Loire Valley Wine Guide: Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc is surely the variety best associated with the Loire Valley in the minds of most drinkers. I imagine most reading this guide will already feel more than familiar with this variety, love it or loathe it. It is a variety that tends, because of its aromatic qualities which include some very pungent characteristics, to incite disdain from some drinkers. I myself have gone through phases of loving, then despising, then loving this variety once again. It is the variety that first drew me to the Loire Valley in Sancerre, when I first learnt about wine, but as I discovered the delights of Chenin Blanc, Romorantin and the like, I later rejected Sauvignon Blanc as being too obvious, too simple. It was only with the discovery of the wines from Gérard Boulay, François Cotat, Didier Dagueneau, Masson-Blondelet and Jonathon Pabiot, among others, that I realised that Sauvignon Blanc, with the right terroir and the right hands on the tiller, could be no less great than any of France’s other noble varieties. Thus, having come full circle in my own feelings about this variety, it seems only right that I should begin my guide to the Loire’s varieties here.
Looking first at the origins of Sauvignon Blanc, this is not a variety in which DNA analysis has been wholly helpful in determining its story. As with a number of French varieties, including some well-known Loire Valley names, one parent is most probably the rather similar-looking and similar-sounding Savagnin. This parent-child relationship can be determined by the fact they share 50% of their genetic material. The other parent, however, is still unknown (and may be an extinct wild vine, so we may never know). In this situation it can be very difficult to tell which of the two related varieties is the parent, and which is the offspring (because they share genetic material, but that doesn’t tell you which variety donated it, and which received it). Here two factors suggest Savagnin is the parent. First, Savagnin crops up in the wine literature (under other synonyms, such as Traminer or Clevner) centuries before Sauvignon Blanc appears. Secondly, and perhaps more convincing, two other varieties, Chenin Blanc and Trousseau, share the same genetic origin, being crossings originating from Savagnin and the same unknown variety, meaning these two and Sauvignon Blanc are siblings, and Savagnin is therefore the parent.
Perhaps more interesting is the fact that it is now well established that Sauvignon Blanc is a parent to Cabernet Sauvignon, the other being Cabernet Franc. I have already covered these relationships to some extent in my guide to the Red Grape Varieties of Bordeaux, but I will return to them later in this guide.
François Rabelais and Gargantua’s Grapes
One very apparent feature of Sauvignon Blanc is that, with roughly equal plantings of the variety in existence, both Bordeaux and the Loire Valley have at one point or another laid a claim as its birthplace. “The variety has always seemed to have its origins in Bordeaux”, wrote Jancis Robinson in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Wine (Oxford Press, 2nd edition, 1999) while more than a decade later, in Wine Grapes (Penguin, 2012), José Vouillamoz wrote “Sauvignon Blanc is unlikely to come from the Bordeaux area….it is more likely to have originated from the Val de Loire”. The evidence for this is not genetic because, as I have described above, the parentage of this variety is not certain, but from historical texts. For this, not for the first time, we have François Rabelais (pictured above, in a 17th-century painting) to thank. A leading Renaissance author and doctor, Rabelais was born sometime around 1483, probably in or near Chinon; his works, of which the best known are his Gargantua and Pantagruel novels, frequently reference the wines of the Loire Valley, and they will be cropping up frequently in these grape variety guides.