A Blanc Canvas

I was recently asked if I would present a tasting event at Hanging Ditch. "Certainly", I replied, "I would be delighted to." As I'm not in the trade and thus have no wines of my own to promote, the next question I was asked left me somewhat stumped. What would I like to have as the theme for my tasting?

"Well," I replied, "my preferences tend to be for old world wines rather than new and I'm not really a huge fan of Sauvignon Blanc, but that should still leave plenty to choose from."

"Sauvignon Blanc?" came the response. "That's a good idea. We can have a Sauvignon Blanc tasting; everyone loves Sauvignon Blanc."

Er... okay.

Not entirely unexpectedly, I don't try a huge amount of Sauvignon Blanc therefore a comparative tasting would certainly be of interest to me and also, hopefully, to people who drink it far more often. Much to the amusement of all at Hanging Ditch, so appealing was the idea and so quickly did the tickets sell out that a second night was swiftly added to the calendar in response to popular demand.

To make this mono-varietal comparison a little more challenging, we decided to use a blind tasting format. This would allow people to discover precisely which aspects of Sauvignon Blanc appealed to them and which didn't, unhindered by the powerful propaganda of producer, geography and price. We wanted to present a selection of the most popular dry styles of Sauvignon Blanc from around the world, with a couple of ringers thrown in for good measure. Examples from France, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile sat alongside a Sauvignon-esque Bacchus from England and a Bordeaux-inspired Sauvignon Sémillon blend from Australia.

Before we began to taste the wines, I thought it would be interesting to provide a little information about the origins and the characteristics of the grape under the spotlight.

Although it is usually believed to have come from Bordeaux, the first recorded mention of Sauvignon Blanc in the region was not until sometime around 1710 - 1720 in Margaux. It is much more likely to have originated in the Loire Valley where the earliest mention of its old synonym Fié or Fier dates back to 1534. In Sancerre and Pouilly its first mention was only in 1783 or 1784, but the let's just say that the last two hundred years have been more than kind to the reputation of the area's suitability for Sauvignon Blanc.

Recent DNA testing has shown Sauvignon Blanc to be an offspring of the slightly obscure Jura variety Savagnin and to be a grandchild of Pinot. There is also a suggestion that it is a sibling of another very significant Loire variety: Chenin Blanc. The theory of its Loire origin is further supported by the etymology of the name "Sauvignon". It derives from the the French sauvage or wild, a reference to the shape of its leaves being very similar to those of the wild grapevine, backed up by the etymology of its Loire synonyms Fié or Fier which derive from the Latin for wild: ferus. Wild Vitis vinifera has not been found in Bordeaux.

The importance of Bordeaux in the Sauvignon Blanc story should not be underestimated, however. Aside from its significance to wines ranging in style from crisp and easy drinking through to dry, oak aged and age worthy blends to sweet, botrytis-enriched treasures of unparalleled complexity, it was in Bordeaux that Sauvignon Blanc spontaneously crossed with Cabernet Franc to produce Cabernet Sauvignon.

Viticulturally, Sauvignon Blanc is an earlier ripening variety which makes it particularly well suited to cooler regions. It actually begins to lose its distinctive pungent aromas and flavours if it is picked too late and it is difficult to make a lively wine from Sauvignon Blanc grown in warmer climates. Conversely, if it is grown somewhere too cool, or if its yield is too high, the concentration of methoxypyrazines (responsible for the grape's characteristic green and leafy flavours) can become excessive.

The Sauvignon Blanc vine is naturally very vigorous and it needs to be planted in poorer soils help to control its verdurous tendencies. In New Zealand, where many of the vineyards are planted in fertile, alluvial soil, an entire science of canopy management has evolved to curb its desire to leaf whilst offering the grapes the optimum degree of shade, air flow and nutrients. This also becomes important when capitalising upon Sauvignon Blanc's susceptibility to botrytis: without ideal conditions it is all too easy to end up with disastrous grey rot instead of delightful noble rot.

Typically high in acidity, Sauvignon Blanc displays a wealth of pungent aromas commonly associated with with things green: grass, nettles, elderflower, tomato leaves (or tomcat, if you prefer a less vegetal association), blackcurrant leaves, nettles, asparagus and also gooseberries if a little unripe. If grown in warmer climates, tropical fruits enter the picture and aromas of grapefruit, guava and passionfruit are encountered, as are flinty or smokey notes from certain other regions. It is generally a wine for enjoying in its youth and, outside Bordeaux, it is usually unoaked although more winemakers are experimenting with barrel maturation to differing degrees. Its refreshing vibrancy makes it perfect to serve as an apéritif, but Sauvignon Blanc's piercing and pungent character makes it a great partner for a number of foods often regarded as being difficult to match with wine. It works well with goats' cheese, salads, asparagus, a variety of egg dishes, smoked foods, seafood, poultry and white meats, oily fish and tomato dishes; fuller bodied styles can even cope with spicier southern Mediterranean, Indian and Asian fare.

