Sauvignon blanc is one of the few grape varieties that makes delicious wines all over the world. (Most varieties are confined to just a small handful of places). But where did it come from? Who were its parents? And how did it arrive in California? The answers are fascinating.
Sauvignon blanc originated in the Loire Valley where its synonym “fiers” was mentioned as early as the 1500s. The name “sauvignon” is derived from two French words: sauvage (“wild”) and vigne (“vine”). Sauvignon blanc is a vigorous (wild) growing plant, and the shape of its leaves are similar to those of wild grapevines.
One of sauvignon blanc’s parents was the ancient grape savagnin (it’s not clear who the other parent was). That makes sauvignon blanc a sibling of grüner veltliner, chenin blanc, silvaner, and verdelho, among several other grapes that originated in central France.
From there, sauvignon blanc spread to the region around Bordeaux where it spontaneously crossed with cabernet franc, creating cabernet sauvignon sometime before the mid-1750s. (Until the parentage of cabernet sauvignon was discovered via DNA typing by Dr. Carole Meredith and her PhD student, John Bowers, at the University of California, Davis in 1996, it was not thought that a red grape could have a white grape as a parent.)
Sauvignon blanc’s close relationship with savagnin lead to early confusion between the two, especially before the advent of DNA typing. Indeed, when Dr. William Hewitt of the U.C. Davis Department of Plant Pathology imported cuttings from a viticultural station in Bordeaux in the early 1960s, one group of cuttings was labeled savagnin musqué. Planted in California, savagnin musqué was sometimes referred to as sauvignon musqué. Both had very appealingly complex aromatic aromas (hence the term “musqué” tacked on at the end). But both were later identified multiple times by the famous French ampelographer Pierre Galet as simply sauvignon blanc.
In 1999, Carole Meredith conducted DNA testing on sauvignon musqué and confirmed it is indeed the variety sauvignon blanc. (While DNA profiling can accurately differentiate varieties, it does not differentiate between clones of varieties.) Thus, sauvignon musqué is now widely accepted empirically to be an aromatic clone (its official name is clone 27) of sauvignon blanc. In California, it’s a very desirable clone and today is often blended into the top sauvignon blanc wines.
Sauvignon blanc was first planted in California in the Livermore Valley in the 19th century thanks to newspaper-journalist-turned-winemaker Charles Wetmore who, in the late 1870s, persuaded the California legislature to establish the state viticultural commission. As the commission’s first president and CEO, Wetmore headed straight for the prestigious estates of Europe where he obtained cuttings, including cuttings of sauvignon blanc and sémillon from no less than Bordeaux’s Château d’Yquem.
Those sauvignon blanc cuttings (now called clone 1) became the plant material for vineyards all over the state. Indeed, Wetmore’s clone 1 was probably the sauvignon blanc planted by Gustave Niebaum at Inglenook winery in the Napa Valley. An article in the February 4, 1881, edition of the St. Helena Star, noted that Niebaum received “900 choice cuttings of sauvignon blanc from San Jose.” Later, Beaulieu Vineyards won a gold medal for their sauvignon blanc (also probably clone 1) at the 1915 International Wine Exposition in San Francisco.
But in California, dark days followed for the variety. Grown at high yields after Prohibition, it became the basis for innocuous sweet and dry jug “Sauterne” (spelled without the final ‘s’ as it is in France). “Good Sauterne” (also called Haut Sauterne) was said to be made by just a few wineries including Inglenook, Larkmead, Eschol (now Trefethen), and ultimately Robert Mondavi Winery.
Indeed, sensing a marketing opportunity to distinguish its dry version, Mondavi rebranded it as “fume blanc,” a reference to the Pouilly Fumé wines of the Loire Valley. And Mondavi still makes a very fine example, especially the Robert Mondavi To Kalon Vineyard “I Block” Fumé Blanc, of which only a tiny amount is now made, given that the vines, planted in 1949, are the oldest sauvignon blanc vines in Napa Valley, and may well be the oldest sauvignon blanc in California.
While historically the quality of California sauvignon blancs has been rather variable, the variety is now getting new and exciting attention. As of the mid-2010s, a new class of sauvignon blancs emerged, principally in the Napa Valley. Complex (and expensive), the new Super Sauvignons point to a bright future for the variety in California.
See my blog on the Super Sauvignons and recommendations on some exciting examples in WineSpeed (5/3/2019).