generalBordeaux’s White Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc & Semillon

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Get to know two white grapes originally from Bordeaux — Sauvignon Blanc (in it’s many guises) and Sémillon

This week, we will explore Bordeaux’s two primary white grapes, the popular (but unnecessarily polarizing) sauvignon blanc and almost unknown sémillon.  There are a few other white grapes grown in Bordeaux — muscadelle (no relation to muscadine), ugni blanc (primarily used for blending and brandy), and colombard (primarily used for blending) — but, while some of them are grown in large quantities, they are not highly significant on their own.

Sauvignon blanc is, by far, the most widely known of Bordeaux’s white grapes.  It also happens to be (surprisingly) one of the parents of the highly regarded red grape, cabernet sauvignon.  Unfortunately, sauvignon blanc can be every bit as divisive as, dare we say it. . . chardonnay.  That divisiveness seems to be rooted in the seemingly mysterious and inconsistent ways in which wines are labeled.   Most (but certainly not all) European wines are labelled by appellation, a name/title that indicates not only the place in which the grapes were grown, but also the grapes and viticultural/vinification processes that are permitted.  Conversely, most non-European wines are labelled varietally.  Non-European wines may also include appellation when applicable, but appellation, in these cases, often indicates only the place of origin.  This variance in labelling makes it obvious that sauvignon blanc from, say, New Zealand is (at least mostly) sauvignon blanc, but may obscure the fact that a white wine labelled Sancerre is also (in this case, 100%) sauvignon blanc.  In fact, many consumers assume that “Sancerre” is the name of the grape (it is not. . .).  On numerous occasions, a patron seeking a recommendation has advised me that they love Sancerre and hate sauvignon blanc.  Little did they know. . .   

Let’s get to our journey with sauvignon blanc and remove some of this cloud of mystery. . .


In sauvignon blanc’s home region of Bordeaux (surrounding the city of the same name at the convergence of the Garrone and Dordogne Rivers into the Gironde River (flowing into the Atlantic), sauvignon blanc is usually part of a blend — but so are most grapes grown in Bordeaux.  Single varietal wines in Bordeaux are extremely rare — for that matter, white Bordeaux is rather rare as well, comprising only about 7% of the region’s production.  Sauvignon blanc (and, for that matter, white wine production) in Bordeaux is largely relegated to the lower portion of left bank (west of the Gironde and Garrone) and the Entre-Deux-Mers (“between the waters” — between the Garrone and Dordogne Rivers).  Along the southern half of the left bank, sauvignon blanc is grown in the areas of Pessac-Leognan and Graves for use in dry white blends and, further south, in Sauternes and Barsac for use in sweet, botrytis-affected (more on this in a moment) wines.  

Dry white wines in Bordeaux are generally a blend of sauvignon blanc and sémillon (and, in Entre-Deux-Mers, sometimes some of the other permitted white grapes).  Sémillon, with its lanolin-like texture and relatively low acidity, helps to soften the edge of sauvignon blanc’s acidity.  In addition, dry white Bordeaux is often fermented and/or aged in oak barrels.  The resulting wines tend to have a soft citrus character and a rich, round mouth-feel.  The sweet white wines (from the areas of Sauternes and Barsac) are also a blend of sauvignon blanc (generally no more than 20% of the blend) and sémillon, but in these cases the wines are harvested very late — and are affected by the fungus botrytis cinera, also known by the paradoxical name “noble rot,” which not only concentrates the grapes flavors and sugars through dehydration, but also lends its own honey-like flavors.  These wines have an unctuous, rich texture and luscious honey notes — and they age remarkably well.

France’s  most significant region for sauvignon blanc is along the Loire River Valley, running from east of Orléans westerly beyond Nantes.  The great expanse of the Loire Valley from east to west creates a region of great variety — so much so that many wine educators believe that it would be better considered as four mostly contiguous regions rather than as a single continuous region.  For the purposes of this article, we will focus on eastern half of the Loire Valley with the areas known as Touraine (surrounding the city of Tours) and the far-flung and  mostly disconnected area of the Upper Loire (so named because it is upriver) and the villages Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire.  Touraine is most famous for its white wines made from chenin blanc and its red wines made from cabernet Franc (the village wines from Touraine are always made from one of these two grapes), but basic (and very tasty) sauvignon blanc based wines may be produced from anywhere in sub-region and labelled as “Touraine.”  Of greater significance are the Upper Loire wines known as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.  White wines from both of these areas will always be sauvignon blanc (although Sancerre does produce some pinot noir).  On the west side of the river, the chalk and limestone of Sancerre produces sauvignon blanc with a remarkably crisp minerality that is widely loved.  On the east side of the river, near the village of Pouilly-sur-Loire, the flinty soil of Pouilly-Fumé lends a distinctive smoky character to the sauvignon blanc.  Care should be taken not to confuse Pouilly-Fumé (100% sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley) with Pouilly-Fuissé (100% chardonnay from Burgundy).  Both are delightful wines, but they are very different creatures.  Sauvignon blanc is also produced in the Upper Loire villages of QuincyReuilly, and Menetou-Salon west of Sancerre, but they are not very common in the American marketplace.

