Fume Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc?

It’s one of the oldest stories in the book: the underdog gets a makeover, popularity ensues, and in the end, all is right with the world. Clichéd as it may seem, this scenario is as common in real life as it is in formulaic teen movies, and the protagonist of one such real-life instance is called ‘little wild one’, but you may know her as Sauvignon Blanc. Long revered in France, the Sauvignon Blanc grape thrives in the renowned regions of the Loire Valley in central France, and Bordeaux in the southwest. This white grape of the species vitis vinifera has naturally high levels of acid, and contains a compound called pyrazine, which contributes vegetal, ‘green’ aromas to the wines. Some find these aromas extremely off-putting, and when the grapes are under ripe, they can indeed be reminiscent of canned peas, asparagus, green bell pepper, and even cat urine or ‘litter box’. At its best, however, Sauvignon Blanc wines can offer a spectrum of fruit aromas, both tart and ripe: lemongrass, gooseberry, melon, grapefruit, lime, nettle, acacia, and hawthorn are some of most commonly recognized characteristics, and while there is often a grassy quality, it can be integrated into the wine in a harmonious way. No matter where it’s made, Sauvignon Blanc is almost always meant to be drunk young, ideally within two to five years of the vintage.

Perhaps better known for its reds, the Bordeaux region produces a high volume of white wines as well. The primary white grape of the region is Sauvignon Blanc, but the majority of wines are blends in which Semillon, and to a lesser degree, Muscadelle are used to soften and fatten the lean, racy grape. Most of these blends hail from the sub-regions of Graves and Entre-deux-Mers, where the gravel soils, and the limestone plateau of the latter, lend minerality, and generations of experience with the Sauvignon Blanc grape mean that careful viticultural practices are the norm.

The same is true in the Loire Valley, where Sauvignon Blanc grapes are more often featured in unblended iterations. The regions of Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre provide two example of what can be achieved when this grape is coaxed into greatness but not overly manipulated. The beauty of these wines has to do with the grape’s fresh, tart profile, its tight, lean fruit aromas with underlying greenness, and the incredible mineral qualities contributed by the chalky Kimmeridgian marl and Portlandian limestone on which the grapes are cultivated. Ideally, the winemaker’s impact is minimal. Fermenting in oak is not an unheard of practice in Pouilly Fumé, and some malolactic fermentation may be allowed to take place, but masking the wine’s inherent qualities with wood is never the goal, and fermenting in stainless steel is the way of the majority. Another noted trait of Loire Valley Sauvignon Blancs is the smoky, flinty aroma that can pervade them. This is most likely due to the particularities of the soil on which they are grown, and to residues of iron present in them, but it’s this smokiness that is the root of the very name Pouilly Fumé (fumé means smoke in French), and it was also the inspiration behind the marketing scheme of one particular California vintner.

Despite an illustrious past in France, it wasn’t until the 1880s that someone decided the Sauvignon Blanc grape might be due for a transplant. In the movie scenario, this would be the part where the parents thoughtlessly uproot their teenage children from the home town they know and love, dragging them to a whole new place where they just don’t fit in. Playing the part of the clueless but well-meaning parent was Charles Wetmore of Cresta Blanca Winery, and while the endeavor was well thought out on the front end (some of the cuttings he brought were from the highly esteemed Château d’Yquem in Sauternes), the émigrés simply didn’t take well to their new surroundings. California winemakers had no experience with Sauvignon Blanc, and with no one to clue them in to the eccentricities of the grape and the vine, in most cases it was grossly mistreated. Despite marginal success in areas such as the Livermore Valley, American examples of Sauvignon Blanc from the nineteenth and early twentieth century were off-dry at best, and, more commonly, sappy sweet. ‘California Sauterne’ was slapped on some of the labels, and it seemed doubtful that this French deportee would ever be embraced by American wine drinkers- at least ones with discerning taste.

