The Sauv Blanc Myth

March 29, 2021 Updated: April 3, 2021

There are lots of myths within the wine business that keep being repeated, and one of the most persistent was a result of somebody’s absurd comment probably about 50 years ago.

When I first saw it, I was amused: Someone said sauvignon blanc is the “poor man’s chardonnay.” That is simply ridiculous.

Sauvignon blanc is a noble grape variety, as is chardonnay. Chardonnay produces white Burgundies that command the attention of the most sophisticated wine buyers, who pay outrageous sums for what they see as the ultimate white wine companion to food.

Those who specialize in sauvignon blanc suggest the same about it—but there the similarity ends. In fact, a strong case could be made that these two varieties are polar opposites.

Wine lovers would argue that no great chardonnay can be made without being aged in small barrels (though Chablis lovers would take issue with that!) and that sauvignon blanc at its best is only occasionally placed in barrels.

Moreover, chardonnay is a more delicate variety and more floral in aroma; sauvignon blanc leans more heavily on assertive herb-related scents.

The worldwide impact of chardonnay has been known for well over a century, but sauvignon blanc has come along as a world-class variety only in the past two decades. After a slow start, it has quickly made up ground and today ranks as one of the world’s most popular white wines.

As a grape variety, chardonnay has little distinctive flavor. Years ago, winemakers realized it needed help, so they chose to make it with procedures that added flesh to its spare frame. Aging it in oak barrels gives it a mild vanilla aroma and adds a fleshier texture, making it soft and almost sweet; some actually are sweet.

As with many wine grapes, the location where the fruit grows dictates the style of wine that can be produced, and chardonnay calls for cooler climates. And recently, it was discovered that sauvignon blanc does, too.

Two of my favorite regions for SB are Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley and the Marlborough region of New Zealand. It also does well in France’s Loire Valley, Chile’s Casablanca Valley, and, curiously enough, the warmer Napa Valley.

The latter often remind me of white Bordeaux, and many of these wines (a few selling for outrageous prices) were aged in small oak barrels, thus acquiring chardonnay’s broad texture.

The recent popularity of sauvignon blanc may be due in part to the exotic nature of the grape in really cool areas, such as New Zealand.

I have long loved sauvignon blanc for its regional diversity. Grown in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley, the grape delivers a delicate, grassy note. In the Loire Valley, the aroma switches to be flintier and more mineral-y. In Mendocino County, the grape can be a bit more melon-like. In the Sierra Foothills of California, the aroma has a stony, gravel-y, haylike lilt. And in many areas of California’s Central Coast, green pepper and herbal tea smells are more dominant.

It was New Zealand SB that changed how the grape was viewed. Around 1997, we began to see the first New Zealand sauvignon blancs. They were startlingly intense in flavor—far more assertive than anything produced here.

A typical New Zealand aroma is pungent, akin to lime, passion fruit, and gooseberry. But there are also hints of slate, olive oil, and tropical fruits. This most complex wine is often more interesting than chardonnay, and the style brought a key message to U.S. grape growers: Intense flavors in sauvignon blanc can be understood and appreciated by the American public.

Wine of the Week

2019 Trecini Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley ($17): Hills of tropical fruit and a subtle note of newly mown hay mark the aroma of this fresh, easy-to-drink sauvignon blanc. The Vicini family and winemaker Dan Barwick have always made this wine as simply as possible, with no barrel aging, leaning on its fresh and youthful fruit. Unlike some SBs, this one is completely dry and absolutely a joy to sip.

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