Sauvignon Blanc is grown across France, producing simpler and somewhat unconvincing Pays d'Oc wines in the warmer south of the country, slightly zestier Vins de Pays as you move up through Armagnac country and then into Cognac territory and far more serious wines in the Aquitaine region which houses Bergerac and Bordeaux. Aside from the Entre-Deux-Mers where pure Sauvignon Blanc wines are common, the Gironde (the Bordeaux département) usually sees it blended with the fatter, richer Sémillon in both dry, oak aged grand vins as well as in lighter Bordeaux Blanc, and also with a little Muscadelle for the opulent, sweet, botrytised wines of Sauternes and Barsac.

Surprisingly, Sauvignon Blanc also has a foothold in the one region of France that you would least expect to find it: Burgundy. St. Bris, to the south west of Chablis, is a vinous anomaly; home solely to Sauvignon Blanc, it produces light, dry wines of a similarly racy character to those of its famous neighbour.

The finest French expressions of Sauvignon Blanc come from the Loire Valley. Very acceptable wines are produced under wider, generic appellations but the most famous, some would say definitive, examples of the region's Sauvignon Blanc come from the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly. When the grape is over cropped to cash in on their respective names these wines can be as thin and tart as any, but in the hands of careful and conscientious winemakers the results are often sublime. Albeit at a price. Menetou-Salon, Reuilly, Quincy and Coteaux du Giennois can offer more reasonably priced alternatives without too much of a drop in complexity and quality, and even the simpler Touraine wines can be very good value.

In the new world, California is an important producer of Sauvignon Blanc although its high temperatures result in richer, softer wines that display melon-like aromas and that are often lightly oaked. The wines are usually labelled as Fumé Blanc, in homage to the grape's Loire origins, thanks originally to a marketing initiative of Robert Mondavi. He wanted to promote and differentiate his distinctive style of Sauvignon Blanc without disappointing customers who purchased it expecting it to be the leaner, racier wine that they recognised from France.

Although Chile is well known for its Sauvignon Blanc, until quite recently over half of the vines thought to be this variety turned out to be the unrelated and lower quality Sauvignon Vert. Many are now being grafted or replanted as true Sauvignon Blanc because, unlike the country's similar confusion over vines believed to be Merlot but which were actually the now lauded Carmenère, the resulting wines are simply not very good.

Possibly driven by the success of neighbour New Zealand's Sauvignon Blancs and by the popularity of it in their domestic market, Australian winemakers have also turned their hands to growing it. The Adelaide Hills and cooler parts of New South Wales produce some very successful examples, as does Western Australia where it is often blended with Sémillon in the Bordeaux fashion.

It is impossible to talk of Sauvignon Blanc without mentioning New Zealand, although it was first planted there only as recently as 1973. Singlehandedly responsible for putting New Zealand on the wine map, the bulk of its Sauvignon Blanc plantings centre around Marlborough at the northern end of the South Island. The style of wine has always been pungent, overtly fruity and razor sharp, but there has been a noticeable trend towards subtler styles and there are even some oaked examples emerging. Depending upon one's perspective, the combination of a dependable climate and the most modern of winemaking techniques results in wines that are either impressively consistent or just a touch boring.

One final country to note for its Sauvignon Blanc is South Africa, which falls somewhere between France and New Zealand both geographically and stylistically. The wines show slightly more muted, demure fruit than their kiwi counterparts and they retain a refreshing element thanks to the cooling influence of the Antarctic. Again, there are some very successful oaked versions of Sauvignon Blanc being produced, both as single variety wines and as blends.

The ringer in the line up was a Bacchus, included as much for its similarity to Sauvignon Blanc as for the chance to compare a highly competent domestic wine to some pretty stiff international competition. Bacchus is a cross of (Silvaner x Riesling) x Müller-Thurgau, bred in Pfalz in 1933 for growing in cooler regions. It is productive, early ripening and the grapes have good sugar levels, although they can lack acidity if not fully ripe. When fully ripe, however, Bacchus can produce highly aromatic wines with a grassy similarity to Sauvignon Blanc whilst tending to be more floral and exuberant, sometimes with strong notes of elderflower.

