By David Cobbold, 6th Feb 2017
David Cobbold looks at how Sauvignon blanc spread thanks to the pioneering efforts of a clutch of wine growers and how research, when properly used, can provide the tools for precision management.
It is only fitting that a review of pioneering research into Sauvignon blanc should start with a tribute to one of its leading international names, Denis Dubourdieu, who sadly passed away in 2016. The teams who worked with him continue his efforts in Bordeaux and elsewhere, both out in the field and in the laboratory. It is fair to say that Sauvignon blanc was the first grape variety to prompt such significant research into its aromatic make-up, from the vineyard through to the ageing cellars.
Commercial success in Haut Poitou
In France, one of the pioneers of Sauvignon blanc marketed under its varietal name was the Haut Poitou winery under the leadership of Gérard Raffarin in the 1980s. The entire Loire region currently produces 70,000 hectolitres of the varietal and ranks second nationwide, after Bordeaux. Raffarin recalls the time when the grape variety gradually spread across the region, located to the far south of the Saumur plateau, between the 1970s and 1990s. It superseded Folle Blanche and hybrid varieties after experiments with Chenin blanc had proved unconvincing. Subsequently, the small co-operative winery successfully marketed varietal wines, made mostly from Sauvignon blanc. Nevertheless, Sauvignon acreage has always been more extensive in regions outside the Loire, as in Bordeaux, which probably motivated researchers based in Gironde.
Complexity and impeccable balance in Touraine
Another of the Loire’s great Sauvignon pioneers, Henry Marionnet, began to plant the variety on the family estate in Touraine in 1967, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that it took off commercially. It is still successful today, as evidenced by Gamay vine pulls in favour of Sauvignon. In outstanding vintages, Marionnet also aimed to produce a more extreme wine which he named ‘M de Marionnet’. The first vintage, in 1989, had an ABV of just under 15% and showed substantial complexity and impeccable balance. Ten percent of his current production is also made from ungrafted vines, another avenue of experimentation explored by this innovative grower.
A combination of climate and research
Sauvignon blanc’s basic price is also a way of gauging how much traction it has gained. In Haut Poitou, which makes both Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay was more expensive than Sauvignon at the start of the 1990s, but that is no longer the case today. Climate change in recent years, combined with research along the entire production chain, have had a considerable impact on the variety’s character and perception – Sauvignon blanc is now less vegetal and acidic and more fruity than it used to be. Climate change and improved vineyard management have promoted a greater degree of ripeness. Since the 1990s, aromatic concentration driven by thiols has increased virtually everywhere and the commercial success of Marlborough Sauvignons and their powerful aromatics have inspired an entire generation of wine growers.
Adapting vineyard management techniques
According to the owner of Ampelidae in Haut Poitou, Frédéric Brochet, who has a PhD in oenology, one of the key factors in these improvements is nitrogen supply at critical stages of the vine’s growth cycle, particularly when the flowers begin to open. Nitrogen supply helps management of the varietal’s aromatic profile, provided it occurs before veraison. Producers aiming to bring out herbal notes in their Sauvignon in hot years need to remove fewer leaves. Sauvignon blanc’s more highly coloured variation, Sauvignon gris, which Brochet keeps in his vine conservation area in Vienne, displays lower acidity and produces fewer thiols, but also has a higher resistance to rot.
The vine vigour connection
In terms of winemaking, significant headway has been made in the maturation phase, more specifically in resolving issues caused by the varietal’s reductive tendency. Research by Valérie Lavigne has been instrumental in improving knowledge, although she also stresses the significance of high vine vigour, requiring sufficient water and nitrogen. There is a direct correlation between plant vigour and aroma and phenol precursors in the grape skins.
Playing sorcerer’s apprentice?
Research findings by teams working with Denis Dubourdieu have led to greater precision in managing Sauvignon blanc: the choice of clones, canopy management, levels of ripeness at harvest and choice of yeast, for instance, all have an impact on its aromatic profile. Former researcher Romain Renard, who is now a consultant for wineries in the Loire Valley, believes however that there are risks involved in spreading too much information about the mechanisms revealed by research. He points to the reticence shown by some critics towards the varietal. By striving to control every aspect of production, he is afraid that wines may become mere prototypes. As a counter-example, he cites Sancerre which he believes should avoid promoting its single white varietal and carve out its own distinctive terroir-driven identity by avoiding over-pronounced thiol-type aromas. Sancerre, though, is in a league of its own. A different, but compelling case is made by Gascony wines which have taken the opposite approach and have successfully made inroads in markets that look for aromatic profiles described as ‘thiol-like’.
Research – another tool in the wine growers’ toolbox
Conversely, Christophe Olivier, another of Dubordieu’s disciples who is putting theory into practice out in the field, believes that belittling the contribution of research also entails risks. Aside from Sauvignon and Muscat, he thinks that actually there is a lack of understanding of varietal aromas and ways of leveraging improved management, although there is ongoing research into Chardonnay and Riesling for instance. As research findings by Dubordieu’s laboratory have yet to be disproved, they can be beneficial and help wine growers make choices. If the prevailing opinion voiced by wine critics shifts to an anti-tech attitude, it would be a shame if the contribution of research were forgotten. Obviously, there is a risk of aromatic ‘tampering’ but research work should not be likened to standardisation. Understanding does not mean doing!
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