Ah, Fumé Blanc – the name many wine lovers know to be synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc. But where did this unique name come from? Is it still commonly used today? If these questions have been nagging at you, take heart: we have all the answers here.
Read on to learn five interesting facts about Fumé Blanc – and maybe even find your new favorite wine.
Sauvignon Blanc had a rocky start in the US market.
During its early days, Sauvignon Blanc was mostly used to make off-dry jug wine, often labeled as Sauterne without the extra ‘s,’ due to its origins from Bordeaux’s Sauternes region and many California plantings coming from the renowned Chateau d’Yquem. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s when producers in California began to recognize the potential of this grape variety and show it the respect it deserves, spearheaded by a pioneering Napa Valley vintner.
Robert Mondavi changed consumer perception of Sauvignon Blanc.
In 1966, Robert Mondavi changed the face of the wine industry when he opened his winery in Oakville, right in the center of Napa Valley. It was the first large-scale winery to open in the region once Prohibition ended, and he drew inspiration from classic French wines. Among them was Sauvignon Blanc, which held a special place in Mondavi’s heart since his early days as a winemaker for Charles Krug during the 1930s. To this end, he planted an entirely new Sauvignon Blanc vineyard (T Block) near an existing 1945 vintage (I Block).
Despite initial success producing varietally-labeled Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, Mondavi had difficulty selling high quality Sauvignon Blanc due to the widespread belief that it was an inferior variety. Overcoming this challenge was no easy feat, but Mondavi kept striving toward his goal – to make American consumers fall in love with a dry and high quality Sauvignon Blanc comparable to those found in France’s Loire Valley. His persistence paid off when he rebranded and released a stainless steel tank fermented Sauvignon Blanc aged in oak barrels under the name ‘Fumé Blanc’ in 1968. The unique taste of Fumé Blanc revolutionized US perceptions of Sauvignon Blanc wines and helped to establish Robert Mondavi as one of the most influential figures in modern winemaking.
Robert Mondavi did not copyright or trademark the term Fumé Blanc.
Robert Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc was a pioneering concept when it first hit the market. By aging Sauvignon Blanc grapes that had been fermented in tanks in new oak barrels and stirring the lees, he managed to mask the herbal notes of the grape, which many American wine drinkers found unappealing at the time. The result was a crisp and fruity white wine with a Chardonnay-like texture and creamy mouthfeel – reminiscent of Pouilly Fumé’s great wines.
To distinguish this new style of Sauvignon Blanc from all the other options available at that time, Mondavi requested for it to be officially registered as Fumé Blanc by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Instead of copyrighting or trademarking his invention, he allowed other winemakers to use this name and helped the style become even more popular – a strategic move that ultimately paid off. Fumé Blanc rapidly gained traction around America, as well as Australia, South Africa, and Europe.
The Oaky Misconception: Not all Fumé Blanc’s are overly oaked.
Fumé Blanc has evolved a lot since its debut, with Mondavi initially tank fermenting and aging his namesake creation in new French Oak barrels. This approach gave the wine an unmistakable oaky character; however, over the years, Mondavi and others started to move away from this style of winemaking, opting instead to ferment in used oak barrels. This had several effects on the finished product, most notably imparting less of an oaky taste while seamlessly blending together flavors in a more delicate fashion than if it had first been fermented in steel before being aged in oak. These days when you sample a bottle of Fumé Blanc you will often be left with little evidence that it has spent time aging in new oak; though misconceptions still linger that this style of Sauvignon Blanc is overly oaked.
Use of the term has declined, but there are still Fumé Blanc’s worth seeking out.
These days, sipping a glass of Fumé Blanc is no longer as common as it once was. Yet, certain winemakers still produce and label their wines in this way for different reasons – to emphasize the dryness of the wine or to steer clear of its association with grassy Sauvignon Blanc flavors, or even to take advantage of its legendary reputation. Whatever the reasons of their respective winemakers may be, these three outstanding examples are definitely worth a try, with each one offering a unique flavor profile that is sure to please.
Vintner Project Selections:
One of the first two wines Ferrari-Carano ever made over 40 years ago, this Fumé Blanc is composed of Sauvignon Blanc grapes primarily from Sonoma County. The grapes are fermented in a mix of stainless steel tanks and used French oak barrels. The wine in barrel is aged sur lie and stirred every other week for two months, then blended and bottled. The result is a wine with beautiful tropical aromas, crisp acidity, and more body, complexity, and depth than your typical Sauvignon Blanc. Drink now.
Celebrating their 51st Anniversary this year, Dry Creek Vineyard is the proud pioneer of Sauvignon Blanc in the Dry Creek Valley. Crafting their signature Fumé Blanc since their founding in 1972, the winery takes inspiration from classic French wines of the Loire Valley. On the nose, zesty citrus and stone fruit aromas mingle with fragrant lemongrass and white tea notes. The palate is delightfully crisp and bright, with juicy tropical fruit flavors balanced by herbal nuances and a hint of minerality. A delicious wine to celebrate half a century of Dry Creek Vineyard’s uncompromising dedication to producing wines of the highest quality that encapsulate the unique terroir of Dry Creek Valley.
In 1968, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich went to work for Robert Mondavi as head enologist, making the inaugural release of “Fumé Blanc.” Mike continued crafting this particular style of Sauvignon Blanc in tribute to his old colleague and friend when he eventually moved on and founded Grgich Hills Estate. . Relying on naturally-occurring yeasts, Grgich ferments a portion of the grapes in 900-gallon French oak casks, called foudres, with the remainder in oak barrels. They then age the wine for six months on its lees in neutral barrels. This medium-bodied wine has green apple and citrus notes complimented by a touch of herbs, minerality, and cream. It’s delicious now but should evolve nicely for another 2-3 years.
No round-up of Fumé Blanc wines would be complete without The Reserve Fumé Blanc from Robert Mondavi. The grapes for The Reserve are sourced from the To Kalon Vineyard, one of the most celebrated vineyards in Napa Valley. They are hand harvested and aged on the lees for nearly 11 months in French oak barrels (50% new). Unlike the other wines featured here, the Mondavi Reserve Fumé Blanc contains 6% Sémillon which adds viscosity and texture. This wine offers beautiful tropical fruit flavors with notes of honeysuckle and jasmine. It’s full-bodied with mouthwatering acidity and a long finish. This is not your average Sauvignon Blanc. It’s an absolute stunner! Drink now or hold.