The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals
Savagnin blanc shares a frustration that I'll bet Ryan Adams feels about his sound-alike name. The grape's spelling is pretty close to that of exceedingly more popular sauvignon blanc (to which it bears no relation), not unlike the American singer-songwriter and "Bryan Adams." (Indeed, at a 2002 show in Nashville, an audience member infamously shouted a request for Summer of '69, the famous song by the much more famous Canadian rocker, prompting Ryan Adams to demand the "fan's" ejection from the Ryman Auditorium.)
This may help explain why we rarely see "savagnin blanc" on the front labels of wine bottles. What we are seeing more of, at least in North American stores, is "traminer." That's the grape's most common synonym, particularly in northern Europe.
Yes, even that moniker sounds a lot like another popular grape name, "gewürztraminer," but at least in this case there's a strong familial relationship. In fact, the two vines are genetically identical. It's just that traminer is a pale-skinned version (and likely precursor) of pink-skinned gewürztraminer.
Flavour-wise, they're much alike, too, with up-front, highly aromatic fruitiness reminiscent of white table grape or lychee. On balance, though savagnin blanc tends to come with crisper acidity and firmness than opulent, low-acid gewürztraminer. It's also generally not as spicy as its gingery pink clone, which explains the nomenclature (gewurz is German for "spicy").
While gewürztraminer is most prominently associated with Alsace, savagnin blanc's grand stage is Jura, a small region directly east of Burgundy toward France's border with Switzerland. There the grape can yield sturdy, ample-bodied dry white wines with a reputation for evolving attractively for five to 10 years in the cellar. More notably, savagnin is the variety behind vin jaune – "yellow wine" – a Jura specialty that shares a kinship with sherry in that it is matured, for six or more years, in partly empty barrels under a protective film of yeast known as a voile. Though not fortified with high-alcohol spirit in the manner of sherry, vin jaune can taste more than a little like fino, with its bracing, almost salty tang and nutty depth. Older examples might also convey the gingery quality of savagnin's gewürztraminer clone.
Beyond France, savagnin's awkward synonym renders it tough for consumers to know if they've found an actual white-skinned, very-dry traminer or simply a gewürztraminer whose name has been abbreviated according to local custom or out of etymological or botanical ignorance. Germany and Switzerland may be the most dependable sources of bona-fide traminer, while in Austria the line is blurrier, with a lot of lush gewürz reportedly parading as savagnin.
The rise of Italian white wines in recent years, particularly those of the country's northeast Trentino-Alto Adige region, has arguably helped bring the greatest awareness to the term traminer in the trendy-wine-bar world. Much of that vino, too, is gewürztraminer, alas, which strictly speaking should be labelled traminer aromatico. Not, it should be noted, that there's a scam going on; the price of one would be about the same as the other.
The vine's eastward spread has taken it to Slovenia (another country generating wine buzz these days, where savagnin is called traminec), the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. In Canada, the Bosc family of Château des Charmes in Niagara owns plantings of true-blue savagnin, currently offered as part of a blended wine called Generation Seven White. Ironically, savagnin is forced to share the stage in that blend with, among other grapes, higher-profile sauvignon blanc and gewürztraminer – sort of like Ryan Adams opening a show for the guy who wrote Summer of '69.