Sauvignon blanc is a green-skinned grape variety that originates from the Bordeaux region of France. The grape most likely gets its name from the French words sauvage (“wild”) and blanc (“white”) due to its early origins as an indigenous grape in South West France
It is possibly a descendant of Savagnin. Sauvignon blanc is planted in many of the world’s wine regions, producing a crisp, dry, and refreshing white varietal wine. The grape is also a component of the famous dessert wines from Sauternes and Barsac. Sauvignon blanc is widely cultivated in France, Chile, Romania, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Bulgaria, the states of Washington and California in the US. Some New World Sauvignon blancs, particularly from California, may also be called “Fumé Blanc”, a marketing term coined by Robert Mondavi in reference to Pouilly-Fumé.
The Sauvignon blanc grape traces its origins to western France in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux Regions. As noted above, it is not clear that the vine originated in western France. Ongoing research suggests it may have descended from Savagnin. It has also been associated with the Carmenere family. At some point in the 18th century, the vine paired with Cabernet Franc to parent the Cabernet Sauvignon vine in Bordeaux. In the 19th century, plantings in Bordeaux were often interspersed with Sauvignon vert (In Chile, known as Sauvignonasse) as well as the Sauvignon blanc pink mutation Sauvignon gris. Prior to the phylloxera epidemic, the insect plague which devastated French vineyards in the 19th century, these interspersed cuttings were transported to Chile where the field blends are still common today. Despite the similarity in names, Sauvignon blanc has no known relation to the Sauvignon rosé mutation found in the Loire Valley of France.
In France, Sauvignon blanc is grown in the maritime climate of Bordeaux (especially in Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves and Pessac-Léognan as a dry wine, and in Sauternes as a sweet wine) as well as the continental climate of the Loire Valley (as Pouilly Fumé, Sancerre, and Sauvignon de Touraine). The climates of these areas are particularly favorable in slowing the ripening on the vine, allowing the grape more time to develop a balance between its acidity and sugar levels. This balance is important in the development of the intensity of the wine’s aromas. Winemakers in France pay careful attention to the terroir characteristics of the soil and the different elements that it can impart to the wine. The chalk and Kimmeridgean marl of Sancerre and Pouilly produces wines of richness and complexity while areas with more compact chalk soils produces wines with more finesse and perfume.
In the 1990s, Sauvignon blanc wines from the maritime climatic regions of New Zealand, particularly the South Island, became popular on the wine market. In the Marlborough wine region, sandy soils over slate shingles have become the most desirable locations for plantings due to the good drainage of the soil and poor fertility that encourages the vine to concentrate its flavors in lower yields. In the flood plain of the Wairau River Valley, the soil runs in east-west bands across the area. This can create a wide diversity of flavors for vineyards that are planted north-south with the heavier soils producing more herbaceous wines from grapes that ripen late and vines planted in stonier soils ripening earlier and imparting more lush and tropical flavors. It is this difference in soils, and the types of harvest time decisions that wine producers must make, that add a unique element to New Zealand Sauvignon blanc.
Winemakers in New Zealand and Chile harvest the grapes at various intervals for the different blending characteristics that the grape can impart depending on its ripeness levels. At its most unripe stage, the grape is high in malic acid. As it progresses further towards ripeness the grape develops red & green pepper flavors and eventually achieves a balance of sugars. The flavors characteristic of Sauvignon blanc come from the chemicals methoxypyrazines. Grapes grown in Marlborough’s Wairau Valley may exhibit different levels of ripeness over the vineyard, caused by slight unevenness in the land and giving a similar flavor profile to the resulting wine.