetically identical, but they all produce white wines that taste approximately similar to Sauvignon Blanc.

So there we are: a popular, fashionable grape variety that produces easy-drinking, uncomplicated wines.