Wine

Why Some Winemakers Still Use the Name Fumé Blanc

The moniker may be a throwback, but producers still rely on it to convey style—and to set the wine apart in the market

Michael Clark
Michael Clark, winemaker and managing director at Clos du Soleil. Photo courtesy of Clos du Soleil.

What lies behind the name Fumé Blanc? The moniker nods toward France, as Blanc Fumé is a traditional name for Sauvignon Blanc in Pouilly-Fumé; it was coined by Robert Mondavi in 1968 as a means to distinguish a dry-fermented, oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc from the sweeter style that was then so popular. While still a signature for Mondavi, the naming convention has largely fallen out of favor.

But a handful of producers continue to apply the winemaking style, or name, to their wines—often for very different reasons. Sometimes, it serves to clue consumers in on a lack of sweetness in the wine; other times, it’s used to avoid association with the pyrazine notes common in Sauvignon Blanc. And many times, it’s all about name association—whether to play up a positive or create distance from a negative.

A Distinctive Sensory Profile

The Barnard Griffin winery in Richland, Washington, began making a Fumé Blanc in 1983, though it quickly abandoned oak treatment. The winemakers kept the Fumé Blanc name, however, feeling there was confusion about sweetness in the wine style. For proprietor Rob Griffin, the Fumé Blanc label provided a significant clue that the wine was dry.

That all ended a few years back. “The sad truth was that we were one of a few holdouts still using the Fumé name,” says Griffin, “and we had lost a lot of momentum in sales because of dwindling familiarity with the name.” The juice remains the same, but in 2016, Barnard Griffin began using a Bordeaux bottle shape and started labeling the wine Sauvignon Blanc, which the winery sells for $12 a bottle.

Fumé Blanc is the second largest wine by production for Clos du Soleil in Keremeos, British Columbia, and it sells at the winery for around C$21. The name ties in strategically with the French aesthetic employed across the Clos du Soleil brand. The wine—fermented in a combination of oak and stainless steel—has a profile that isn’t commonly seen in British Columbia, says Michael Clark, Clos du Soleil’s winemaker and managing director. “The sensory profile is a bit different than the typical wine we’re seeing in our market [that’s] labeled as Sauvignon Blanc,” he says. “It’s more citrus- and tropical fruit–driven [and] has less of the pyrazines typically associated with Sauvignon Blanc. The Fumé Blanc name helps differentiate it because it has that different sensory profile.”

Photo courtesy of Clos du Soleil.

International Recognition

In Ortaklar, Turkey, Sevilen Magnesia Winery’s Fumé Blanc originates in a vineyard on the Anatolian plateau, and while the wine may be Sancerre-like, thanks to the vineyard’s cooler climate, high altitude, and limestone-filled soils, the winery is employing oak aging. After fermentation, its Sauvignon Blanc is aged for the most part in new French oak for 10 months. “Turkey, on the one hand, is an old wine country; on the other hand, it’s quite modern and young,” says Enis Guner, one of Sevilen’s board members. “Wine is part of an old tradition. We have a very ancient civilization used to producing wine and grapes.” But the country’s wine business has undergone modernization in the last 50 years, and Turkish consumers traveling abroad have been exposed to the wines of places like California, says Guner. For them, the name Fumé Blanc has become as much about marketing as winemaking style. “[The name] differentiates the wine,” says Guner, “and gets the attention of the customer.”

In Victoria, Australia, Taltarni Vineyards has used the moniker Fumé Blanc since the early ‘90s both because of the wine’s style—it is aged in partially new oak barrels—but also to disassociate the wine with nearby Sauvignon Blanc stereotypes. “This wine is more about texture and complexity which isn’t really associated with Sauvignon Blanc, especially New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc,” says Robert Heywood, the chief winemaker for Taltarni Vineyards and Clover Hill Wines in Tasmania. “The Fumé is more a tribute to the Pouilly-Fumé where they obtain more toasted and flint notes from their soils, and we try to obtain this from the introduction of oak.” Directly from the winery, the Taltarni Fumé Blanc sells for A$26.

Higher Plane and Clos du Soleil Fumé Blanc. Left photo courtesy of Higher Plane, right photo courtesy of Clos du Soleil.

Higher Plane in Margaret River, Australia, has been making a barrel-aged Sauvignon Blanc for more than a decade, but didn’t start labeling it as Fumé Blanc until 2017 when they felt goodwill toward Sauvignon Blanc in Australia was waning. “We’re not trying to lose Sauvignon Blanc altogether,” says Tom Hill, the operations manager of Higher Plane, “but we are trying to shear off that overt passion fruit and tropical nature that at least Australians have seen for the last decade from Sauvignon Blanc.”

Though the concentrated fruit in Sauvignon Blancs from Margaret River does respond well to the Fumé style of barrel treatment, Higher Plane’s name change was also about marketing. “Sauvignon Blanc has become a slightly tainted [term] over here,” says Hill. “There’s an association with a cheaper kind of wine, mainly from the close proximity to Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand over the last decade to a dozen years.”

That association carries over especially to higher-end Sauvignon Blancs. “There’s a bit of a stinker around Sauvignon Blanc,” Hill explains. “[While] $10 and under carries it, if you’re trying to sell a $25 or $50 Sauvignon Blanc, it’s tricky.” Today, Higher Plane markets its Fumé Blanc—which carries a suggested retail price of A$25—primarily to restaurants, since Hill doesn’t feel that most consumers really understand the name. “Typically, there’s retention and a recall for it [among consumers],” he says. “Once they’ve had it, they want it again, but if it went away, I think they wouldn’t care.” Restaurants, on the other hand, understand the concept and can hand-sell the wine to customers.

Robert Mondavi. Photo courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery.

In the end, it seems that, just as in Mondavi’s day, the chief reason many wineries produce a Sauvignon Blanc in the Fumé Blanc style, and label it Fumé Blanc, has as much to do with marketing—whether the name is used to attract the attention of globe-trotting consumers in Turkey or to indicate to Australian wine drinkers that they aren’t getting a New Zealand–style Sauvignon Blanc—as it does with the wine’s structure.

When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.

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