Tuesday, April 06, 2010

"White Smoke"

Fumé blanc.

Sounds interesting and a little exotic, doesn’t it? You may have seen a few bottles of it the last time you were perusing the “American whites” section of your local wine shop. Almost identical in body and color to sauvignon blanc, fumé blanc is the creation of Robert Mondavi in Napa. Mondavi decided to emulate the style of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre – two white wines from the eastern end of the Loire region in France.

If you want to get an idea of what he was shooting for, you might try something like Domaine du Salvard 2008 Cheverny. It's medium-weighted and rather complex. I got apples and melon on the nose, with a little whiff of yeast (which is as close as you'll get to "earthy" in a light white). I got honey and apples on the palate with a little bit of mineral. The finish is smooth, delicate, and very pleasant. ($15)

As the story goes, Mondavi was offered a particularly good parcel of grapes from a Napa grower. Mondavi thought that these particular grapes could work with his little experiment, so he followed the French techniques, fermented this new style of American wine, and sent it out under the name “Fumé Blanc” in 1968.

The public tried it, liked it, and they’ve been making it ever since, and any number of other winemakers followed suit. You can now find the stuff almost anywhere. But yes, dear readers, there’s a kicker…

This “new wine” sprung on the American public was, and is, nothing more than Sauvignon Blanc.

In the 60’s, there wasn’t a great deal of sauvignon blanc grown in the U.S. What little was grown usually ended up in cheap, sweet table wine, which is the association most people had if they'd even heard of it. Mondavi needed a good marketing angle to differentiate this new dry style he created from that good parcel of grapes, so he tagged it as “Fumé Blanc” – apocryphally named after the smoky morning mists in the hills of the Eastern Loire.

What does “fumé blanc” mean when you see it on a wine label in 2010? Honestly, very little – other than that you’re probably looking at a bottle of regular sauvignon blanc. There’s no legal definition of what is and what isn’t allowed to be so named. A general rule to follow is the syrah/shiraz distinction. Generally, if a California winemaker calls a wine “syrah” – they’re trying to make a wine in a French style. Same story with Fumé Blanc.

These wines often have a little bit of smokiness from barrel aging. They’re usually crisper and more minerally than a “typical” American sauvignon blanc. Also, like the French wines, some of them blend in a little bit of Semillon with the Sauvignon Blanc for balance. They’re also all relatively inexpensive. A couple of examples:

For starters, the Dry Creek Vineyard 2008 Fumé Blanc. This is a light, slightly citrusy quaffer. The nose is lemony and a little herbaceous. It's got a crisp, lemony finish with some lingering grapefruit flavors. Made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc, it reminds me more of a light-styled New Zealand Sauvignon than something from France. Interestingly, the reason that some winemakers choose to blend in a little Semillon is to knock down that herbaceousness a little. ($11)

One wine that follows the "Semillon formula" is the Hogue 2008 Columbia Valley Fumé Blanc. As with many white wines from Columbia Valley, this wine's a little more body-heavy and honey-tasting than the California versions of the same grapes. This one has more of a minerally taste and the finish is a bit "creamier," perhaps from the Semillon that's blended in. Crisp, apricot-flavored finish that's not quite as dry as the Dry Creek. I personally thought that this one tasted more like the Loire style. ($9)

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