Dried and/or fresh herbs mark the aroma of a well-made sauvignon blanc, which was precisely the reason the grape variety seemed to be so daunting to many people almost exactly 50 years ago when Robert Mondavi began selling his first such wine, from the 1966 harvest.
Sauvignon blanc long had been considered one of the world’s most notable wine grape varieties, and the wine it made was a noble addition to the dining table. But from his experience, Mondavi knew that selling a wine with that name wouldn’t be easy.
So he changed the name to Fumé Blanc, borrowing the name of a famous French (Loire Valley) district wine, Blanc Fumé, and set out to educate consumers about the exceptional qualities this grape could offer.
The Mondavi style, as well as the name, began to catch on. Dave Stare of Dry Creek Vineyards in Sonoma County adopted the Mondavi name in the early 1970s for its sauvignon blanc, and later so did Ferrari-Carano, Grgich Hills, Chateau St. Jean and others.
The herbal notes of the variety pervaded many such wines of that era. Some wine lovers, notably chardonnay fanciers, didn’t like or, more likely, understand the green, herbal aromas.
Still, St. Jean’s distinctive La Petite Etoile, from the cool Russian River Valley, long has displayed lemongrass and green tea aromas. In the early 1980s, the wine was even greener (and more olive-y) than it is today. It developed a loyal following, and it remains a part of the St. Jean portfolio.
The strongly herbal style of the variety once was considered a “love or hate” sort of thing and hearkens back to a time in the mid-1980s when cold-climate or windy California locales made such aberrant styles of sauvignon blanc that the wines were likened to having the aroma of canned green beans or asparagus.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Monterey County was considered the wrong place to grow sauvignon blanc because of its strong vegetal assertiveness, a trait that in the last decade has become a lot better understood by consumers.
Indeed, even wines like Cabernet Sauvignon grown in cooler climes were said to have “the veggies.” It was a disrespectful term, and even was applied (inappropriately) to some perfectly acceptable cabs that had a mere trace of the variety’s “wild sage” aroma.
The herbal charms of sauvignon blanc first gained acceptance here as a result of a truly challenging style first seen in this country in the late 1990s when the first sauvignon blancs from New Zealand arrived.
These were relatively herbaceous wines, but nevertheless showed a lot of charm. As with 50 years ago, the first New Zealand efforts seen here were initially considered to be aberrations — oddities that only adventuresome wine lovers could possibly understand.
Once the shock wore off, the New Zealand style of wine featuring the aromas of passion fruit, gooseberry, lime, and even a trace of kiwi became a fascination for those seeking alternative flavors.
Sauvignon blanc also is one of the components of White Bordeaux wines, and a few of these are entirely composed of that grape. But most have semillon as the primary component, so they have that grape’s main aromas — figs, lanolin and ripe melon.