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The Savagnin Grape

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About Savagnin

(Synonyms, keeping in mind the confusion over other, related types: Auvernat Blanc, Bon Blanc, Forment, Formentin blanc, Fraentsch, Fromenteau, Gentil Blanc, Gruenedel, Heida, Païen, Princ Bily, Printsch Grau, Ryvola Bila, Schleitheimer, Servoyen Blanc, Traminer D'Ore, Traminer Weiss; many more exist that may or may not refer to actual Savagnin.)


Map showing the Jura region of France

Wine grapes have, in recent years, been subject to much examination using the techniques of DNA analysis. The results have often been quite surprising, and the identities and inter-relations discovered have often been remarkable, to say the least. The grape we are discussing here is one of the most remarkable of all. Its story is an epic, or perhaps a saga—certainly a long and winding tale—so have a little patience with this one.

Once upon a time, long, long ago in a land far across the sea, there lived a grape. The grape was (as is common with wine grapes) called by different names in different places—“Traminer” being one of the more common names—and it was a good, respected grape. That grape was most likely born as a natural (that is, not deliberately man-made) cross between some now-unknown types, and it seems to have arisen in north-east France. It was such a good, useful grape that its cultivation soon expanded to many areas across Europe. In the course of its travels, it developed (as wine grapes are prone to do) various clonal mutations that became established in the areas where they developed. Now it is important to understand that a “clonal mutation” is, biologically speaking, not a new variety: that is, the mutation is not a new grape type but simply a variant of the original. Thus, all the various clonal variants of the grape we are discussing here are effectively the same grape.

What is this “Ur-grape”? Jancis Robinson in her eminent reference Wine Grapes lists this grape under the heading “Savagnin”; she recognizes that the name “Traminer” for the grape is older, and arguably more widespread, but uses Savagnin “because it is less misleading in terms of the variety’s origin.” With some trepidation, we take leave to disagree. We present this introduction here, but essentially repeat it on our “Traminer” page. On this page, we will confine ourselves to the grape as used under the name “Savagnin”.

Before we proceed, however, it is worth reciting some of the names under which modern Savagin is known and grown in the world. Those names include (among many others) Traminer, Gewürztraminer, Heida, Païen, Savagnin Blanc, and Savagnin Rose. Yes, the famous Gewürztraminer is basically just Traminer/Savagnin under another name. (And of course each of those types just listed has itself a small host of regional synonym names.)

Now on to Savagnin as used under that name.

The Traminer grape had reached the Jura region of France, its current home, by at least as early as the 1300s; and in that region, it was given its present name, Savagnin. Incidentally, to add to the fun, Savagnin is properly called in full “Savagnin Blanc”; worse, though, it is also often called “Naturé”, which is a term sometimes used for ouillé wines (patience, patience), so a Naturé might not be Naturé the grape (that is, Savagnin), but Chardonnay made in the oiullé style. Enjoy.

The Jura is not only home to a small family of grape types virtually unknown elsewhere (Savagnin, Poulsard, Trousseau), but also to wine-making techniques all its own. To understand their distinctiveness, we need to look at what is usually considered a minor detail of wine-making, the handling of ullage, the air space that develops in wine barrels as the stored wine slowly evaporates away through the barrel sides. Wine that is left in contact with air for any length of time undergoes the chemical process called oxidation, which is essentially the same process as rusting or burning; oxidation dramatically changes the nature of wine in a way considered highly undesireable, and anyone who drinks wine frequently will have encountered the occasional undrinkable bottle of oxidized wine (usually from defective corkage). In winemaking, the development of barrel ullage is typically obviated by the simple process of occasionally topping up the barrel, to keep it dead full (or close to it), minimizing that air contact.

But sometimes winemakers allow controlled amounts of oxidation to produce a wanted specific result; the most notable example is sherry, oxidized wine (usually of the very bland Palomino grape). Another equally distinctive example is the Jura’s vin jaune, which is oxidative wine from the Savagnin grape.

Vin Jaune differs from sherry in two notable ways: first, it is not fortified—the resultant wine is a true table wine, at least as far as alcohol content goes; and second, there is no equivalent of sherry’s solera system, which blends various vintages in a staged manner. A given vin jaune is entirely one year’s vintage. The details of making vin jaune are too lengthy to treat here, but the link in this sentence will take you to the Wikipedia article on it.

The essential point about Jura white-wine-making is that there are two approaches: ouillé and sous-voile. Ouillé (obviously cognate to ullage) is wine made in the way everyone else does it: with the ullage topped off to avoid oxidation; sous-voile (“with veil”, referring to the “veil” of yeasts that float on the developing wine, analogous to the “flor” of sherry) is wine made in the special Jura manner. (In the Arbois apellation, they use “Naturé” on the label instead of Ouillé; lacking one of those two terms, a Jura wine designated “Savagnin” will be sous-voile.) Incidentally, “ouillé” wines are sometimes also described as “ouch” (pronounced OOSH), just to keep the wheel of confusion spinning.

