Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most well-traveled and loved grapes in the world. Known for its punchy fruit, aromatics, and bright acidity, the grape has traveled all the way from the tributaries of the Loire Valley in France to the vineyards in St. Helena, California—with many stops along the way.
How did a single grape become world-renowned, and how did we learn to track its steps? This is the story of Sauvignon Blanc: how it got here, what sets it apart from other grapes, and why St. Helena is the perfect home for it. Plus: learn why Sauvignon Blanc is uniquely suited for wine and food pairing.
The Origins of Sauvignon Blanc
In 1996, we developed DNA analysis, and it changed how we understood the origins of grapes forever. Through DNA typing, Dr. Carole Meredith and her Ph.D. student, John Bowers, identified that Sauvignon Blanc is the offspring of lesser-known Savagnin, native to Jura and southwest Germany. Who the other parent grape is is still a mystery to us.
They also discovered that many other grapes came from Savagnin, and today we know that Grüner Veltliner, Petit Manseng, and Chenin Blanc are sibling grapes of Sauvignon Blanc.
Thanks to historical documentation, we can trace Sauvignon Blanc’s origins to the Loire Valley in France. A 1534 document authored by a Chinon native traces it at least this far back, with the mention of an old synonym, fiers. Sauvignon Blanc was also named after the French word for “wild”: sauvage, referring to the vigorous, wild vines.
Sauvignon Blanc is primarily grown in the Centre Loire, a stretch of the river located further inland, home to cool nights and sunny days. Sancerre and Pouilly Fume are most famous for wines that carry notes of citrus fruit, chamomile, gunflint, and smoke. But Quincy and Menatou-Salon also make well-respected wines from the grape.
The Loire River stretches 620 miles, along which an astounding number of microclimates create the perfect conditions for vignerons to specialize in sustainable farming. As Sauvignon Blanc made its way around the world, and eventually, to California, it brought with it a tradition of respect for the land.
Sauvignon Blanc Makes It To California
In the 18th century, Sauvignon Blanc began to make its way south, landing in Bordeaux. Here, the vines spontaneously crossed with Cabernet Franc vines, creating Cabernet Sauvignon. Until we developed DNA analysis, we didn’t think that a red grape could be made from a white grape. This discovery gave us deeper insights into the characteristics of seemingly different wines. For example, we now know why methoxypyrazine, a compound known for herbaceous notes like bell pepper, is found in Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, but also in Sauvignon Blanc and Grüner Veltliner.
Sauvignon Blanc vines spread throughout southern France and eventually made their way to Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Chile.
Charles Wetmore is credited for bringing the vine to California. He was a journalist who fell in love with wine and became a winemaker. He created the state viticultural commission and as its first president, traveled to Bordeaux to obtain Sauvignon Blanc cuttings from the famous Chateau Y’Quem. From there, Sauvignon Blanc spread throughout California. In 1881, the St. Helena Star reported that 900 cuttings were brought to St. Helena from San Jose.
Prohibition was the ultimate obstacle to quality Sauvignon Blanc, but in the aftermath, the winemakers of Napa Valley worked hard to advocate for the grape’s reputation. By the early 2000s, Sauvignon Blanc was back on the map. Still, today, Sauvignon Blanc often exists in the shadow of its offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon.
What Does Sauvignon Blanc Taste Like?
Sauvignon Blanc vines prefer a cool climate with plenty of sun. Cool nights allow the grapes to retain their acidity and minerality, while sunshine ripens the fruit. Depending on the conditions of the climate, Sauvignon Blanc can show an impressive range of fruit like lime, kiwi, grapefruit, melon, passion fruit, gooseberry, peach, or pineapple.
But it is the capacity for herbaceous notes like cut grass, herbs, hay, and lemongrass, along with its floral character, that makes Sauvignon Blanc so unique. With oak aging, wines become round and creamy. The oldest wines carry aromas of petrol.
There are two general styles of Sauvignon Blanc: those fermented in stainless steel, and those that have been oak-aged. Wines with oak age are softer, often with cream and lemon curd notes. Wines made in stainless steel are crisp and lean, showcasing minerality, blossom, and chamomile.
No matter what the style, Sauvignon Blanc is known for making wines of nervy acidity, perhaps thanks to its parentage: Savagnin. This quality imparts structure and refreshment and makes it an excellent choice for wine and food pairing.
Sauvignon Blanc Wine and Food Pairing
Sauvignon Blanc is an extremely versatile wine to pair with food. Thanks to its aromatic and herbaceous profile, it will pair with foods that many people are often stumped by. Think of vegetable-centered dishes and dishes that showcase herbs like Hungarian mushroom soup or tzatziki-topped chicken bowls.
Vegetarian dishes with green flavors like brussel sprouts, asparagus, and arugula-topped flatbreads will play well with savory Sauvignon Blanc. Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, which love to play with aromatics like lemongrass, will fit perfectly with Sauvignon Blanc's fruity and floral aromas. Try Pad Thai, Tom Kha Gai, Thai Green Curry, or Hu Tieu.
Sauvignon Blanc’s acidity will pair well with dishes with creamy goat cheese. Add goat cheese to salads, herb-roasted squash, and mushroom caps, or make a goat cheese flatbread. Other bright and creamy dishes like crab salad, chicken salad, and tortellini salad will complement Sauvignon Blanc well.
Sauvignon Blanc Thrives At The Vineyards In St. Helena
In the northern section of Napa Valley, the Vaca and the Mayacamus mountains pinch the valley, creating an hourglass shape. This protects the vineyards in St. Helena from influence from the bay, and the sun bounces off the mountainsides. The mountains here offer what the Loire River does to the grapes in France: extra sunlight and warmth for the grapes.
This is what allows Sauvignon Blanc to develop its pronounced fruity flavors, setting it apart from the other 10,000 grapes that grow around the world.
With 12,000 acres and over 400 vineyards, there are so many opportunities in St. Helena to make distinctive wines from Sauvignon Blanc. Winemakers here also carry on the tradition of sustainability that the Loire Valley has pioneered over the years. Sauvignon Blanc is not just the story of a fruity, well-traveled grape; it is a story of how great wine can be made with little environmental impact.