Sauvignon Blanc — A Guide to the Basics

·7 min read
Sauvignon Blanc grapes
Sauvignon Blanc grapes

Patrik Stedrak

For many consumers, Sauvignon Blanc is synonymous with New Zealand, and vice versa. It makes sense, given the sheer number of excellent options from both the North and South Island. But the grape also has a beloved home in France, where the stunning examples are grown in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. California boasts countless top Sauvignon Blancs, as do Chile and Argentina.  Depending on where it's grown and who's producing it, Sauvignon Blanc can be fruit-driven and mouth watering with citrus aromas and flavors, or more savory with distinct vegetal notes that skew in the direction of fresh-cut grass or bell peppers. Sometimes, it's all of the above!

Ultimately, Sauvignon Blanc is produced in  a wide range of expressions at a broad spectrum of price points, making it one of the world's most popular white grape varieties.

What is Sauvignon Blanc Wine?

Sauvignon Blanc is a white wine produced from the grape variety of the same name. In North and South America, New Zealand, and Australia, it goes by the name of that grape, and bottles tend to be labeled as Sauvignon Blanc. In France, however, that is generally not the case; The wines of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre, for example, are produced from Sauvignon Blanc by law, yet they are labeled with the name of the appellation as opposed to the grape. Meanwhile, white Bordeaux (or Bordeaux Blanc) is typically a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, with some Muscadelle as a common addition, even though those grapes won't typically be found on the front label. Regardless, white wines produced from Sauvignon Blanc are beloved around the world no matter what they're called.

Where Does Sauvignon Blanc Wine Come From?

Sauvignon Blanc is most famously produced in Marlborough, New Zealand and France, where (in the former) its telltale gooseberry and grapefruit notes shine most brightly. It also does well in Australia, particularly Margaret River in the far west of the country, in addition to the Adelaide Hills.

In California, Sauvignon Blanc shines in Napa Valley and Sonoma County (the 2020 Alma de Cattleya is savory and subtly floral, and the Acumen Mountainside Sauvignon Blanc is crunchy and very layered, with a long, balanced finish) as well as the Sierra Foothills (the 2018 Andis Codevilla Vineyard Old Vines Sauvignon Blanc leverages oak to help create a wine of depth and richness). Even producers who are better known for their Cabs have been crafting noteworthy Sauvignon Blancs; Ink Grade and Peter Michael are phenomenal examples, as is the Quintessa "Illumination" Sauvignon Blanc, which brings together fruit from Napa and Sonoma to result in a wine of exceptional complexity and appeal.

It's increasingly common to find delicious Italian white wines that incorporate the variety. Ornellaia Bianco is entirely Sauvignon Blanc, and their Poggio alle Gazze blends it with Vermentino and Viognier. Le Macchiole's Paleo Bianco, though dominated by Chardonnay, leverages approximately 30% Sauvignon Blanc to result in a fantastic wine. It also sings in the more northern reaches of Italy. In Alto Adige, for example, Cantina Terlan produces wonderful Sauvignon Blanc.

Arguably, France is where Sauvignon Blanc is most familiar in Europe, where many of the classic white wines of the Loire Valley are Sauvignon Blanc — Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre are justifiably considered benchmarks. Bordeaux is also home to many great ones; look for whites labeled as Entre-Deux-Mers, but don't miss out on the often small-production white wines from the legendary châteaux of the region. Haut-Brion Blanc, for example, tends to have a bit more Semillon in it than Sauvignon Blanc, but the latter constitutes nearly half of the blend nonetheless. It's a highlight, vintage after vintage.

Why Should You Drink Sauvignon Blanc Wine?

Sauvignon Blanc is capable of being produced in a broad range of styles, from fruit-forward, ripe, and sometimes even tropical, to more vegetal and linear. In that way, it has the ability to appeal to a wide range of wine lovers. In parts of California most notably, there are even producers who are crafting Sauvignon Blanc that's been influenced by oak, which lends it an unexpected sense of richness and sweet spice. It also blends very well with other white grape varieties, most notably Semillon and Muscadelle, but also Chardonnay.

In terms of Sauvignon Blanc price points, it's possible to find  cheerful, bang-for-the-buck bottles for under $15, as well as age-worthy ones that climb into the triple figures. The good news is that producers all over the world are constantly experimenting with the styles of Sauvignon Blanc they produce, and there are bound to be great options on retail shelves and restaurant wine lists to explore.

Speaking of restaurants, Sauvignon Blanc is a very versatile white wine at the table. Its vivid acidity allows it to cut through butter and cream, and its telltale citrus notes help it liven up a wide range of foods, from pasta with seafood to sauteed fish to even veal dishes like a classic piccata preparation. It also is a great partner for cheese, particularly chèvre, whose own hints of grassiness find counterparts in many Sauvignon Blancs.

What Does Sauvignon Blanc Taste Like?

Sauvignon Blanc typically showcases fruit on the citrus end of the spectrum, most notably grapefruit, though lemon, lime, and kumquat are not uncommon. Warmer-climate examples may lean in a more tropical direction with their fruit notes. A counterpoint of grassiness or bell pepper is also likely, a result of a compound in the grape itself called pyrazine. This is the same compound that's responsible for the bell pepper and vegetal notes in cool-climate Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Sauvignon Blanc is considered to be a semi-aromatic grape variety, and its high acidity adds to its sense of refreshment. That acidity can be attenuated by oak aging and a process called bâtonnage — the stirring of the lees — which lends the wine a more creamy texture. In general. Sauvignon Blanc is best enjoyed quite chilled, though oak-aged or lees-stirred examples may be best at a slightly less cool (though still chilled) temperature.

Five Great Sauvignon Blanc Wines

There are countless great Sauvignon Blanc wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all that Sauvignon Blanc has to offer.

Château Larrivet Haut-Brion

An en primeur sample of the 2021 white from Pessac-Léognan is absolutely delicious, with jasmine, honeycomb, and yellow apples carried on a spine of mouthwatering yet exceptionally balanced acidity, all of it judiciously flecked with fresh herbs. This is excellent.

Didier Dagueneau

Arguably the most respected Sauvignon Blanc producer in France, the wines of Dagueneau have earned a cult following over the years. The Silex and Pur Sang bottlings are among the most respected in the world.

Gamble Family Vineyards and Vinoce Vineyards

The 2021 estate Sauvignon Blanc from Yountville, Napa Valley is generous with lemon blossom and candied ginger that lend spice, lift, and depth to nectarine, white peach, apricot, and hints of lemon curd. The 2020 Vinoce "Lori's Lucky Penny" Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley is coiled with energy and shows candied grapefruit peel, passionfruit, lemongrass, and vibrant hints of hard apricot, kumquat, white tea, lime leaf, and mineral through the finish.

Villa Maria

One of New Zealand's most familiar names in Sauvignon Blanc. Their 2021 Private Bin bottling rings in at less than $15, and is a textbook example of why the "NZ SB" category has become so popular. Gooseberries, grass, and sweet and mouthwatering tropical fruit (the passion fruit notes are effusive) make this a perfect late-summer bottle.

Viña Leyda and Ritual

These two wines – the 2021 Leyda Coastal Vineyards - Garuma Sauvignon Blanc and the 2019 Ritual Casablanca Valley Sauvignon Blanc – show very different ends of the Chilean Sauvignon Blanc spectrum, the former leaning more heavily on the bell pepper- and jalapeño-influenced end, and the latter more in the direction of grapefruit, lime, and mineral. Tasting them side by side is an eye-opening way to understand the breadth of Sauvignon Blanc styles, not just in Chile but in general.