There are also Jura wines that are sort of half-way wines: they started out on the way to being full-blown sous-voile vin jaune, but something along the way went amiss, while yet yielding a palatable wine—just one that hasn’t gone the full 6 years and 3 months required to legally qualify as vin jaune. These half-way wines (sometimes blended with some chardonnay) have various designations, with Naturé du Jura being one common one. It is wise indeed for the potential buyer of a French “Savagnin” to know whether it was made wholly ouillé or at least partly sous-voile. Both sorts can be excellent wines, but they are dramatically different experiences.

Also, there is the not uncommon phenomenon of people tasting fully oiullé Savagnin detecting what seem to be oxidized tastes. Perhaps its the old barrels in which it is aged, or perhaps it’s just psychological, but it does happen.

Savagnin is generally considered one of the dozen and a half or so of world-class grapes. Whether that reckoning derives wholly from vin jaune is hard to say, but from comments on ouillé Savagnins, the answer probably should be “No”, it’s not just vin jaune. Regrettably, however, potential consumers looking for Jura wines from the Savagnin grape will soon discover something. The demand, by world standards, may be quite small; but the supply is even smaller. Thus, there are no “value” vin jaunes. The very least expensive bottles start out nowadays around $55 (even a stubby 620 milliliter “clavelin”, the distinctive Jura vin jaune bottle, is little if any less expensive). And the various “half-breed” partly oxidative versions aren’t much less costly. It is only with a small subset of the few specimens of fully ouillé Savagnins that one can find any within this site’s arbitrary $20 price ceiling. (Those are “few” because any Jura winemaker doing any ouillé Savagnins at all is considered an oddity.)

And here the twisty, turny tale of Savagnin takes yet another lurch. A few years ago, winemakers in Australia thought to try adding the Spanish variety Albariño to their growing arsenal, and they imported some vines through their central national wine-control authority. After clearance (to verify no viruses), the vines were planted and were produing some very satisfactory Albariños getting serious attention. Except that they weren’t, after all, Albariños. A visiting French expert took a look, submitted the vines to DNA testing, and discovered that all the Australians were in fact growing Savagnin— a classification error had been made by the European source providing the original cuttings.

Naturally, the Australians had to step hard on the brakes and pull a sharp right turn. They had to reinvest in new labels, new advertising, the whole complex ball of wax [link is to archived page]. And instead of a wine that is well-known on the international scene and of rapidly rising popularity, they had this singular, very little-known type with a name that 96.27% of consumers were bound to mistake for “Sauvignon”, a wine popular in Australia and nothing like what Savagnin makes.

(The redoubtable Archie Goodwin once remarked that there are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up; the 96.27% is of that second sort, but arguably close to correct.)

Well, they did it. And here is another of those little wine miracles: Australian Savagnin is really taking off. They had an earlier chance with Verdelho, but couldn’t coordinate their marketing; this time, they seem to have taken the lesson, and are intelligently marketing their new discovery, Savagnin. One writer has noted that if the burgeoning Chinese wine market can be pursuaded away from their current huge (and, with respect to their cuisine, inappropriate) fancy for reds, Savagnin could become a worldwide big-ticket varietal sometime soon.

Now, finally, to the wines themselves. We will skip over discussion of vin jaune and its close cousins in the oxidative class; they are, by reputation, acquired tastes, but tastes that once acquired are often near-fanatic. If you can afford it, you should try it. But here, we will deal with Savagnin as made in the ordinary way into a white table wine. (That also excludes the popular sparkling “Cremant de Jura” wines and the various Savaginin-derived dessert wines.)

The taste of non-oxidative Savagnin wines is variously described, but its essence seems to be tropical fruit strongly balanced by a citrusy lemon streak, and—repeated several times—a “savory” quality (which doesn’t help much because that’s a word with a rather indefinite referent). The wines are generally described as medium-bodied, with good acidity. Recalling the grape’s ancestry, we should perhaps give some credence to one reviewer’s description of it as “a bit like Riesling but with greater texture”.

(If it’s any help, remember that Savignan is essentially Gewürztraminer, so look there for more extended discussions.)

Savagnin is also produced in Jura’s neighbor, Switzerland, where it is known as Heida, or sometimes (names, names!) as Païen. Such wines, like many Swiss wines, seem rarely to leave the country, and the few available in the U.S. are far outside our price range.

Factoid: Vin Jaune seems almost inseparable from the regional cheese specialty, Comté, with which it is universally accepted as the perfect pairing.

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Some Descriptions of Savagnin Wines

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Some Savagnins to Try

(About this list.)

The Australians bottle a fair number of Savignan wines (owing to the error in extensively planting what they thought were Albariño vines), but so far none of it seems to have arrived in the U.S. market. Nor are there any Jura ouillé bottlings (that we could find).

But remember: Savagnin wines are available under other names: Traminer, and especially Gewürztraminer.

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For a Splurge

By opening up the price range, one can find a few Savignan table wines available. The wine below—Pelican Arbois Savagnin Ouillé—is, however (which retails for about $36 to $74), is currently the only such a one with reasonable availability.

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Reviews” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks.

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