In Germany it is mainly grown in Rheinhessen and Franken, with smaller areas in Nahe, Pfalz and Baden and it is often blended with the grapey Müller-Thurgau in basic, off-dry wines. It was first planted in England in 1973, and it is valued for producing good yields of fully ripe grapes and for making aromatic, fresh wines: our aromatic alternative to Sauvignon Blanc.

Sauvignon Blanc is not always the most complex of grape varieties, but a selection of different expressions was chosen to highlight the range of styles available. Of the seven, two warrant a little further investigation. The Shawsgate Bacchus was included simply as a spot-the-difference test: would its similarity to Sauvignon Blanc's flavour profile and its cool climate origins allow it to slip through the tasting undetected? At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Cloudy Bay was included purely because it was Cloudy Bay. Marlborough's iconic Sauvignon Blanc, we wanted to determine whether the stature of its reputation and its price were warranted or whether the Makutu would usurp its crown when both were tasted blind.

The wines we tasted were:

Domaine de Maltaverne, Pouilly Fumé L'Ammonite

Domaine de Maltaverne, Pouilly Fumé L'Ammonite

1. Domaine de Maltaverne, Pouilly Fumé L'Ammonite 2012 (12.5% ABV, £16.50)
Loire Valley, France

Domaine de Maltaverne is one of the few estates in the Loire that allows a full malolactic fermentation to run its natural course. Owner Gilles Maudry believes that as long as his vineyards produce healthy grapes, picked at optimum maturity and vinified with care, the wine can be left to decide its own evolution. The beautiful label of this estate represents the ammonite fossil shells found in the vineyard, sketched by an artistic wine lover following a tasting to represent what he visualised on savouring this wonderful wine.

The vineyards are planted on Kimmeridgian soil, a fossilised clay and chalk mix, in south-southwest facing vineyards that are fertilised organically. Vinification is a very hands off affair and fermentation is done by indigenous yeasts. The naturally occurring malolactic fermentation helps to soften the wines by converting the tarter malic acid found in grapes into the softer, more palatable lactic acid.

Lemon citrus and lightly smokey aromas carried through to the palate, joined by grapefruit pith and hints of gooseberry and leafiness. There was a richness from the malolactic fermentation that was a little atypical but far from unpleasant and the finish was long, elegant and very refined. One of my favourite wines of the evening.

Shawsgate Vineyard, Bacchus

Shawsgate Vineyard, Bacchus

2. Shawsgate Vineyard, Bacchus 2011 (10.5% ABV, £17.50)
Framlingham, Woodbridge, Surrey, England

One of East Anglia’s oldest commercial vineyards, Shawsgate produces a range of white, red, rosé and quality sparkling wines. They are passionate about their wines and go to great lengths to ensure very high standards in their on-site winery, illustrated by the many regional, national and international awards they have won.

More pungent, tomato leaf herbaceousness on the nose than the L'Ammonite, and the citrus character was white grapefruit rather than lemon. The palate was broad and expansive with bright gooseberry fruit, not hugely long or complex but a very pleasant and enjoyable wine.

Tabali, Reserva Especial Caliza Sauvignon Blanc

Tabali, Reserva Especial Caliza Sauvignon Blanc

3. Tabalí Reserva Especial Caliza Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (13.5% ABV, £13.50)
Limarí Valley, Northern Chile

Planted on the oldest alluvial terrace of the Limarí River, the unique soil profile of this vineyard is a mix of various sizes of gravel, clay and sand with plenty of limestone and different type of salts due to the tiny quantity (just 70-100mm) of rainfall per year in the area. 400km north of Santiago and on the edge of the Atacama Desert, the vineyards lie only 29km from the Pacific Ocean and its strong cool breezes that greatly influence the climate. In fact, the Caliza vineyard is one of the coolest in Chile and the absence of rain during the harvest season makes the area ideal for growing high quality grapes.

A savoury, somewhat earthy and minerally nose with a touch of tomato leaf but no overt fruit character. The palate, too, had a savoury and pronounced saline character with slightly tart white grapefruit flavour and a definite green leafiness. Fresh and elegant, if rather austere, but with a weight of fruit behind it to balance the structure. The long finish was gently floral and citrussy. This was something of a Marmite wine: some liked it but many didn't. I really took to it, although I'd like to try it with food next time.

Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc

Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc

4. Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc 2103 (13.5% ABV, £26.50)
Wairau Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand

The quintessential expression of the acclaimed Marlborough wine region, an international benchmark for Sauvignon Blanc noted for its vibrant aromatics, its layers of pure fruit flavours and its fine structure thanks to the Wairau Valley’s cool maritime climate and the longest hours of sunshine in New Zealand.