After prohibition had taken its toll, Sauvignon Blanc underwent a resurgence of sorts in the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately, California growers still hadn’t wised up to the needs of this fickle vine. In addition to being fairly susceptible to black rot and powdery mildew, Sauvignon Blanc vines are quite vigorous, and the leaf canopy must be trimmed back in order to direct energy to ripening the fruit. Vines allowed to grow unchecked will produce neutral wines, and fruit that is not fully ripe will display aggressively vegetal aromas, even erring towards the previously mentioned litter box phenomenon. When winemaker Robert Mondavi was offered a particularly good crop of Sauvignon Blanc by a grower, he decided to take a stab at reversing the fate of the unfortunate misfit, and with a brilliant marketing scheme, and plenty of oak barrels, he did just that.

This is the turnaround point in the story; the part where the previously misunderstood and underappreciated protagonist takes off her glasses, lets down her hair, and throws on a low cut shirt. In the Mondavi story, however, there was less stripping down and more covering up. Oak treatment of white wines in the US, while not as prevalent as it is today, was a fairly common practice. Usually reserved for the more neutral, full-bodied backdrop of a Chardonnay, the ability of oak to take over the profile of a wine was not lost on Mondavi. If a strong, vegetal character was the hurdle, then the solution would have to be something even more powerful: wood. By barrel ageing the otherwise unexceptional wine, Mondavi not only covered up its less palatable attributes, but gave it a character all its own. This sensory turnaround was only part of the makeover, however. Everyone knows that a good product is only worth something if you know how to sell it- popularity has as much to do with reputation as with anything- and attaching an intriguing name to his new creation seemed as good a tactic as any. Alluding to the French Pouilly Fumé, as well as to the smoky, toasty character the wood imparted to the wine, Fumé Blanc was born.

Debuted in 1968, this new style of Sauvignon Blanc with its chic moniker was divorced from all previous American Sauvignon Blancs in the minds, and on the palates, of its new fans. There were potential suitors lining up at the door of this hot little number, so to speak, and fellow California vintners were quick to follow Mondavi’s lead. Since there was no copyright on the term, Fumé Blanc began to adorn the labels of a bevy of wines. Many were oaked, but some saw no wood at all; most were dry, but sweet versions could be found under the same alias. For all the good that Fumé Blanc did in terms of resurrecting a flailing grape varietal, there was really no improvement to the overall consistency and quality control of Sauvignon Blanc wines. With no legal designation attached to it, the vaguely French sounding name was no more than a façade, akin to a smear of lipstick, a dye job, and new wardrobe- but it was brilliant nonetheless.

The comforting thing about the stereotypical teen movie is that we can rely on it for a happy ending. After the shine of popularity has worn off, the budding protagonist learns that it’s what’s inside that counts, and that that’s where her value truly lies. The sexy dress is cast aside, and she’s finally accepted for who she really is. But can Sauvignon Blanc hope for a similarly serendipitous fate? Things are looking good. In the 1990s, there was a growing interest in seeing Sauvignon Blanc ‘unmasked’. Largely thanks to the fresh, clean, varietally-driven examples that began to come out of New Zealand, American wine makers and drinkers alike started to see the merits of well made, minimally manipulated Sauvignon Blanc. With a new understanding of proper pruning and viticultural practices, favorable soil and climactic factors, and an eager and adventurous new generation of wine drinkers, it was an auspicious time for the grape, and- just as in the cinematic parallel- people really did start to appreciate her true self.

Sauvignon Blanc is the leading white wine of New Zealand today, but there are also unoaked styles coming from South Africa, Spain (particularly Rueda), Italy, Chile, and, of course, the US. Fumé Blanc is still around, but now it is simply a synonym for wine made with the Sauvignon Blanc grape, and there are both oaked and unoaked versions out there. Whether the label says Sauvignon Blanc or Fumé Blanc, there has been a trend away from the overly wooded style that once dominated. Even the benchmark wine from Mondavi is veering towards a European approach, and while he still uses barrel ageing, the wine is fermented in a majority of French oak, with stainless steel making up the balance, and there is Semillon blended in as well. Despite the happy ending, this story may not be quite worthy of the big screen, but for those of us with a vested interest in the world of wine, both past and future, it’s certainly an uplifting tale.

After receiving her degree in Art History from the University of Vermont, Rebeccah Marsters decided to go to culinary school where she completed an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales in North Carolina.  After, she began an internship at America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) in Brookline, MA and was later hired full-time at ATK and now work as Assistant Test Cook for Cook’s Country magazine where I develop and test recipes and produce the food for the magazine’s photo shoots.

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