Green Machine: Sauvignon Blanc

Margaret Rand

13 April 2017

Sauvignon Blanc is one of the restaurant world’s most bankable wine styles. But from Sancerre to Marlborough, those styles are changing… Margaret Rand reports

So where do we go from here? Here we are, with Sauvignon Blanc divided into two parts: the relative newcomer, New Zealand, set in its green, grassy ways and trying to find a future of more complexity; and the original, which we’ll call Sancerre, heading towards a Burgundian horizon, with a focus on terroir and minerality and a positive distaste for the taste of the grape. Which is the way forward?

They don’t have to be contradictory, of course. Pinot Noir has evolved a similar dichotomy, with New World Pinots more likely to be about the flavour of the grape, albeit influenced by terroir, and Burgundy Pinots about the flavour of the vineyard, transmitted by the grape. But the difference in Sauvignon Blanc is much wider.

There’s a vast gap between the saline, ripe citrus of Sancerre and the typical greenness of New Zealand. Even if, for the purposes of this piece, we take New Zealand to mean Marlborough – its flagship Sauvignon region, where there is much experimentation with different styles – it’s still a long way from Sancerre. And many sommeliers say that their customers are perfectly happy with the greenest, most ‘classic’ styles of New Zealand Sauvignon – which means that the sommeliers are too, because these are cheaper than alternative styles.

‘What do I want from New Zealand Sauvignon?’ said one sommelier; ‘The biggest discount. I sell 60 bottles a week and the more profit I make on it, the better the price I can offer on other wines.’ This sort of trap is New Zealand Sauvignon’s biggest problem.

What do I want from NZ Sauvignon? The biggest discount

Sancerre, a few years ago, was looking dowdy. It may have been talking the talk about terroir, but it wasn’t walking the walk, and not many wines justified the price premium the region has long enjoyed. Now, however, wines are frequently named after their parcel and soil – this trend started gradually, and suddenly it’s the norm.

There has been much work done on massal selections to address the problem of growers using just a handful of clones. There is attention to perfect picking dates, even if some growers are still playing safe and picking early.

‘On silex,’ says Fabrice Doucet, the oenologist director of SICAVAC, the technical branch of the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel des Vins de Centre-Loire). ‘You have a very small window of perfect ripeness: two or three days maximum. You have to watch the fruit like milk on a flame. On caillottes you have a window of about a week. On terres blanches soil, which is clay and limestone, you have about 10 days, because the soil is more compact and colder.’

Stony Sancerre vineyards in the Loire Valley.
Stony Sancerre vineyards in the Loire Valley.

These are the three main soil types for the best of Sancerre: silex, or flint, gives a sparky fieriness to the wine, and the wine needs longer ageing before sale; the hard chalk known as caillottes gives finesse and perfume, and a lovely spine of acidity; terres blanches, with its balance of richness and freshness, is often the most balanced and structured.

Reaching ripeness
Over-ripeness, however, destroys these characters. Which brings us to the most vexed question of all in Sauvignon Blanc: what is ripeness? In Sancerre, if you want a rule of thumb, it’s about malic acid, or the avoidance of malic acid. High malic acid means methoxypyrazines; experts say that 3-4 grammes per litre is optimum in order to minimise them. If you don’t want to avoid methoxypyrazines, getting them is easy: high yields and early picking will do the job.

Picking for the precise flavour you want is, on the face of it, straightforward with Sauvignon Blanc. As Axel Heinz, winemaker at Ornellaia, points out, ‘It’s one of the few varieties that’s very well explained from the scientific point of view: we know what the different molecules are, what they smell like and how to increase them.’

Flavours start with cat’s pee, go through to asparagus and box, then grapefruit, then ripe lemon, then pear. Thiols – of which New Zealand has far higher levels: often 6,000-8,000 parts per million compared to 1,700ppm in Sancerre – give tropical fruit flavours, passionfruit. Some simple thiols give a struck-match character that people often love – the sort of reductive note that’s rather fashionable now.

Partly that struck-match character is to do with terroir, because it’s determined by the nutritional ability of the juice; but it can also be achieved in the cellar, by playing with hydrogen sulphide early on during fermentation. You can use different yeasts to play with flavour precursors. You can get richness from residual sugar or from the lees. You can manipulate it every which way.

When people ask me if I produce Sauvignon Blanc I say no, I make Pouilly-Fumé

Melanie Masson-Blondelet

Cloudy Bay, for example, which was pretty green when it started, tastes far less green now. Elephant Hill in Hawkes Bay isn’t green at all: they want citrus flavours rather than thiols and passionfruit, so they use wild yeasts and get richness from the lees. But Sauvignon Blanc is also a grape which shows if you over-manipulate it. Some oaked Pessac-Léognans, for example – usually those below the top level – just feel as if they’re trying a bit too hard.

Sauvignon showdown
Sauvignon Blanc’s biggest problem, as we’ve seen, is that most people equally prefer the cheap stuff. Sancerre’s approach begins to look far-sighted. ‘I hate the character of Sauvignon Blanc,’ says Matthieu Delaporte of Sancerre producer Domaine Delaporte. ‘It’s just an instrument for us.’

‘When people ask me if I produce Sauvignon Blanc I say no, I make Pouilly-Fumé,’ adds Melanie Masson-Blondelet of Domaine Masson-Blondelet.

