Depending on the climate, the flavor can range from aggressively grassy to sweetly tropical. Wine experts have used the phrase "crisp, elegant, and fresh" as a favorable description of Sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley and New Zealand. Sauvignon blanc, when slightly chilled, pairs well with fish or cheese, particularly Chèvre. It is also known as one of the few wines that can pair well with sushi. Along with Riesling, Sauvignon blanc was one of the first fine wines to be bottled with a screwcap in commercial quantities, especially by New Zealand producers. The wine is usually consumed young, as it does not particularly benefit from aging. Dry and sweet white Bordeaux, typically made with Sauvignon blanc as a major component, is the one exception.
The first cuttings of Sauvignon blanc were brought to California by Charles Wetmore, founder of Cresta Blanca winery, in the 1880s. These cuttings came from the Sauternes vineyards of Château d'Yquem. The plantings produced well in Livermore Valley. Eventually, the wine acquired the alias of "Fumé Blanc" in California by promotion of Robert Mondavi in 1968. The grape was first introduced to New Zealand in the 1970s as an experimental planting to blended with Müller-Thurgau.
The Sauvignon blanc vine often buds late but ripens early, which allows it to perform well in sunny climates when not exposed to overwhelming heat. In warm regions such as South Africa, Australia and California, the grape flourishes in cooler climate appellations such as the Alexander Valley area. In areas where the vine is subjected to high heat, the grape will quickly become over-ripe and produce wines with dull flavors and flat acidity. Global warming has had an effect on the Sauvignon blanc grape, with the rising global temperatures causing farmers to harvest the grapes earlier than they have in the past.
The grape originated in France, in the regions of Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. Plantings in California, Australia, Chile and South Africa are also extensive, and Sauvignon Blanc is steadily increasing in popularity as white wine drinkers seek alternatives to Chardonnay. The grape can also be found in Italy and Eastern Europe.
Pouilly Fumé originate from the town of Pouilly-sur-Loire, located directly across the Loire River from the commune of Sancerre. The soil here is very flinty with deposits of limestone which the locals believed imparted a smoky, gun flint flavor to the wine and hence Fumé, the French word for "smoke" was attached to the wine. Along with Sémillon, Muscadelle and Ugni blanc, Sauvignon blanc is one of only four white grapes allowed in the production of white Bordeaux wine. Mostly used as a blending grape, Sauvignon blanc is the principal grape in Château Margaux's Pavillon Blanc, In the northern Rhône Valley, Sauvignon blanc is often blended with Tresallier to form a tart white wine.
In the Sauternes region, the grape is blended with Sémillon to make the late harvest wine, Sauternes. The composition of Sauvignon blanc varies from producer and can range from 5-50% with the Premier Cru Supérieur Château d'Yquem using 20%. A traditional practice often employed in Sauternes is to plant one Sauvignon blanc vine at regular intervals among rows of Semillon. However, Sauvignon blanc's propensity to ripen 1-2 weeks earlier can lead the grapes to lose some of their intensity and aroma as they hang longer on the vine. This has prompted more producers to isolate their parcels of Sauvignon blanc.
In the 1990s, Sauvignon blanc wines from the maritime climatic regions of New Zealand, particularly the South Island, became popular on the wine market. In the Marlborough region, sandy soils over slate shingles have become the most desirable locations for plantings due to the good drainage of the soil and poor fertility that encourages the vine to concentrate its flavors in lower yields. In the flood plain of the Wairau River Valley, the soil runs in east-west bands across the area. This can create a wide diversity of flavors for vineyards that are planted north-south with the heavier soils producing more herbaceous wines from grapes that ripen late and vines planted in stonier soils ripening earlier and imparting more lush and tropical flavors. It is this difference in soils, and the types of harvest time decisions that wine producers must make, that add a unique element to New Zealand Sauvignon blanc.
The long narrow geography of the South Island ensures that no vineyard is more than from the coast. The cool, maritime climate of the area allows for a long and steady growing season in which the grapes can ripen and develop a natural balance of acids and sugars. This brings out the flavors and intensity that New Zealand Sauvignon blancs are noted for. More recently, Waipara in the South Island and Martinborough, Gisborne and Hawkes Bay in the North Island have been attracting attention for their Sauvignon Blanc releases, which often exhibit subtle differences to those from Marlborough (Air New Zealand Wine Awards 2000-2006). The asparagus, gooseberry and green flavor commonly associated with New Zealand Sauvignon blanc is derived from flavor compounds known as methoxypyrazines that becomes more pronounced and concentrated in wines from cooler climate regions. Riper flavors such as passion fruit, along with other notes such as boxwood, may be driven by thiol concentrations.
In Australia, particularly the Margaret River region, the grape is often blended with Sémillon. Varietal styles, made from only the Sauvignon blanc grape, from Adelaide Hills and Padthaway have a style distinctive from their New Zealand neighbors that tend to be more riper in flavor with white peach and lime notes and slightly higher acidity.
Winemakers in New Zealand and Chile harvest the grapes at various intervals for the different blending characteristics that the grape can impart depending on its ripeness levels. At its most unripe stage, the grape is high in malic acid. As it progresses further towards ripeness the grape develops red & green pepper flavors and eventually achieves a balance of sugars. Grapes grown in Marlborough's Wairau Valley may exhibit different levels of ripeness over the vineyard, caused by slight unevenness in the land and giving a similar flavor profile to the resulting wine.
Sauvignon blanc can be greatly influenced by decisions in the winemaking process. One decision is the amount of contact that the must has with the skins of the grape. In the early years of the New Zealand wine industry, there were no wineries on the South Island which meant that freshly harvested grapes had to be trucked and then ferried to the North Island, often all the way up to Auckland. This allowed for prolonged exposure of the skins and juice which sharpened the intensity and pungency of the wine. Some winemakers, like the Loire, intentionally leave a small amount of must to spend some time in contact with the skin for later blending purposes. Other winemakers, like in California, generally avoid any contact with the skin due to the reduced aging ability of the resulting wine.
Another important decision is the temperature of fermentation. French winemakers prefer warmer fermentations (around 16-18 °C) that bring out the mineral flavors in the wine while New World winemakers prefer slightly colder temperatures to bring out more fruit and tropical flavors. A small minority of Loire winemakers will put the wine through malolactic fermentation, a practice more often associated with New Zealand wines. Oak aging can have a pronounced effect on the wine, with the oak rounding out the flavors and softening the naturally high acidity of the grape. Some winemakers, like those in New Zealand and Sancerre, prefer stainless steel fermentation tanks over barrels with the intention of maintaining the sharp focus and flavor intensity.