Around the World with Sauvignon Blanc: This racy grape expresses itself differently from France to the Napa Valley

Around the World with Sauvignon Blanc: This racy grape expresses itself differently from France to the Napa Valley
May 4, 2018 St. Supéry Estate

Sauvignon Blanc’s name comes from the French sauvage, meaning wild—a reference to the variety’s origins as a native grape variety of France. Like other wine grapes, it takes on different personalities depending on where it’s grown.

“Sauvignon Blanc is a fabulous grape with the ability to adapt to a variety of locations and climates,” says St. Supéry Winemaker, Michael Scholz. “We see a blend of fruit drive and minerality from Napa wines, flinty mineral classics from Sancerre, and vibrant, fruit-driven versions from New Zealand.”

Wines hailing from warmer regions tend to have more roundness, and those from cool-climate vineyards typically favor herbaceousness and bright acidity.

While the grape is grown all over the world, not all regions and sites are created equal. Over the centuries, certain appellations have emerged as prime spots for growing Sauvignon Blanc—each with its own distinctive expression of this racy grape.

Bordeaux, France

Bordeaux is defined by its proximity to water, including three major rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. This aqueous influence helps temper the region’s climate, which is typically mild in winter and rainy in the spring. Terrain ranges from flat to hilly, with clay and gravel soils. (Well-drained, gravelly soils—especially prevalent in the sub-region of Graves—are best for growing Sauvignon Blanc.)

Bordeaux Blanc wines are usually blended with Semillon, giving them a somewhat rounded, honeyed character. They’re also known for herbal freshness and citrus notes.

Recommended wines for tasting:
Exem Bordeaux Blanc
Prince de Tabourg Bordeaux Blanc

Loire Valley, France

The Loire Valley is home to two of the world’s great Sauvignon Blanc regions, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Sancerre is the better known of the two, revered for its steely, elegant wines.

Both appellations are located at the eastern end of the Loire Valley, on opposite sides of the Loire River. The region’s hillside vineyards are blessed with chalky limestone and flint soils that bring mineral character to the wines. Sauvignon Blanc grapes can struggle to ripen in this cool-climate region, but that challenge results in wines with great tension and crispness.

Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc is known for its raciness and precision, along with zesty grapefruit and lime notes. There’s a bit more smoky character in Pouilly-Fumé wines, due to the appellation’s flinty soils.

Recommended wines for tasting:
Pascal Jolivet Sancerre
Ladoucette Pouilly-Fumé

Napa Valley, California

Napa Valley may be more famous for Chardonnay, but it also produces deliciously distinctive Sauvignon Blanc.

The appellation is home to a moderate Mediterranean climate, a multitude of soil types and varied terrain that includes everything from flat valley floor to steep mountain ridges. Sauvignon Blanc is grown throughout the Napa Valley, and produces wines that are fresh and crisp, with bright acidity. They also tend to be remarkably complex, thanks to warm, sunny days and cool nights.

Purity of fruit, citrus notes, and a balance of fruit and acidity are hallmarks of the region’s best wines. Many are made without oak, but judicious use of French barrels can add a subtle roundness that is wonderfully appealing.

Recommended wines for tasting:
St. Supéry Estate Sauvignon Blanc
Duckhorn Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc

Marlborough, New Zealand

Located on the northwest end of New Zealand’s southern island, Marlborough has almost become synonymous with the lean, grassy style of Sauvignon Blanc that propelled the region to stardom in the 1980s.

One of the country’s sunniest and driest areas, Marlborough is a cool-climate region with well-drained, glacial soils. These conditions, along with cooling ocean breezes, produce wines with pungent aromas, high acidity and powerful fruit intensity.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs typically have herbaceous, citrusy aromas, and often display notes of freshly cut grass, green bell pepper, grapefruit and tropical fruits. (Cat pee is another common aromatic descriptor; while that sounds unpleasant, it’s not necessarily a negative quality.)

Recommended wines for tasting:
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc
Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc

South Africa and Chile

Being a highly adaptable grape, Sauvignon Blanc also does well in South Africa and Chile.

Wines from the regions along Chile’s central coastline, such as the Leyda and Casablanca valleys, are shaped by sea breezes and a coastal mountain range. Summer temperatures are tempered by fog that allows grapes to ripen gradually, producing aromatic wines with bright acidity and mineral notes.

The Sauvignon Blanc wines of South Africa’s cool Western Cape region are complex and balanced, with crisp acidity. The wines often have grassy notes, along with aromas and flavors of citrus, melon and tropical fruits.

Recommended wines for tasting:
Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa
Santa Carolina Sauvignon Blanc, Chile

Terrific Sauvignon Blanc wines are made in other regions as well, including Styria in Austria, South Australia and California’s Lake County. There’s a whole world of Sauvignon Blanc to explore, glass in hand.