Sauvignon Bianco: the basics

Although Sauvignon Bianco (Sauvignon Blanc) is not an indigenous variety of Friuli, it had to be included here because of its prevalence and popularity in the region. I rarely reach for international grape varieties cultivated in Italy, but when it comes Friulian Sauvignon Bianco, I can’t agree more with Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey, who likes to call Sauvginon Bianco “Friuli’s secret weapon.”

The following post is my abridged translation of the entry on “Sauvignon Bianco” in Vitigni d’Italia, le varietà tradizionali per la produzione di vini moderni (Grape Varieties of Italy, the traditional varieties for the production of modern wines) by Antonio Calò et alia, Bologna, Calderini, 2006. This is the second in an educational series on the grape varieties of the Colli Orientali del Friuli, posted in conjunction with the COF 2011 aggregate blog.

Synonyms (documented and/or otherwise plausible): Bordeaux Bianco, Pellegrina, Piccabon, Spergolina, Blanc Fumè, Fumè, Surin, Fiè, Sauternes, Sylvaner Musqué, Muskat Sylvaner, Fegentraube, Savagnin Blanc, Savagnin Musqué.

Erroneous: Champagna, Champagne, Marzemina, Sciampagna, Sèmillon, Spergola, Spergolina Verde, Tocai Friulano.

Origins (Historical Notes): Sauvignon is cultivated in Bordeaux, particularly in the Sauternes. It probably came from this region to Italy, where it is has found suitable growing conditions in many areas and where its cultivation has been favored by growers. There is no doubt that the name Sauvignon originally meant “wild plant” (Bonnier e Levadoux, 1950). And indeed, its traits are similar to those found in the Lambrusca family. According to Molon (1906), its French origins are not certain, even though it has been cultivated in France since the 19th century. In France, two distinct types of Sauvignon are grown: Sauvignon Grosso, also known as Sauvignon Verde, and Sauvignon Piccolo, also known as Sauvignon Giallo. The only morphological differences between the two are in the fruit. The Verde or green-bunch biotype is Sauvignanasse, which is as widely planted in France as it is in Italy. In Friuli, it is called Tocai. There is also a pink or red clone of this variety, noted for its intense aroma and grown in warmer regions like Chile.

Environment and cultivation: Medium-low, dependable production. Slopes with dry conditions and stony soils are ideal for its cultivation. It thrives when pruning is not overly aggressive. Guyot and Cordone Speronato [i.e., cordon-trained, spur-pruned] are the recommended training systems for this variety. Because of its early ripening and hard-to-control acidity levels, temperate-cool climates are best for its cultivation where there is a higher synthesis of pyrazine and methoxypyrazine which are responsible for its elderberry and tomato leaf aromas.

Sensitivity to Disease and Other Issues: sensitive to peronospora, oidium, esca, very sensitive to botrytis and acid rot. It cannot tolerate spring freezes or hydric stress but has good tolerance for windy conditions.

Alcohol Content: 8.9-15%
pH: 2.6-3.6
Acidity: 3.9-9.3 grams per liter

Sauvignon Bianco makes a fine, food-friendly white wine, golden yellow in color with intense ripe fruit and floral aromas. Soft and velvety, lightly aromatic, warm, with good body, and delicate. Suitable for short-term aging. With the right conditions, it can be subjected to noble rot and late-harvested.

The variety is used exclusively for vinification. It is commonly grown in the Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Emilia, and Lombardy. It is used in many DOCs, including: Alto Adige, Colli Berici, Colli Bolognesi, Garda, Oltrepò Pavese, Bagnoli, Breganze, Isonzo, Terlano, Colli Orientali del Friuli, Collio Goriziano, Trentino, Erice, Corti Benedettine del Padovano, Pomino.

No regrets, Coyote: French grapes in Friuli at Ronco del Gnemiz

Bobby Stuckey

Above: Ubi major, minor cessat. Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey (left) really knows his stuff and when it comes to Friulian wines, he’s at the top of his game. It was fascinating to travel and taste with him in Friuli. Ronco del Gnemiz, where he and Lachlan source some of the fruit for their Scarpetta label, was a favorite visit for everyone (for the cast of characters, click here).

