Sauvignon Gris – A New Star For Bordeaux Chateaux?

Whilst at the 2011 En Primeur tastings this year I noticed that more white Bordeaux wines seemed to be blended with Sauvignon Gris than before. On checking this out I read that according to figures obtained by the Interprofessional Council of Bordeaux Wine (CIVB), the production of Sauvignon Gris is increasing in popularity with Bordeaux chateau producing white wines. Sauvignon Gris is somewhat of a mystery – it’s a forgotten grape that is a mutation of the better known Sauvignon Blanc. It only counts for 2% of the white grape varieties of Bordeaux (332 hectares). However it is finding favour amongst the Grand Cru Classés of Chateaux Haut Brion, Smith Haut Lafitte and Pape Clement – it’s also part of the blend of Jean Luc Thunevin’s Valandraud Blanc.

Sauvignon Gris tends to mature very early and has a high sugar level. The grapes are a beautiful dusky pink/apricot colour and they have thick skins. However the main drawback of Sauvignon Gris is its low yield and at one point it nearly became extinct in Bordeaux. After the phylloxera epidemic the grape became obsolete but in the early 1980s Jacky Preys rediscovered it in Touraine in the Loire (see Bertrand Celce’s Wine Terroirs Blog for the full story).

The grapes produce a wine which is less aromatic than Sauvignon Blanc but the acidity level is good and the pale straw coloured wines are rounded and rich. Sauvignon Gris is grown in Chile, Australia and New Zealand (Brancott Estate make a 100% Sauvignon Gris single variety wine) as well as France and the flavours can be of grapefruit, gorse blossom, passion fruit, lychee and pear with flinty notes of smoke and toast depending on where – and how – the wine is made.

History on the origins of Sauvignon Gris is scarce and no one knows where it originated, though it is presumed to be somewhere in South West France. It’s known locally as Fié Gris – which translates as ‘reliable grey’ or Surin de Poitou meaning ‘superintendent of Poitou’ which may reflect the fact that it is a trustworthy addition to the blended whites of Bordeaux.

In a recent article by Karyne Duplessis Piché, Daniel Cathiard, owner of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte said that he is a strong supporter of Sauvignon Gris. When he bought the estate in 1990, all the grapevines of this variety had been grubbed up. He replanted and now own a hectare of the variety. Yann Laudeho, oenologist at the chateau, said that Sauvignon Gris brings a lot more minerality and density: ‘it highlights the terroir. It gives the wine a racy side.’

At Chateau Pape Clement, Philippe, son of Bernard Magrez, is also an advocate of Sauvignon Gris and it makes up 5% of the blend of the Pape Clement Blanc: ‘it brings additional complexity. This is an aromatic grape variety and a little less long in the mouth as the Sauvignon Blanc. We love it!’

I am wondering if we will continue to see more plantings of Sauvignon Gris as the weather patterns affect Bordeaux’s climate? DEFRA list it as one of the grape varieties grown here in the UK to make English wine – if it can survive here it certainly has a lot of bottle! It also has a growing number of fans who find the single varietal wines captivating and intriguing – perhaps it will turn out to be a new star for Bordeaux after all.

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