Other areas for sauvignon blanc in France include the large Vin de Pays (Country Wine) region of Côtes de Gascogne in southwestern France and the small Burgundian village of St. Bris (southwest of Chablis).  There is a little wine secret here. . .  Most wine professionals will advise that all white Burgundy is chardonnay.  That is not quite accurate.  All white wine LABELED as “Bourgogne” is chardonnay, but there are a number (albeit a small number) of white wines FROM Burgundy that are made from other grapes — St. Bris happens to be one of those wines. . .


New Zealand sauvignon blanc burst onto the American wine scene in the 1990’s — and has been a powerful presence ever since.  The truth is that New Zealand’s wine industry dates back to the mid-1800’s.  It wasn’t until the past few decades, however, that New Zealand wines became widely available outside of their country of origin.  That late entry into the race has not deterred New Zealand.  Despite the country’s small size, New Zealand now ranks among the world’s top wine exporters, whether by volume or by value.

Marlborough, at the north end of New Zealand’s South Island, is New Zealand’s most well-known and most productive appellation for sauvignon blanc.  Marlborough is divided into two smaller sub-regions:  Wairau River Valley and Awatare Valley.  The stony soils of Wairau River produce sauvignon blancs with a more mineral driven character, while the cooler climate of Awatare produces sauvignon blancs with a more herbal driven character.  Most Marlborough sauvignon blancs, however, are sourced from both regions.  Other notable New Zealand regions producing sauvignon blanc include the South Island regions of Canterbury (and its sub-appellation of Waipara) and Nelson.


By far, the most significant producers of American sauvignon blanc are the neighboring California counties of Sonoma and Napa.  Previously disregarded due to its assertive flavors, sauvignon blanc became a viable grape in California in 1968 when Robert Mondavi Winery introduced the world to Fumé Blanc, Mr. Mondavi’s homage to the Loire Valley sauvignon blanc Pouilly-Fumé.  In an attempt to replicate the smoky character of Pouilly-Fumé, this new sauvignon blanc was aged in oak barrels.  Today, “Fumé Blanc” has become a bit of a synonym for California sauvignon blanc, regardless of whether or not it has received oak treatment.  Sonoma and Napa sourced sauvignon blancs are seldom labeled with more specific appellations and may range in style from fresh, grassy, fruit driven wines to rounder, lusher wine with notes of melon and baked pineapple.  


As with many other grapes, Chile is the source of excellent values for sauvignon blanc.  Chilean sauvignon blanc tends to be less assertive than New Zealand sauvignon blancs and more akin to French styles of sauvignon blanc, often with little or no oak influence.  Not long ago, it was discovered that much of the “sauvignon blanc” planted in Chile was actually a grape known as sauvignon vert (also known as sauvignonasse and Friulano).  Most of those mis-identified grapes have since been replaced with true sauvignon blanc.


While the countries discussed above are the primary sources of sauvignon blanc, quality sauvignon blanc may also be found from:

  • Spain
  • Italy
  • South Africa
  • Australia (where it is often blended, Bordeaux-style, with sémillon)
  • Canada (particularly in Okanagan Valley and Niagara Peninsula)

It seems rather unfair to discuss sauvignon blanc as a Bordeaux-originated grape without giving a bit of attention to its frequent blending partner, sémillon.  Once one of the most widely planted grapes in the world, sémillon is now relatively rare.  In addition to its home of Bordeaux, sémillon is also grown in the United StatesChileSouth Africa, and Australia.  In most of these areas it is blended with sauvignon blanc in the tradition (dry and sweet) of Bordeaux, however, it is possible to find single-varietal bottlings of sémillon.  The most frequent sources for these single-varietal offerings are Washington stateSouth Africa, and Australia.  Most surprisingly, single varietal sémillon is produced in both Ohio and Texas.  Sémillon tends to display flavors of lemon, beeswax, and chamomile.  If you are lucky enough to encounter a single varietal bottling, it is well worth trying.

Our tour of growing regions for grapes “originally from Bordeaux” has come to an end. We do hope that this has encouraged you to try some new wines and explore some new growing regions. Next week, we will be introduced to a group of aromatic white grapes that are perfect summer sips — and we’ll take off on another around the world tour of growing regions. . .