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Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc, often called simply Sauvignon (while Cabernet Sauvignon is often called just Cabernet), is an extremely popular grape variety making crisp, dry, aromatic and extremely distinctive wines all over the world. The smell is sharp and piercing (unlike that of Chardonnay) and reminds different tasters variously of gooseberries, nettles, crushed blackcurrant leaves, and occasionally cat’s pee. With age, aromas reminiscent of canned asparagus can develop. The smell of Sauvignon Blanc (which is most of its character) is relatively simple, so it is not surprising that it was one of the first to be explained in terms of the dominant flavour compounds, called methoxypyrazines (a name to drop at a professional wine tasting). Sauvignon Blanc also smells and tastes remarkably similar wherever it is planted so, like Gewurztraminer, is a very good starting point for learning to recognise different grape varieties.

Most Sauvignon Blanc is fermented at relatively low temperatures in stainless steel with the intention of preserving every bit of youthful fruit. The wines are in general designed to be drunk as young as possible, although some of the fruit from particularly low-yielding vineyards can be concentrated to withstand oak ageing and may need a year or so in bottle before showing their best. I have tasted Sauvignon Blanc that has survived more than five years in bottle but very few that have actually improved as a result.

Sauvignon Blanc's French stronghold is the upper Loire Valley, and the twin appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in particular. The best examples of these wines are drier, denser and slower-maturing than most New World Sauvignon Blanc, and genuinely express terroir with nuances dependent on the proportion of gravel and flint (silex) in the soil.

Some of France's best value Sauvignon Blanc is made in the Loire's less famous appellations. Sauvignon carrying the straightforward Touraine appellation can be absolutely delicious in a good vintage - often more so than a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé from overcropped vines (a common problem). The three small appellations just west of Sancerre – Menetou-Salon, Reuilly and Quincy - can also offer excellent value. Sauvignon Blanc is also the grape of Burgundy's most unusual appellation, Saint-Bris, an exception to the general rule of Chardonnay or Aligoté as the region's white wine grapes.

Sauvignon Blanc, often blended with the fatter and complementary Sémillon, is one of the two dominant white grapes of south west France. Most white Bordeaux is based on one or both of these, with the most common blend for a sweet white Sauternes or Barsac being four parts Sémillon and one part Sauvignon, sometimes with some Muscadelle, the Sauvignon adding vivacity to the richness of unctuous, often botrytised (nobly rotten), Sémillon. Sauvignon Blanc is also grown in the Entre-Deux-Mers where it is increasingly important in improving Bordeaux Blanc as well as in Graves and Pessac-Léognan where, with Sémillon in varying proportions, it results in substantial dry, oak-aged white wines.

As in Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc is frequently blended with Sémillon in neighbouring Bergerac where winemaking standards have been improving enormously. Indeed all over the world, Sémillon may be used as a blending partner for Sauvignon and, curiously, slightly unripe Sémillon can smell disconcertingly like Sauvignon Blanc. Elsewhere in Europe, Sauvignon Blanc is a speciality of Rueda in Spain (where is often appears with the indigenous Verdejo), Styria in Austria and Collio in north-east Italy where piercingly clean, racy wines are made and the best producers are managing to make them more interesting with every vintage. Some German speakers call it Muskat-Silvaner (which mixture of attributes quite accurately describes how it tastes).

But the world's most famous Sauvignon Blanc is grown a very long way from Europe. New Zealand burst on the international scene in the 1980s with an extravagantly forceful, fruity style of Sauvignon Blanc and has never looked back. One region, Marlborough at the north end of New Zealand's South Island has set a benchmark for this style, in which bold flavours are thought by some scientists to have been encouraged by the notorious holes in the ozone layer in this part of the world. Here extremely vigorous Sauvignon Blanc vines seem particularly at home in the dry gravels of Marlborough's Wairau Valley. Cloudy Bay is the most famous producer but there are now countless others producing wines that are either impressively consistent or a touch boring, depending on your point of view. New Zealand has been so successful with its pungently herbaceous style of Sauvignon Blanc, heady with the tropical fruit smells of a cool, prolonged fermentation, that winemakers throughout the New World, and especially in Chile, South Africa and the Languedoc, are now emulating it. Marlborough at the northern tip of the South Island is New Zealand's, possibly now the world's, Sauvignon Blanc capital, while the Casablanca Valley has shown the potential to do the same job for Chile, although even newer, Pacific-cooled regions such as Leyda/San Antonio also produce particularly fine Sauvignons.

South Africa makes some delicious Sauvignon Blanc, perhaps partly because the vine has had so long to accustom itself to local conditions. In the cooler coastal Overberg region, the resulting wines can offer an attractively smoky halfway house between New Zealand and the Loire.

Much of Australia is too warm for the preservation of Sauvignon Blanc's characteristically "green" (i.e. slightly underripe) aroma but some fine examples have emerged from the Adelaide Hills, Tasmania, and cooler spots in Victoria and New South Wales. Western Australia has evolved a distinctively refreshing style of Sémillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends.

A high proportion of North America's vineyards are too hot for appetising Sauvignon Blanc, but California has its own style of full-bodied, slightly sweet Sauvignon, often enriched by oak ageing and, typically, called Fumé Blanc (although producers vary according to the style they label as Fumé Blanc and what sort of wine is labelled Sauvignon Blanc). Washington state can make some fine, racy Sauvignon Blanc and so, one day, may British Columbia across the Canadian border to the north.

By Jancis Robinson