An Introduction to French Sauvignon Blanc

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

glass of white wine outdoors at sunset

If you’re interested in adding Sauvignon Blanc to your wine collection, you’ll want to learn more about this popular varietal. Our guide details the best Sauvignon that France produces and what you can expect from this elegant French wine.

All About French Sauvignon Blanc

Hailing from Western France in the Loire Valley and the general Bordeaux region, Sauvignon Blanc is known for its herbaceous, grassy notes that blend with tropical fruits and tart citrus. Its overall crispness often becomes a bit juicier in warmer climates.

Most Sauvignon Blanc ferments in stainless steel vats rather than oak barrels, which gives it a straightforward flavor. Those versions that age in oak take on dill, nutmeg and coconut notes, along with a customary vanilla and butter combination.

This varietal can grow in cooler and warmer climates, but temperatures that are too warm don’t allow the grapes to develop their complex flavors. The natural range for Sauvignon Blanc is a combination of maritime and continental climates, where the grape can ripen more slowly and achieve its full potential.

Although the grape buds late, likely due to the cooler temperatures, it ripens early to take advantage of the sun during the growing season. This variability makes Sauvignon Blanc flexible in adapting to different conditions, both in other regions of France and internationally.

Where Is This Wine Produced in France?

Within France, there are two main regions that produce the best French Sauvignon Blanc: the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. These regions just happen to be where the grape has its deepest origins.

Interestingly, you won’t often find Sauvignon Blanc on the label. You’re more likely to see the wine go by the name of the appellation or the village instead.

Loire Valley

This region extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Loire River, but the primary growing region for Sauvignon Blanc is centered around the Upper Loire. Harsh winds, frost and even fog can affect the grapes during their early growing season, although the valley also features summer sunshine mixed with rain. Regardless of the time of year, there is a significant change between its daytime and nighttime temperatures.

The Upper Loire has a range of soils that contribute to the grape’s flavor profile, with chalk, limestone and clay most prevalent. Flint is also more localized, giving a smoky attribute to a few types.

In the Loire Valley, the wines Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume are Sauvignon Blanc from the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire, respectively. These wines are the most well known Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, but not the only ones.

Several villages to the west of the village of Sancerre also focus on Sauvignon Blanc. Reuilly, Menetou-Salon and Quincy are equally high quality but more affordable. Touraine, located in the upper portion of the Middle Loire, has some plantings of Sauvignon Blanc as well.

Bordeaux Region

Unlike the Loire Valley, Bordeaux doesn’t put its focus on Sauvignon Blanc wines by themselves. Instead, Bordeaux does what it does best: blends. Bordeaux Blanc is the most common blend, in which Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc appear in varying proportions. Sometimes, other grapes like Ugni Blanc and Muscadelle play a part in the blend.

Bordeaux produces dry Bordeaux Blanc and sweet Bordeaux Blanc. The dry blend is the specialty of the Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves and Pessac-Leognan regions, while the sweet blend comes from the Sauternais region.

In most cases, dry Bordeaux Blanc has anywhere from 50 to 80 percent Semillon, with the rest being Sauvignon Blanc or a blend of other grapes.

Sweet Bordeaux Blanc typically uses up to 75 percent Semillon grapes, and usually 20 percent Sauvignon Blanc, with Muscadelle making up the remainder. The important difference between the dry and the sweet blends is not the grapes used but rather the presence or absence of Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot.

Even within dry Bordeaux Blanc you’ll see some variation. While the blends from Entre-Deux-Mers have zippier and crisper notes, those from Graves and Pessac-Leongnan vary from zippy to rich and creamy, especially when Semillon is used in greater proportions.

Tastes and Primary Flavors

What about the taste of the French white wine Sauvignon Blanc and its various types?

First, you’ll have a rich herbaceous base of grasses, bell peppers, herbs and nettles. You’ll also notice a fruity medley that ranges from zesty citrus and gooseberries to smooth stone and tropical fruits. The warmer the climate, the more tropical the notes. Sauvignon Blanc has moderate to high acidity regardless of where it comes from.

Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc is crisper and more noticeably herbal, with refreshing chalk minerality and a hint of florals. The Sauvignon Blanc from Pouilly-Fume has one additional characteristic that sets it apart: the smoky notes from the chert rock found in the limestone.

Sweet Bordeaux Blanc naturally has a different profile from dry Bordeaux Blanc. Rich honey, ripe peaches, orange peels and a subtle nuttiness all factor into the taste. The Sauvignon Blanc wines from Pessac-Leognan also have creme brulee and baked apple notes that harmonize with the customary Sauvignon Blanc profile.

How Terroir Affects the Flavor

As with other wines, Sauvignon Blanc changes in flavor depending on where it was grown. Loire Valley versions are earthy and crisp, and Bordeaux versions have more fruit notes, but they all have higher acidity and lower alcohol. These traits come from to the cooler climate and slower growing season.

Sauvignon Blanc from a warmer climate will have acidity that is more moderate, along with a higher alcohol content. These differences are due to quicker ripening, which can also come with a slightly more fruit-forward flavor profile.

California and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

Of course, no guide to Sauvignon Blanc would be complete without mentioning two other regions known for their versions of the wine. California and New Zealand both produce Sauvignon Blanc that expresses the best of the region’s terroir.

California Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc from California comes from Sonoma and Napa Valley, where it is often fuller-bodied, with sweeter, juicier fruits. Fume Blanc, with its oak barrel aging, softens the herbal profile. Most Sauvignon Blanc is oaked, but unoaked versions appear as well.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

The Sauvignon Blanc wines from New Zealand continue the French trend of zippiness and high acidity. They also add more noticeable tropical fruit notes thanks to abundant sunshine. Marlborough is the main region for Sauvignon Blanc wines from New Zealand.

For more assistance or to find out about our wine consultation services, feel free to reach out to us at JJ Buckley Fine Wines. We would love to continue the conversation.