The Most Versatile Variety: Sauvignon Blanc

 David Glancy, San Francisco Wine School

David Glancy, San Francisco Wine School

By David Glancy, San Francisco Wine School

I like my wine cellar to be like a spice rack – with every flavor and style from A to Z represented.

This is because, to me, wine is a seasoning to complement my meals. I play with wine pairings, sometimes playing it safe but more often experimenting. In many ways, Sauvignon Blanc is ideal for these culinary explorations.

In its most typical style, light and crisp, Sauvignon Blanc is a natural early in the meal or anytime with light bites. A lean, citrusy, unoaked Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect foil for oysters on the half-shell. The grassy, citrusy styles are divine with tangy, grassy goat cheese. There are few grapes that pair as well with salads or any light dish that is redolent of fresh herbs. These same notes make it a match for sushi. 

The naturally high acid of the grape makes fatty cheeses and creamy sauces less cloying, and these foods in turn soften the wine’s acidity, improving both. Conversely that mouth-watering acidity balances the lime-driven acidity of ceviche. 

If the ceviche, or other dish, is on the spicy side, no worries: a fruit-forward style with a touch of residual sugar, balanced acidity, and tropical fruit notes is up to the job. If you have a bell pepper- or jalapeno-dominant Sauvignon Blanc, a shish kabob or fajita plate does the trick. It is also one of the best solutions to the wine killers: asparagus and artichoke. 

When blended with Semillon and oaked, Sauvignon Blanc can stand up to heavier or more intensely flavored foods. And a late harvest, barrel-aged example is perfect for crème brulee.

Versatility from Vineyard to Bottle

Sauvignon Blanc is a chameleon. It grows well on a variety of soils and in very cool to moderately warm climates. It stands on its own but is an agreeable blending grape. It is exceptional in its purity when unoaked and can have power and complexity when barrel aged. 

Its versatility is evident in the wide range of wines produced from this grape. Along with  its friend Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc is responsible for some of the most prized dessert wines in the world. It is also a darling of the natural wine movement and recently is used for sparkling wines in New Zealand – what they call “craklin’ savie”– and now California. (Be sure to sample the sparkling Sauvignon Blanc from Bodkin Wines at Saturday’s Grand Tasting.)

A Modern Globe Trotter with Ancient Roots 

Sauvignon Blanc has been cultivated for wine for several hundred years. Its origins have been hypothesized to be either Southwest France or France’s Jura Mountains. Ampelography (through DNA testing) has determined that Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc naturally crossed a few hundred years ago to create Cabernet Sauvignon. So it’s a king-maker, too. 

Unlike most French grapes Sauvignon Blanc has two equal home bases: the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. Small amounts have also filtered into Burgundy’s village of St. Bris. In the Loire AOCs of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume, Quincy, and Menetou Salon, it is often light and crisp with no new oak. In the slightly warmer Bordeaux region, especially in Graves, it is often blended with Semillon and barrel-fermented. 

The same treatment applies in Bordeaux’s famous sweet wine AOCs: Sauternes, Barsac, Ceron, Cadillac, Loupiac, and St. Croix du Mont. Here, Noble Rot (aka Botrytis Cinerea) is responsible for shriveling the grapes and concentrating the sugars for sublime, age-worthy dessert wines.

Outside of France, Sauvignon Blanc is grown in dozens of countries, New and Old World, Northern and Southern Hemisphere. In California you can find it almost anywhere including: the North Coast counties of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake; and the Central Coast’s Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara (especially Santa Ynez Valley and its nested AVA Happy Canyon). 

New Zealand took the world by storm in the 1970s when they planted vines in Marlborough. But they had actually grown Sauvignon Blanc in other parts of New Zealand since the 1800s. 

Other important regions include Stellenbosch, South Africa; Casablanca and Leyda, Chile; and Adelaide Hills and Margaret River, Australia. Surprising to some is that there is a huge production of high-quality Sauvignon Blanc in Friuli, Italy and Styria, Austria, to name a few Old World haunts.  

Sauvignon Blanc in Lake County

There are many reasons Lake County is good fit for Sauvignon Blanc. 

Temperature is one. On average Lake County is slightly cooler than Napa County. It ranges from high zone 2 to low zone 4 (1 is the coolest and 5 is the hottest) on the UC Davis Heat Summation Scale. There are cooling influences with land-lake breezes coming off Clear Lake, the largest natural lake in California. There are also valley-mountain cooling breezes coming off Lake County’s many peaks. 

The sunshine hours and UV exposure is intense with most vineyards ranging from 1,000 to 4,000 feet in elevation compared to a large portion of Napa Valley ranging from sea level to 1,000 feet. In addition, due to its 30 – 50 mile distance from the Pacific Ocean and slight rain shadow from the Coastal Ranges, the region gets very low rainfall and little to no fog influence. The moderate temperatures combined with intense sun are similar, though warmer, to New Zealand’s South Island, creating a similar bright fruit character. 

Lake County is such a good match in fact that Sauvignon Blanc is the second most widely planted grape in the county, and Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon combined typically make up 50% – 70% of the county’s production. This is significant as Sauvignon Blanc is only the eighth most widely planted wine grape statewide. 

Though historically the bulk of Lake County grapes went into Napa and Sonoma wines, the 30+ wineries of Lake County have been increasing production and there has been a significant increase in new vineyards planted. Market share for Sauvignon Blanc from Lake County and its seven AVAs is definitely on the rise. 

It turns out that lakes, mountains, clean air, cool breezes and sunshine of Lake County make happy Sauvignon Blanc grapes.