Culinary Arts

Learn About Sauvignon Blanc: Grapes, Wine, Region, Taste, and Pairings

Written by MasterClass

May 21, 2019 • 5 min read

Sauvignon blanc is one of the most popular white wine grapes in the world, prized for its unique citrusy, fruity aroma and refreshingly high acidity. Sauvignon blanc’s flavors vary in intensity depending on where it is grown, from grassy and grapefruity in France and Italy, to the bold, powerful tropical fruit-and-jalapeño style of New Zealand.

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What Is Sauvignon Blanc?

Sauvignon blanc refers both to the grapes and the wines made from them. The grape is native to France, but it is now grown in wine-producing regions worldwide. Sauvignon blanc grapes can be made into wines of any style, but the most popular examples are dry, fresh, and aromatic.

History of Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon blanc’s name comes from sauvage, French for “wild,” as the grape is likely indigenous to southwestern France. Although the grape has been grown in France for at least 500 years, sauvignon blanc has had a recent surge in popularity due to the innovative wines from New Zealand. The grape was introduced to New Zealand in the 1970s, and producers soon realized that the climate was ideal for ripening sauvignon blanc, which is now the country’s most-planted grape. Sauvignon blanc exploded in popularity over the last 20 years and is now being planted all over the world, from Australia and New Zealand, to California, to Chile and South Africa.

Sauvignon Blanc Characteristics: Aroma and Taste

Wherever it is grown, sauvignon blanc has a unique aromatic blend:

  • Gooseberry
  • Grapefruit
  • Lime
  • Passionfruit
  • Elderflower
  • Fresh herbs
  • Green grass
  • Green peppers
  • Jalapeño

Sauvignon blanc’s herbal and vegetal aromas come from a group of organic flavor compounds called pyrazines, which create the “green notes” in the wine—grass, green bell pepper, and jalapeño. These pyrazines are found in some red grapes as well, like cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, and carménère.

With sauvignon blancs grown in warmer climates, the flavors of ripe peach and honey also emerge.

Is Sauvignon Blanc a Sweet Wine or Dry Wine?

Most sauvignon blanc is produced in a medium-bodied, dry style. It is refreshing and easy to drink, with moderate alcohol and elevated acidity. Dry sauvignon blancs are usually fermented in stainless steel rather than oak, which contributes to their crisp texture. On the palate, dry sauvignon blanc tastes similar to how it smells, with flavors of lime and grapefruit, passion fruit, white peach, and bell pepper. If it is aged in oak barrels, it will have vanilla and custard notes as well as a riper tropical fruit profile.

Sweet styles of sauvignon blanc are rare but prized. The most famous examples are the dessert wines of sauternes and barsac in Bordeaux. These wines are made from white grapes, including sauvignon blanc, that are affected by botrytis cinerea (also known as noble rot) a fungus that concentrates their sugars and acidity by shrivelling the grapes on the vine. This leads to flavors of marmalade, saffron, and apricot. Sauternes and Barsac are lusciously decadent wines that can age for decades.

Where Is Sauvignon Blanc Made?

  • South Island, New Zealand. New Zealand sauvignon blancs are grown in the Marlborough region of the Wairau River Valley, on the northernmost tip of the South Island. New Zealand sauvignon blancs are dry wines with powerfully aromatic, citrusy flavors like grapefruit and lime, and tropical notes like passionfruit, guava, and white peach, and an herbal kick of bell pepper and jalapeño.
  • Loire Valley, France. Many classic cool-climate expressions of sauvignon blanc come from the Loire Valley wine region in central France. Loire Valley winemakers produce Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, two iconic appellations known for elegant, crisp sauvignon blanc wines. Sancerre wines are fresh and citrusy, with a restrained fruitiness and an herbal quality like fresh-cut grass. Pouilly-Fumé wines are known for their slightly fuller body and smoky aroma reminiscent of gun-flint.
  • Andes Mountains, Chile. High altitudes can also contribute to a cool climate that is hospitable to sauvignon blanc. Such is the case in Chilean sauvignon blanc is grown in the San Antonio and Casablanca Valleys in the Andes mountains, where growers take advantage of the cool climate to make restrained, elegant sauvignon blanc.
  • Northern California, USA. Modern advances in winemaking, combined with sauvignon blanc’s natural hardiness and adaptability, mean that growers are getting good results with plantings in warmer climates than they considered in the past. Sauvignon blanc wine made in the warm climate of Napa and Sonoma in California is weighty, higher in alcohol, and aged in oak. This style of sauvignon blanc wine is sometimes labeled fumé blanc in California, a reference to the French appellation of Pouilly-Fumé.

Is Sauvignon Blanc Used in Blends?

Because sauvignon blanc has so much character on its own, it is usually made as a varietal wine (a wine made from just one grape variety) rather than blended with other grapes. Varietal sauvignon blanc wines are most commonly found in the Loire in France, New Zealand, California, Chile, and South Africa.

Blended wines rather than varietal wines are more common in a few select regions. The most notable is in the Bordeaux region in southwest France, where sauvignon blanc is traditionally blended with the waxier semillon grape and the more floral muscadelle grape. Entre-Deux-Mers is an appellation in Bordeaux that specializes in dry sauvignon blanc/semillon blends. Western Australia is another region where sauvignon blanc is usually blended with semillon to give the wines added body.

What Is the Difference Between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon?

Sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon share similar green, herbal flavor characteristics because sauvignon blanc is, in fact, one of the parent grapes of cabernet sauvignon. Cabernet franc, a red grape, crossed in the wild with sauvignon blanc in the 1700s to produce a new grape variety. This new variety, cabernet sauvignon, has aromas of blackcurrant, black cherry, and bell pepper. Cabernet sauvignon is planted throughout the world and is a component of many top wines from Bordeaux to Napa.

What Is the Difference Between Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio?

Pinot grigio is a white grape from northern Italy that is tart green apple and lemon flavors. Sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio are both grown in Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. Sauvignon blanc from Italy has slightly more character and complexity than pinot grigio grown in the same regions.

What Is the Difference Between Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay?

Chardonnay is the more neutral grape than sauvignon blanc, with slightly lower acidity and aromas of apple, lemon, and pineapple. Chardonnay takes on oak flavors readily when aged in barrel, producing a full-bodied, vanillic, and sometimes buttery style. Sauvignon blanc’s aroma is more floral and green, and it is usually not treated with oak. One exception is fumé blanc, as some sauvignon blanc wine is labeled in California, which gains richness and smoky depth from oak aging.

How to Serve and Pair Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon blanc made in stainless steel should be served ice cold to highlight its refreshing qualities, while wines with oak aging should be served slightly chilled.

Sauvignon blanc pairs well with:

  • Fresh cheeses like chevre or ricotta
  • Green vegetables
  • White fish, squid, octopus, or scallops
  • Sauces or vinaigrettes with fresh herbs, like chimichurri

Sweet sauvignon blanc wines, such as sauternes, pair with most desserts, especially those with baked fruit, but also complement intense, rich foods like paté or blue cheese.

Learn more about wine tasting and pairings in James Suckling’s MasterClass.