"Working the Land" (Viticulture)

Viticulture: Sauvignon Blanc-At-A-Glance
Vigor (low/high)
Extremely vigorous, so need to control leaf growth through rootstock, soil, and especially canopy management, as well as -- where legal -- irrigation
Quality in wide variety of terroirs, especially chalkier soils Can withstand cold, but consistently excels slightly warmer climates
Yield (potential)
Low to moderately high, depending on vigor and winemaker intent
Growth cycle
Late-budding (prone to spring frost); early to mid-ripening
Prone to rot (especially botrytis), including powdery mildew, black rot, and wood diseases (eutypa)

Growing and Making Sauvignon Blanc (in California)

Sauvignon Blanc’s appeal is demonstrated by its popularity in many regions around the world. It also performs well in a range of climates and soil types. That said, if not managed correctly, it can be a polarizing wine. 

When Sauvignon Blanc is badly vinified, it tastes overly pungent and vegetal—like tinned asparagus, undercooked and gassy broccoli or over-boiled green peas or beans. This is usually because it has been vinified from unripe fruit, which can occur if vines are planted in wet, fertile, poorly drained soil, allowed to grow out of control, or grape clusters receive insufficient sunlight exposure for proper photosynthesis. It is a variety that is inherently chock-full of pyrazines, and experience shows that insufficient ripeness accentuates the pyrazines’ overt bell pepper and other unripe green notes.

Working the Land

Does soil influence the flavor of the final wine?

Traditionalists answer unequivocally “Yes!” Soil is a key element of “terroir,” the natural environment in which the vines grow, along with climate (temperature, rainfall), topography (altitude, drainage, slope, aspect) and sunlight.

A more unorthodox view holds that the influence of soil on what you taste in the glass is a myth. Maynard Amerine and Ann Noble, two famous names at UC Davis, California’s premier wine school and wine research facility, did a study on the topic. Though the study is based on Chardonnay grapes, they concluded that the following holds true for all winegrapes: “no outstanding sensory differences were observed in wines produced from different soil type locations.” The key word is “sensory” (sight, smell, taste). They are not saying that the soil doesn’t affect vine behavior (yield, growth cycle, etc.). 

The subject is most certainly up for further debate. That said, here is a brief review of how Sauvignon Blanc, according to the classic view, expresses itself in the glass, based on the type of soil in which it is grown.

Limestone/calcareous soils: Occurring in France’s diminutive St. Bris in Burgundy, limestone provides tension, minerality, and freshness.

  • California locations: Central Coast between the Santa Cruz Mountains to the north and Lompoc to the south, just north of Santa Cruz, Mt. Harlan. 

Chalky soils: Probably the best-known expression of Sauvignon Blanc, where high-alkaline chalky soils produce stellar dry wines, is France's central and eastern Loire Valley. High-pH (alkaline) soils, such as chalk, encourage the vine’s metabolism to produce sap and grape juice with a relatively high acid content. 

  • California locations: There are no specific regions to call out.

Sandy soils: Sandy soils generally bring out the more herbaceous notes.

  • California locations: Contra Costa’s Oakley, southwest Santa Maria Valley, parts of Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez, Lodi.

Clay soils: Sauvignon Blanc from predominantly sandy-clay soils exhibit more overt fruit and fuller body.

  • California locations: Clay-based soils exist in many locations!

For more on Sauvignon Blanc and differing soil types, visit Wine Business Monthly’s “Sauvignon Blanc: Mysteries of the Soil.”

While Sauvignon Blanc’s ultimate flavors are determined more in the winery, there is much to be said about growing it for maximum flavor beyond selecting soil types and pinpointing the right climate conditions. The variety’s signature “green notes” can be diminished (e.g. thoroughly ripening the pyrazines to quell their brashness, while allowing the more citric nature of the grape to pronounce itself) or allowed to express themselves. There are many who love the dizzying array of associated herbal and vegetable notes. 

Globally, there are 27 officially authorized clones. Noteworthy clones in California include the “now-heirloom” d’Yquem clone (aka FPS1) and FPS27 (also known as the Sauvignon Musqué clone). Several other codified locally are FPS 30 (from Larry Hyde using a Musqué selection sourced from Monterey County from Doug Meador’s Ventana Vineyard, which itself was a selection of FSP 27) and Bedrock clone 37, donated, among others, by Morgan Twain- Peterson from the legacy Bedrock Vineyard, tracing its origins to the Nervo Ranch in Alexander Valley in the 1890s.  

As Sauvignon Blanc is such a vigorous vine, managing vegetative growth is key. This means not only keeping the pairing of soil-to-rootstock balanced to lessen said vigor but controlling the aggressive canopy the variety will generate if left unchecked. Carefully controlled exposure of fruit to sunlight is paramount, unless you love uber-green examples. So, as a rule, it is trellised in VSP (vertical shoot position) to maximize sun exposure, minimize rot and allow for ample canopy management (leaf plucking, etc.). Two other canopy management techniques, the Scott-Henry and Smart-Dyson, are often employed.  

 For more on the Scott-Henry and Smart-Dyson methods, visit The Grapevine Magazine’s “The Scott Henry Training System; Easy to Learn, And a Route to Improved Profitability & Wine Quality.”

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Sustainability and California

As an agricultural industry, the California wine community has a long history of adapting to change and demonstrating its commitment to sound environmental practices and social responsibility. Building on these efforts are the educational and certification programs of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). Established by Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, CSWA is the most comprehensive and widely adopted wine sustainability program in the world, and– together with other important sustainability programs in regions throughout the state– has made California wine a leader in addressing climate change.