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A return to sauvignon blanc

Stuart Knox of Sydney's Fix St James

Stuart Knox of Sydney's Fix St James

Sauvignon blanc has an image problem in fine-wine circles. It's the most popular commercial white wine in Australia. We guzzle an ocean of it every year, mostly in the form of cheap supermarket bottles from Marlborough in New Zealand. But its ubiquity is its undoing: familiarity, for some, has bred contempt.

Snooty wine lovers and sommeliers dismiss the grape's fruity charms, claiming the wines it produces are boring. And as a result you can struggle to find sauvignons in some of our top restaurants. Unless, that is, the wines have been made using unconventional techniques.

The modern mainstream sav blanc - clear, crisp, fruity - relies on safe handling in the winery: clear juice, cultured yeasts, cold fermentation in stainless steel, early bottling, sulphur dioxide preservative additions.

But a growing number of adventurous sauvignon winemakers are doing the opposite: wild fermenting cloudy juice, on skins, in barrel or clay amphorae, ageing before bottling, with little or no sulphur. And the resulting wines are reigniting a passion for it.

"I have quite a few sav blancs on the wine list now, but it's not always obvious that they're sav blancs," says Stuart Knox, owner of Sydney wine bar Fix St James. "I have a sauvignon blanc section for familiar wines, from Marlborough to Sancerre, but I also have skin-contact sauvignons in the 'amber' section, and low- or no-sulphur sauvignons in the 'weird' section."

Knox says savvy is a great grape for back-to-the future techniques because, regardless of how it's made, it retains its distinctive varietal character. "For people who are new to natural or skin-contact wines," he says, "that unmistakable sauvignon flavour is something familiar they can hang on to."

Barrel-fermenting (and ageing) sauvignon is nothing new, of course. Most top French producers from the Loire Valley such as Didier Dagueneau in Pouilly Fumé and Alphonse Mellot in Sancerre do it; oak-aged sauvignons have been sold as "fumé blanc" since the 1970s, and a large number of New Zealand producers have adopted the technique for their reserve wines since Cloudy Bay released its barrel-fermented, lees-aged sauvignon, Te Koko, a decade or so ago.

Indeed, if you are bored by innocuous Marlborough savvy, track down a bottle of Greywacke Wild Sauvignon, or Churton Best End, or Hans Herzog Sur Lie, or Dog Point Section 94. These are complex, multilayered expressions of grape and region.

The trend towards natural winemaking and skin-contact sauvignon, on the other hand, is revolutionary in that it's a radical return to old methods. Leading natural Sancerre producer Sébastien Riffault, for example, claims his low-or-no sulphur, oxidative, savoury wines recall the true flavour of Sancerre back in the early 20th century.

One of the first Australian winemakers to try the radical approach of fermenting sav blanc on skins - like a red wine - was Barossa-based Tom Shobbrook. In 2010, Shobbrook picked some savvy in the Adelaide Hills and wild-fermented the juice on skins for six weeks. The resulting cloudy, yellow, intensely flavoured wine, called Giallo, was a revelation, and inspired others to explore skin-contact white winemaking.

"That first wine came out of a challenge between (winemaker) Anton van Klopper and I to see who could make the most interesting sauvignon blanc," says Shobbrook. "We both picked fruit from the same vineyard on the same day. He made a clean, barrelfermented wine but I started playing with skins to see how far you can go. Luckily it worked, so we kept doing it. And now we're seeing other interesting skin-contact white wines around."

One winemaker inspired by the trend is Brad Wehr, producer of Wine by Brad, Amato Vino and Mantra in Margaret River. In 2015 Wehr made his first skin contact savvy, a refreshing dry white called Skinnydip.

"Skinnydip came about when I didn't have room for a batch of sav blanc grapes in the winery during a hectic vintage," says Wehr. "I had some clay amphorae so I chucked the grapes in to see what would happen. I liked it so much I'm going to make more this year."

Echoing Knox, Wehr says that despite the funk of wild ferment, the savoury grip of skin contact, and the cloudiness of bottling without filtering, he likes that Skinnydip tastes unmistakably of Margaret River savvy.

"I like sauvignon blanc as a variety," he says. "I like to drink it and I'm having fun doing things with it.

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