THE ORIGINS OF SAUVIGNON BLANC, AN INTERVIEW WITH JOSÉ VOUILLAMOZ

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The remarkable book by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz entitled ‘Wine Grapes’ was published by Allen Lane in 2012. David Cobbold was quick to purchase a copy, which has since become his reference book on the vast subject of vine varieties. He spoke with José Vouillamoz about the origins of Sauvignon Blanc.

The last Concours Mondial de Bruxelles was held in Switzerland, near the home of José Vouillamoz. I took this opportunity to ask him to shed a little more light on the origins of Sauvignon Blanc. In ‘Wine Grapes’, which describes 1,368 grape varieties, some vines are grouped by their ampelographic family. Sauvignon Blanc belongs to the large-scale Proles occidentalis group, then to the Messile eco-group, where other well-known varieties include Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Petit Meslier, Pineau d’Aunis and Sauvignonasse. One noteworthy fact is that all these varieties, with the exception of Colombard, are primarily located in the north of France, which lends even greater credence to the northern origins of this particular grape variety.

DC: Has Sauvignon’s DNA been profiled and if so, when?

JV: The DNA profile of Sauvignon Blanc was established in 1994 through the first genetic identification study of grape varieties that was carried out in Australia.

DC: Does this allow both its parents to be identified?

JV: In 1997, the University of California at Davis (USA) discovered that the natural parents of Cabernet-Sauvignon are Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Then, in 1999, Austrian researchers determined that Sauvignon Blanc is natural child of Savagnin Blanc (or Traminer). In 2012, I personally specified that on top of this, Sauvignon Blanc is a brother to Chenin Blanc, and I suggest that Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc originate from the Loire Valley. The other parent is unknown and has probably disappeared.

DC: Do we know around what time this variety was ‘born’?

JV: It’s hard to say. By definition we don’t know the age of grape varieties because they were propagated vegetatively. The first document mentioning the grape variety, under the name of Fiers and in the Loire Valley, dates back to 1534. The document is François Rabelais’ famous Gargantua.

DC: So we can identify its place of origin?

JV: Yes, the Loire Valley, at least according to the oldest document we have available, which is Rabelais’ writings. So this is not proof, but rather probability.

DC: What can we say about its blush, pink etc. variants?

JV: These are colour mutations that are also common to other grape varieties: Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc; Chasselas Rose, Chasselas Violet; Savagnin Rose etc. 

DC: Sauvignon is a parent to Cabernet-Sauvignon but does it have other descendants?

JV: It has no other known descendants.

Interview by David Cobbold

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