In some ways, the wines I tasted that day run contrary to everything I desire in Italy wine: they were made from French grapes, grown in Italian soil, and vinified with pharmaceutical yeast. But I loved and love them… unabashedly and unconditionally… no regrets, Coyote. They were the wines of Ronco del Gnemiz in the Colli Orientali del Friuli, a winery that I have followed since my earliest days writing professionally about wine in New York more than 12 years ago.

Above: More than once, Bobby talked about “Friuli’s secret weapon, Sauvignon Blanc.” In our tasting of a vertical of vineyard-designated Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc at Ronco del Gnemiz, I found myself writing things like “fantastic balance,” “extreme elegance,” “rich but angular,” “gorgeous acidity.” This 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, above, was fantastic.

One of the first things that nearly every Friulian winemaker will tell you is that Friuli was completely destroyed in the First World War (Friuli was on the front line between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire). Between the two World Wars, wine production was not a priority for a people whose farmland sat on the edge of the Italian monarchy and then fascist regime. And it wasn’t until Italy’s “economic miracle” of the 1960s that a wine fine industry began to emerge in this uniquely positioned growing zone, with its ancient seabed ponca soils, its ventilation arriving from the Adriatic, and a “natural shield” (as Petrarch would have called it) provided by the eastern Alps.

When Serena Palazzolo’s father purchased the Gnemiz estate in 1964, long before California would make Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon the hegemonic favorites of consumerist culture, he planted French grapes. (Gnemiz, btw, probably comes from the Slovenian nemitz meaning foreigner.)

Above: Chiristian Patat (center), Serena Palazzolo, and their eldest son Jacopo. As crazy as it sounds, I felt like I knew Christian and Serena from tasting their wines for so many years. And I knew that we were going to become friends. As it turns out, we have a great deal in common and Serena and I missed each other at the University of Padua by just a few years! We did indeed become friends and they are going to appear in a very special post, probably my favorite moment of my Friuli trip… Wonderful people…

French grapes have been grown with stunning results in Friuli since that time. (I’ll touch on this later in the series of Friulian posts.) And Ronco del Gnemiz is widely considered one of the greatest expressions of the Colli Orientali del Friuli.

Pharmaceutical yeast, explained Christian when the subject came up, is key to their approach. They’re not using cultured yeast to impart flavor to the wine. They use a neutral yeast to initiate fermentation because they want alcoholic fermentation to be completed before malolactic fermentation can begin. In doing so, they are able to maintain the gorgeous acidity in their wines that gives them such longevity. Their oak regimen consists of 25% new barrels, with the rest being recycled 4 times before being discarded.

I can’t think of any other region in Italy where modern winemaking techniques are applied with such extraordinary results. Of course, there are many who utilize technology excessively in search of high scores and Californian consumers. But most, Ronco del Gnemiz chief among them, exploit modernity judiciously, not with an eye to the American consumer but rather with an ideal of world-class winemaking.

And I can’t recommend Ronco del Gnemiz enough. I love the wines, period, end of report, and no regrets, Coyote.

Pair this! Dinner with the best sommelier (2008) in the world Aldo Sohm

You may remember him from my post some years back now: Austrian-born Aldo Sohm, one of the nicest guys in the biz, one of its brightest stars, and the apotheosis of hospitality and wine and food knowledge. Last night, I was treated to dinner by my friend, photographer Lyn Hughes, who recently “shot” the new website for Le Beranardin, one of New York’s top 5 dining destinations (IMHO), where Aldo holds court. Here are a few images from dinner… Enjoy!

Sea urchin… paired with…

Gaia Santorini Thalassitis. The “sea water” flavors of the Assyrtico were superb with the raw urchin.

Zucchine flowers stuffed with crab… paired with…

Trimbach Pinot Gris. The richness of this wine also went well with the bacalao.

Snapper (shot by Lyn!)… paired with two wines…

Neumeister Sauvignon Blanc. This wine was the quintessence, Aldo explained, of the Austrian interpretation of the grape variety, somewhere between the intensity of New Zealand’s take and the angularity of Sancerre. A simply stunning wine.

Château Simone 1986. One word tasting note: wow. (Check out Wine Doctor’s profile of this incredible estate.)

Here’s one to keep you guessing!

Thanks again, Aldo and Lyn! (Can you believe that? One of NYC’s top celebrity photographers shooting with my camera!)

Stay tuned… Tracie P arrived JFK last night after dinner and our first tasting today is scheduled for 11 a.m. Man, it’s tough job but someone’s got to do it!