Monday, November 26, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Fume Blanc

1968 has a lot to answer for: the assassination of Martin Luther King; the musical Hair; "Up, Up and Away" winning Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards; the Tet Offensive; the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Russians; and Fume Blanc.

Once upon a time in 1968 a California winemaker named Robert Mondavi decided to buy a load of sauvignon grapes from a local grower. California sauvignon blanc didn't sell well in those days; it was too grassy for most palates. In a game of smoke and mirrors, Mondavi decided to barrel-age the juice (hence fume, or smoked, to refer to the oak influence), and give it a French name that might conjure up images of Pouilly-Fume in the minds of customers.

It worked. Sauvignon blanc sales shot up. And the legacy of confusing American wine drinkers with made-up names instead of proper varietal ones continued, so that today many in the US still don't know that Fume Blanc is made with sauvignon blanc grapes at all. Both CellarTracker and the ATF recognize Fume Blanc as a synonym for sauvignon blanc, which is incomprehensible to me.

Given my feelings about this dubious historical development, I opened the 2004 Hannah Nicole Vineyards Fume Blanc with some trepidation ($14.99, Wine Q) Just like Mondavi's 1968 version, this fume blanc is aged in oak barrels to give take off sauvignon blanc's more assertive edges. Unlike Mondavi's original Fume, however, this wine is is blended with 12% viognier. This accounts for the perfumed aromas of citrus with a floral overlay. The flavors in this wine were less zingy than zingy than most New Zealand sauvignon blancs, and not as rich as most California viogniers. There were flavors of pink grapefruit and Meyer lemon, with some floral notes on the finish. Despite its oak aging, I didn't detect much discernible oak in this wine, but felt instead that most of the roundness in the flavors was coming from the viognier.

All in all I felt this wine had good QPR, and it provided an opportunity to think about wine trends and fashions and the role that marketing plays in telling us what we are--and are not--drinking.


Anonymous said...

Do you usually avoid Fume Blanc? I do, because I don't like oak influence on a 100% Sauvignon Blanc. A Semillon blend can take it, I think, but a straight SB... bleh!

I agree about the stupid name. It does show how important it is to make wine pronouncable for the consumer, though, don't you think?

Eddie Howard said...

Thanks for the explanation of Fume Blanc vs. Sauvignon Blanc. I've never have a Fume Blanc, but I'll definitely have to try one soon. Although I like oaked Chardonnays, I'm not sure how I feel about an oaked S.B. I think the best attribute of an S.B. is how crisp and fresh it tastes-- does the oak take away from the fresh, grassy flavors of traditional S.B.

Doug Shaver said...

I tried a fume blanc in, of all places, the Yadkin Valley, North Carolina. For a $12 bottle, it wasn't that bad. Though it had more oak than I prefer.

And I know exactly what you mean about made-up names as opposed to actual varietals. The other day I saw a bottle of Claifornia wine that was labelled Red Chablis (yes, you read that correctly).

Dr. Debs said...

Hi everybody. I usually do steer away from oaked SB, but this one was kind of a nice change. Like Eddie, I like the freshness of SB. Happily, I have never seen "red chablis," Doug. I would either start howling with laughter or screaming and pointing and be thrown out of the store!

winedeb said...

Had a Mondovi Fume for Thanksgiving! Now looking for more so I will try and find the one you are posting about! Thanks Deb!

Dr. Debs said...

Deb, you did? I'm headed over to see if you posted about it.