French Sauvignon Blanc – the fight back

Clos de Fontenay, Touraine

Funny grape Sauvignon Blanc. Perceptions of it have changed almost completely over my 26 years in the wine world.

I remember disliking Sauvignon Blanc intensely – I considered it a hard edged, mean, lean kind of grape that made wines that were not even slightly cuddly or enjoyable.

After a little while I managed to try the better examples of wines like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé and realised that these were good wines, that were stony and mineral and not overly generous in the fruit department.

Please forgive me the generalisations that are about to come your way, but there is a great deal of truth in them – in my opinion.

Traditionally the Fench do not favour overtly fruity wines. The only classic French wine that is fruity by nature and design, Beaujolais, is more acidic and tartly fruity than richly fruity – which is what modern UK consumers understand by the term.

I once served a Napa Valley Fumé Blanc to a Frenchman – he visibly shuddered and pushed the glass away explaining, ‘it has too much flavour’. Can anyone imagine a British wine drinker ever thinking that?

It is very hard for most UK consumers to understand quite how different the wine industry is in France in comparison to Australia, New Zealand or Chile.

A typical French winery - actually in Burgundy, but you get the picture

Most French wine estates are tiny and basically remain farms, whereas the majority outside Europe are massive concerns that dwarf their French counterparts. It is quite rewarding to potter around a place like Sancerre sometime and to see how small everything is, but also how many domaines there are – this small area is home to nearly as many producers as the whole of Chile.

As a consequence of the smaller scale of the wineries and the relative lack of funds, technology is much slower to be taken up in Europe, also because of the small scale it is more expensive to use and frankly, until very recently it was less understood.

Therefore, more than anywhere else the French have traditionally allowed the wine to make itself – it is what it is, what the land and the weather make it, they do not fiddle with it, to change it or adapt it.

Now, that is not really completely true as every development over the centuries has had an effect on the wine, but it remains part of the mindset and broadly true.

Vineyards in Touraine

However, it is changing. We are now seeing a generation of French winemakers taking over who have not only been formally trained, unlike previous generations who perpetuated what had always been done, but a good many of them have done stints abroad to see how other places do things.

All this is good and is really bearing fruit. UK consumers seem to have fallen out of love with French wines to quite a remarkable degree, but it is always worth trying them again from time to time.

Take Sauvignon Blanc, when I joined the trade it was really only used in the Loire and Bordeaux and it lacked popularity as a grape. It took New Zealand’s Marlborough region to inject ripeness into the grape, show what it can do and to make it loved.

Until Marlborough’s influence who would have thought Sauvignon could be aromatic rather than stony?

Who would have thought the acidity could be soft and lime-like rather than lemony or the texture almost creamy rather than crisp?

Now, of course France is not New Zealand, you cannot and should not copy the Marlborough style there, but some of the lessons and experience can surely be applied. Above all if French winemakers want to sell their Sauvignon Blancs in the UK they have to be aware of the market and to be open minded.

Well an exciting venture aims to help them do do just that – the Sauvignon Blanc de Loire Ambassadors project introduces outside influences, provides viticultural advice and understanding as well as winemaking help. New Zealander Sam Harrop M.W. is the consultant bringing an international eye to the proceedings. Sam has also overseen a similar project for Cabernet Franc. The project concerns itself with producers of Sauvignon Blanc from Touraine and the wider Vin de Pays du Val de Loire region – presumably the Central Vineyards have enough of a reputation already.

Map of the Loire Vineyards - click for a larger view

The aim is to drive up the quality of the fruit they grow and to make better wines as a consequence. This will give a stronger reputation to the Sauvignon Blancs of the area – especially if the producers understand the market.

I have not tasted all the Sauvignon Blanc Ambassadors, but the ones I have are really promising, there isn’t a bad wine amongst them. What is impressive is that the wines are good, but true to themselves, they have not copied the New Zealanders, just learned from them to produce wines that are as clean and pure and ripe as they can be from the Loire Valley.

The biggest difference from the past, to my mind is that they are not totally crisp, they are a little softer than crisp and most are a little too rich to be truly crisp. Also because they are a little more generous than such wines used to be they are less inclined to be grassy and to be more fruity – albeit subtly.