The four vineyards of Cloudy Bay are located throughout the Marlborough region to capitalise upon the diversity of microclimates and soil types. The different sites provide distinct nuances of aroma and flavour, each bringing complexity to the wine. The estate’s original vineyard was planted as recently as 1986, but in addition to its own vineyards Cloudy Bay sources fruit from a small group of loyal growers, some of whom have been growing grapes for them for over 20 years.

Far more pungent nose than any of the previous wines, with blackcurrant leaf and elderflower aromas alongside tropical passionfruit, guava and lime. Ripe yet crisp on the palate and very well balanced. Herbaceous, floral notes complement tropical fruit flavours, all of which carry through from the nose. Fresh, long and very complex, this was very good indeed and worthy of its reputation. Whether or not it was worth its price was an altogether more subjective matter, but I certainly wouldn't be disappointed if I bought a bottle or had one bought for me.

Lighthouse, Makutu Sauvignon Blanc

Lighthouse, Makutu Sauvignon Blanc

5. Lighthouse, Makutu Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (13% ABV, £15.00)
Awatere Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand

This is a privately owned vineyard in the very windy Awatere Valley. The vines that tolerate the harsh conditions of low rainfall, plentiful sunshine, cool nights and strong winds give low yields of small, thick skinned grapes with a high skin to pulp ratio, hence the concentration of flavours and aromas.

Similarly pungent, but greener and more tomato leaf in character than the blackcurrant leaf, lime and tropical fruit of the Cloudy Bay. Ripe and herbaceous on the palate with a firm acidity balanced by a little residual sugar that gave richness to the blackcurrant tinged fruit. Modest length and lacking some of the complexity of its illustrious neighbour, many people felt that simple economics more than made up for this. Certainly an appealing wine, it only suffered when directly compared to one of its region's star players.

Mon Vieux, Hell's Heights Sauvignon Blanc

Mon Vieux, Hell's Heights Sauvignon Blanc

6. Mon Vieux, Hell's Heights Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (14% ABV, £13.50)
Banghoek, Western Cape, South Africa

Banghoek is in a corner of the Simonsberg and means "fear corner", very appropriate given its location on the steep, winding Helshoogte ("Hell's Heights") Pass between Stellenbosch and Franschoek. Here, 535 metres up the sheer slopes of the Simonsberg, clings a triangular block of old vine Sauvignon Blanc with fantastic exposure to the elements that gives low yields of tight bunches of fruit that are ripe but intensely mineral in flavour. The grapes are hand-picked at night, when the cooler temperature aids the retention of their acidity. The wine is fermented in stainless steel then 100% barrel-aged for 6 months in new French demi-muids (600 litre barrels).

Soft, rich, toasty and vanilla oak aromas dominated the nose. The palate was also oak driven, with a softer pink grapefruit citrus note than had been seen in the any of the other wines. Not hugely tropical or herbaceous, despite a reasonable balance and fresh acidity I couldn't help but feel that this was more about oak than Sauvignon Blanc. An easy and immediately attractive drink, but not especially typical.

Cullen, Mangan Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Semillon

Cullen, Mangan Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Semillon

7. Cullen, Mangan Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2011 (12% ABV, £25.00)
Margaret River, Western Australia

Founded in 1971 by Di and Kevin Cullen, the winemaking at Cullen is now managed by their daughter, Vanya. Passion and a strong sense of responsibility to the land define Vanya’s biodynamic approach to viticulture, while pioneering environmental initiatives led to Cullen becoming Australia’s first carbon neutral winery in 2007. The Mangan vineyard, which is owned and managed by Rick Cullen, is dry farmed and maintained using a biodynamic approach to viticulture.

For the 2011 vintage, 20% of the Sauvignon Blanc was aged for five months in French oak, of which 28% was new. The Sémillon was fermented entirely in stainless steel tanks to preserve its freshness.

Closed, youthful and almost rubbery on the nose; savoury gun smoke, toast and Elastoplast aromas filtered through. Dry, rich and toasty on the palate, with the Elastoplast character carrying through from the nose. The oak added structure without being overwhelming, although the Sauvignon Blanc element was rather subdued as the fruit was more fresh lemon and grassy than pungent. Elegant, long and Bordeaux inspired, this was still very young and would have easily benefitted from another three to five years in the bottle. Unfortunately not to many people's taste, this was a complex, savoury and distinctive mouthful that I think would have won more fans had it been served with a meal. Very good indeed.

I have to say that although there are still many other wines I prefer, I might just be warming to Sauvignon Blanc and I will certainly end up drinking several of the wines above in the not too distant future.