One of the reasons I love wine is its combination of history, geography, biology, chemistry and marketing. Yes, marketing. Though many romanticize about wine in its purest form, with what’s inside the bottle marketing itself, the fact is wine is a beverage that sees plenty of marketing – through traditional marketing channels, wine publications and even pop-culture (remember Merlot’s demise after Sideways?).
One of my favorite stories in the marketing world of wine is that of Fume Blanc. In the late 1960s, Sauvignon Blanc suffered a negative reputation. It was too sweet, or too grassy, poorly made, hard to pronounce, and generally avoided by many wine drinkers. About this time, the late, great Robert Mondavi had an opportunity to produce some promising Sauvignon Blanc. Though he knew it would be delicious, he also wanted to sell it, and labeling it as Sauvignon Blanc may not do the trick. Taking a cue from the Sauvignon Blanc-saturated region of Pouilly Fume in France, Mondavi labeled his wine Fume Blanc and used that name for his SB, which was dry-fermented and aged in oak barrels.
Since you’ve most likely seen a bottle of Fume Blanc, you probably know that this marketing decision paid off and easily accounts for Sauvignon Blanc’s popularity today. Mondavi did not trademark the term, so other wineries jumped on the bandwagon, crafting Sauvignon Blanc in the same style and using the Fume Blanc term. These days, Sauvignon Blanc enjoys a stellar reputation and is proudly displayed on labels in California. But many, particularly those established wineries with a few decades under their belt, still use the Fume Blanc moniker for their Sauvignon Blanc. What’s the difference? Though there are plenty of exceptions (as there always are), Fume Blanc typically sees a bit of oak and displays rounder, richer, more melon-like flavors. Sauvignon Blanc aims to bring out the grassy and sharper citrus aromatics of the varietal.
The California wine industry owes much to Robert Mondavi, but the story of Fume Blanc remains one of my favorites to show this legend’s bright mind and influence on California wine. It’s spring, so pick up a bottle of Fume Blanc and toast the man who brought it to life!