When someone pours you a glass of sauvignon blanc what do you expect it to taste like?
If it comes from New Zealand it might be along the lines of ‘cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush’, the term famously coined by British wine writer Oz Clarke to describe the pungent, almost aggressively fruity style that emerged from the Shaky Isles in recent decades. Although this ultra-aromatic style may have popular appeal many wine buffs turn their noses up at it, finding the wines simple and lacking in complexity – good for washing down a pizza but not really deserving of a place on the table in a nice restaurant.
Now if your sauvignon blanc comes from France the experience would be very different. The best examples come from the vineyards around the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly in the Loire Valley, the ancestral home of sauvignon blanc. Here the classical grassy, gooseberry fruit characters are very subdued and the crisp wines have an intriguing minerally, flinty, smoky character which is much admired. One of the nicknames for sauvignon blanc grape in the district is blanc fumé, which roughly translates to ‘smoky white’. Even though sauvignon blanc expresses itself very differently in New Zealand and France the winemaking in both cases is usually conducted in stainless steel tanks, not oak.
Californian winemakers, notably the legendary Robert Mondavi, took yet another approach with sauvignon blanc in the early 1970s by maturing it in oak barrels and employing some winemaking techniques more often used when making chardonnay, such as lees stirring. The resulting wines were more about texture and complexity than simple fruit and the name fumé blanc was adopted to differentiate the style from the more common aromatic versions. At the time it was argued that the wines had a smoky (fumé) character from time in oak but these richer, softer styles were quite distinct from the French wines. More likely, the name fumé blanc was the invention of a marketing manager playing around with a common French name for sauvignon blanc.
All these ideas were running through our heads as we approached the 2018 vintage at Colmar Estate. Since 2014 we had been content to make sauvignon blanc in an aromatic style. And the results had been excellent with fresh, bright aromas and flavours (without the cat’s pee, which we put down to our superior viticulture!) Delicious as they were, the wines were on the simple, fruity side without the subtlety, nuance and texture of great white wine. So, we decided to set our sights on making a more complex style and the result is the 2018 Colmar Estate Sauvignon Blanc. This wine is made in what we loosely call the fumé style – aged on its yeast for 12 months after fermentation with gentle stirring to build texture, just a touch of oak and some time in bottle to let it all come together. “It’s sauvignon blanc, Jim, but not as we know it”.