Touraine Vineyards

The soils around Touraine are very flinty and were the prime source of gun-flints for Napoleon’s armies, the minerality imparted by this flint is one of the key elements that can make these wines refreshing and attractive, especially as is increasingly the case it has good ripe fruit to balance it out.

The Wines:

Domaine du Salvard Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Vin de Pays du Val de Loire

Very pale, lemony straw colour.
The nose was fresh and delicate with a slight note of yoghurt or cream.
The palate was soft and gentle with touches of fruit and a little mineral character – overall it is clean and attractive if unassuming. It is dry and light-bodied.
The finish is surprisingly acidic and lemony and seems a little out of kilter with the palate. 85/100 points

Domaine Saint Roche ‘La Folie’ Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Vin de Pays du Val de Loire

Deep straw, verging on pale ochre.
The nose was quite rich with herbal, hebaceous notes and waxy, pithy citrus.
The palate was quite rich with some succulence and texture balanced and cleansed by a rich lime-like acidity.
The finish was softly fruity and mineral in equal measure – very good. 88/100 points

Elysis Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Loire Properties, A.C. Touraine

Clean and bright, pale straw with a tint of lemon.
The nose was fresh and zesty with a stony, mineral note and delicate citrus.
The palate was delicately rich and rounded with a lightly creamy texture with fresh lemon that edges towards the richer character of lime.
Soft, dry, attractive – if simple. 86/100 points

Secrets de Chai Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Les Vignerons des Coteaux RomanaisAlliance Loire, A.C. Touraine

Clean and very pale appearance.
The nose was fresh and mineral like wet stones.
The palate was stony and mineral with just a little soft fruity character and crisp green fruit.
Just about the crispest of these, but not totally crisp – attractive wine. 87/100 points

Château de Quinçay Sauvignon Blanc 2009
A.C. Touraine

Attractive, bright pale lemon.
The nose was chalky and mineral with some green fruit too.
The palate was quite straightforward with soft green fruit and high acidity.
Simple, but very pleasant. 85/100 points

Domaine Beauséjour Les Grenettes Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Philippe Trotignon, A.C. Touraine

Clean, pale straw appearance.
The nose was fresh with a zesty citrus note and a little touch of chalky minerality.
The palate was quite rich with soft succulent fruit with some texture and weight, balanced by pretty high acidity and a stony quality – this was just off crisp. 87/100 points

Domaine de Fontenay Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Château de Fontenay, A.C. Touraine

Pale, lemony colour.
The nose was quite neutral. The palate was quite soft and fruity with a fresh cut of lemon acidity – clean and acceptable, but one dimensional. 85/100 points

Cuvée Chateauvieux Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Pierre Chainier, A.C. Touraine

Pale straw colour with lemon tints.
The noise was clean and stony and mineral with whisps of fragrant lemon.
The palate delivers minerality and fresh acidity then some weight of crisp green fruit. Attractive wine, quite edgy and acidic, but very good with a very long mineral finish. 88/100 points

Domaine de la Renne Sauvignon Blanc 2009
A.C. Touraine

Very clean nose with the light aroma of apricots.
The palate was soft and fruity with high underlying acidity that was quite peardrop-like giving a juicy texture. Attractive if you like acidity. 86/100 points

Domaine Paul Buisse ‘Cristal Buisse’ Sauvignon Blanc 2009
A.C. Touraine

Looks like apple-juice – almost bruised!
The nose was soft and apple and pear-like.
The palate was attractive with soft fruit yielding to green apple and citrus. The finish was soft and acidic, I would like this with some food. 87/100 points

All these wines were dry and would be good as an aperitif, or served with salads, fish or soft cheeses. Sadly I can give you almost no information on how to get hold of these wines, but this tasting showed that you can enjoy a wide range of Loire Sauvignons and can stop thinking of Sauvignon as being just from New Zealand.

So, there are really good bottles of Sauvignon Blanc available from the Loire Valley without spending a fortune. They tend to be a little more generously spirited than French Sauvignons from my youth and that bit more enjoyable, without losing their hallmark minerality and clean acidity.

More information will be available at www.vinsdeloire.eu


5 thoughts on “French Sauvignon Blanc – the fight back

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