While consumers discover the range of alternative white wines, sauvignon blanc remains truly one of the world’s greatest varietal wines and is still one of the major go-to wines in restaurants for its bright acidity, citrusy flavors and aromatic appeal. Sauvignon blanc reflects the climates and styles where it is grown and made. In the Loire’s Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, the wine is lighter bodied, flinty and restrained, while in the Napa Valley, it is full-bodied and fruit-driven. New Zealand is in a class by itself, with exaggerated aromas of kaffir limes and fresh herbs.
In Bordeaux, sauvignon blanc is a medium-bodied wine with crisp acidity and made in different styles for different markets. Generic Bordeaux blanc is made mostly from sauvignon blanc grapes sourced throughout the greater Bordeaux area of about 300,000 acres and is generally made in a fruity, fresh style for everyday drinking. Entre-Deux-Mers and Premieres Cotes de Blaye also make wines in this style. Sauvignon blanc from the left bank in Graves and Pessac-Leognan, south of the city of Bordeaux and the cradle of winemaking, is really the home of classic Sauvignon blanc which is fermented and aged, in full or in part, in barrel, leading to a slightly more restrained and elegant wine with rich mouthfeel and ageability. On the left bank, the wines are often complemented with semillon, the leading white grape variety in Bordeaux, which adds body and subtle floral aromas and appley flavors. According to Vincent Cruege at Chateau La Louviere, the tradition of greater blending of whites in Pessac and Graves is due to this region’s proximity to the historic city center of Bordeaux, where greater wealth among growers allowed a greater mix of grapes. And then there are the Crus Classes
, the eight dry white wines designated a “classified growth” (growth referring to a high quality vineyard or wine) in 1953 as being the best of the best. There are 16 of them total if you include the red wines, and they are all located in Pessac-Leognan. These whites are different from the rest in that there is a greater range of blends between sauvignon and semillon depending on the chateau, and the majority are fermented in a greater percent of new french oak barrel and aged for a longer time – 12-18 months. These are wines that can be enjoyed young or cellared. Even these wines, for example Chateau Couhins-Lurton, can be closed with a screwcap which will improve its longevity.
Why is Bordeaux sauvignon blanc a world benchmark? Because of the tradition of making the wine in this classic style and because they are a leading grower of sauvignon blanc. With regards to semillon, Bordeaux is the leading grower with 95% of world plantings. They are a world benchmark because of the high quality of wines produced, in part due to groundbreaking research at the University of Bordeaux spanning 20-years that has benefited winemakers around the world and which has really defined the sauvignon blanc wines that we drink today no matter what the origin. One of the key research areas was in identifying the main aromatic compounds in sauvignon blanc and how these naturally-occurring compounds could be liberated from their non-aromatic and bound pre-cursor forms via the use of selected yeasts. The main aroma compounds are associated with boxwood (bush), citrus, passion fruit and broom (grass). The Bordelais aim to achieve more tropical and citrus flavors versus the more herbaceous style. The researchers also identified what conditions in the vineyards maximized the aromatic potential of these compounds such as moderate hydric stress, moderate amounts of nutrients and avoidance of oxidation. In Bordeaux, then, producers grow sauvignon blanc on cooler soils such as clay and/or limestone that retain water and reservoir of nutrients better than gravelly or sandy soils. For fruit-driven everyday wines, they press quickly after harvest, use judicious amounts of SO2, ferment at cool temperatures to retain the fruity esters and release the wines young, an increasing amount being closed with screwcap. For the whites from Graves and Pessac-Leognan fermented and aged in non-temperature controlled barrel, greater care is taken to protect the wines, but the fine lees (the expiring yeast cells) that the wines age on in barrel are strong oxygen scavengers which help keep the wine fresh.