‘I want to be able to vinify each of my 200 blocks separately,’ says Jean-Christophe Bourgeois from Domaine Henri Bourgeois. ‘I want an exact translation of each block and the work I’ve done on it, so I can see the results of that work and if it’s working properly.’

Sancerre producers are largely unimpressed by New Zealand Sauvignon. It’s hard to think of any other region where so many producers are so dismissive of an alternative style – possibly, of course, because they feel rattled by its success. If you have to add acidity, they say, you’re growing it in the wrong place. If you have to irrigate, they say, every vintage will be the same. If you allow the grapes to macerate before pressing, they say, you’ll have far too many aromatics.

Bourgeois’ family has vineyards across the Loire, so his decision to plant vineyards in the Wairau was significant. Some New Zealand growers have apparently asked him whether they could make a Sancerre style in New Zealand, but that, he says, is not his aim.

New Zealand’s Marlborough
New Zealand’s Marlborough

Nevertheless, he has imported some Sancerre habits: denser planting, which he says gives deeper roots, although he does irrigate, and also vines that are less stressed by the wind. New Zealand has far more hours of sunshine – 2,500 hours, compared to 1,700 hours in Sancerre. According to Bourgeois the level of thiols in his New Zealand wines is much lower than most New Zealand Sauvignons at around 3,500ppm, but it’s still a lot higher than his Sancerre. ‘Better balanced’, is how he describes his wines compared to the norm.

Defining styles
But without delving too far into the complex question of exactly what terroir expression is, it’s fair to point out that the decisions taken by Sancerre producers in the cellar also affect the style of their wines. A longer, slower fermentation will taste different to a shorter, faster one: a short fermentation tastes crisper, while a long one produces extra glycerol and tastes fatter.
Fermenting in steel tastes different to wood. There are more 400- and 500-litre barrels in Sancerre now, and cooperage is being taken more seriously too. At Bourgeois, for instance, they use 228-litre barrels for silex and 600-litre ones for terres blanches.

Interestingly, machine harvesting is not uncommon in Sancerre, even if one grower sniffs that ‘we would not have the machines they have in New Zealand’. In Pouilly-Fumé it is almost universal.
Sancerre and New Zealand do however have one big thing in common: the lack of a cru system. It’s debatable how much appetite there is for one in Sancerre – and it would probably mean blood on the carpet. But it’s true that without one, Sancerre can’t be really Burgundian – and meanwhile New Zealand’s more ambitious wines will continue to be lumped together under the label of ‘alternative styles’.

White Bordeaux is one of my go-to wines

Harry Crowther

Alternative styles in New Zealand cover a multitude of approaches. Row orientation in Marlborough has been switched so they no longer get disparity of ripening between sides. People are trying non-Saccharomyces yeasts. Lees work, oak ageing, oak fermentation, different sizes and ages of oak are all being used to give more complex, food-friendly wines.
Some may be faintly looking over their shoulder at Bordeaux – the source of a third model for the grape, and one that is, just like the others, in evolution. There’s often some Semillon in the blend as well, though usually just 10-20%.

The last three to five years in Bordeaux have seen better expression of fruit and less obvious oak, says Jean-Christophe Mau of Château Brown in Pessac-Léognan. He now uses about 50% new oak, and it’s all chauffe blonde – light toast. He doesn’t do the malo, but he does pick for tartaric acid rather than malic, and about 5g/l acidity in total. It’s a European model, not a New World one.

In restaurants there seems to be a New World-Old World split: it’s either Loire or New Zealand, according to Ronan Sayburn MS of 67 Pall Mall. He also loves Chile and Styria for Sauvignon, while Sara Bachiorri of Chez Bruce suggests that customers are more likely to look at South Africa or Chile if they want an alternative, rather than Bordeaux. Harry Crowther of M Victoria Street, however, does his best to convince them: ‘White Bordeaux is one of my go-to wines, and I like to promote it in the restaurant and the wine store.’ There doesn’t have to be just one way forward.

Simply super Sauvignons selected by sommeliers

Wild Sauvignon 2014, Greywacke, Marlborough, New Zealand
‘Herbaceous and citrus aromas, multi-layered mouthfeel and an undertone of lemongrass and fennel. We have a dish of crisp sea bream with fennel purée, sautéed black rice, light green tapenade orange and chorizo that sounds difficult to pair, but this has the texture and power to cut through the strong flavours and matches the fennel and orange wonderfully.’ Sara Bachiorri, Chez Bruce
£17.25, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350

Château Smith Haut Lafitte White 2012, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, France
‘I recently paired this with grilled sea bass and a very fresh green salsa verde. The pungent herbs and capers were a delight with the Sauvignon.’ Ronan Sayburn MS, 67 Pall Mall
£63.34, Berry Bros & Rudd, 0800 280 2440

Savage White Blend 2015, Western Cape, South Africa
‘This is a barrel-ferment Sauvignon/Semillon – very much a Bordeaux blend. However, that’s about as close as it gets to a Bordeaux. Herbal notes on the nose of fennel, grapefruit peel, with a touch of baking spice. The palate has more stony minerality than the nose with a citrus focus that is less prominent. Very well structured, with wonderful texture from barrel fermentation.’ Harry Crowther, M Victoria Street
£17.60, Swig, 0800 272 272

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