Sauvignon Blanc grapes

Aren’t these big, juicy clusters of Sauvignon Blanc grapes beautiful? Can you believe that they are the raw material for one of the world’s favourite white wines? In fact, Sauvignon Blanc wine is second only to Chardonnay in terms of global white wine popularity. No surprise then that, according to the OIV, it’s the eighth most planted wine grape variety, with 110,138 hectares distributed around the world in 2010. And Chile ranks third in terms of the area planted with this variety, after France and New Zealand.

So what’s so special about it?

Oz Clarke likens Sauvignon Blanc to a gin and tonic – basically it’s an outstandingly refreshing drink, a real thirst quencher, perfect for a hot day.  No matter where it comes from in the world, you can rely on Sauvignon Blanc to deliver the zesty acidity that is so fashionable in white wine right now. That, together with light – or at most medium – body and strong aromas are what make this wine so popular.

Glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc wineIt’s all in the smell

The aromas and flavours of Sauvignon Blanc can vary a lot, depending on the climate where the grapes were grown, their level of ripeness and the winemaking technique.

However, one set of aromas is likely to appear in any Sauvignon Blanc wine irrespective of where it was made: the pyrazines. These are common to several inter-related varieties hailing from Bordeaux: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère and Sauvignon Blanc. In wines made from very ripe grapes, these aromas are more subtle, but most wines from this family of grapes are likely to have one or more of the following smells: tomato plants, green peppers, chilli peppers or asparagus.

A Sauvignon Blanc wine made with less ripe grapes, especially from areas where the climate is especially cool, will also tend to have herbaceous aromas (like freshly cut grass, elderflower, nettles or blackcurrant leaf).  This is the traditional style of wine that was made famous by areas such as Sancerre in the Loire and was the norm until New Zealand rocked the boat in the 1970s.

That was when pioneering Kiwi winemakers made and marketed a whole different style of fruit-forward Sauvignon Blanc.  It was a huge success and many wine critics now regard New Zealand as producing the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc.

Chilean Sauvignon Blanc wine

Other New World countries caught on to New Zealand’s success quickly and both South Africa and Chile are now regarded as producing excellent Sauvignon Blanc wines.

Freshly harvested Sauvignon Blanc grapes
Freshly harvested organic Sauvignon Blanc grapes

This style involves picking the grapes when they are riper. Often the grapes are chilled for a few hours prior to pressing or else they are pressed quickly and the juice is chilled prior to fermentation. The must is usually fermented in a neutral container – most usually stainless steel tanks – at low temperatures to retain the maximum fruity aromas.

Matetic winery straddles the Casablanca and San Antonio Valleys

The best Chilean examples come from cooler areas, most notably the Casablanca, Leyda (San Antonio) and Limarí Valleys, all areas with a cooling influence coming from the Pacific Ocean. This is important because the cooler temperatures mean the grapes ripen more slowly and have longer to develop their flavours. The picking date is also important, as the grapes reach their aromatic peak just before the sugar levels are at their optimum.

Leyda is especially cool and classic aromas include citrus fruit, like lime or lemon and floral notes like elderflower. The Casablanca Valley tends to be warmer and so the wines often have a more tropical profile, with notes of pineapple or passionfruit and citrus fruit, such as grapefruit. There are small pockets of limestone soil in both Leyda and Limarí and wines made from grapes from these plots may have a mineral note, like wet stones.

Sauvignon Blanc from warmer areas of Chile or particularly warm years may well have slightly lower acidity and aromas of white fruit like peaches and nectarines.

Some producers pick the grapes at different levels of ripeness or blend together wines made from grapes from different plots so that the wine will have a range of different smells and flavours. So you may find a wine that has a heady mixture of pyrazines, herbaceous, floral, citrus and tropical notes.

wine barrelsThose that buck the trend

Some winemakers are experimenting with leaving wine over its lees (sediment) and stirring it occasionally. They do this to add a creamy texture and yeasty aromas like croissants.

Others are trialing fermentation and/or ageing in oak – usually used oak barrels so that the fruity aromas are not overwhelmed by oak aromas. The oak influence can add a sweet spiciness, creamy texture and more body. If the label says Fumé Blanc, it is likely to be a Sauvignon Blanc from the United States with some oak influence, which may well be new oak, adding notes of cinnamon and coconut to the aromas.

Sauvignon Blanc is not generally blended with other varieties, except in Bordeaux, where it is mixed with Sémillon to make dry or sweet white wines, the most famous being Sauternes.

Check out some great examples of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc wine

Other posts about Sauvignon Blanc

Weekend wine: Ritual Sauvignon Blanc 2015

7 styles of Sauvignon Blanc wine

Chilean Sauvignon Blanc tasting results

Sources of information:

Clarke, O. and Rand, M., 2015. Grapes and Wines. London: Pavilion Books.

Robinson, J., 2015. The Oxford Companion to Wine. 4th Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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