Small-berried, thick-skinned Savagnin has been cultivated in France for at least 900 years, according to research published in June 2019 that found a genetic match with a medieval grape seed recovered from Orléans.
It is also known as Traminer, as well as ‘Heida’ in Switzerland, although debate is ongoing about the grape’s birthplace.
Savagnin is today best known as the signature grape of Jura in eastern France.
It’s a late ripener but can still produce dry white wines with good acidity. In Jura, it typically has a citrus and floral character, but is also capable of more exotic tropical flavours, according to James Lawther MW, who profiled Jura for Decanter magazine last year.
An entirely different profile is possible when it comes to Savagnin’s speciality in Jura – the ‘vin jaune’ wines that are aged in oak barrels for a minimum of six years and three months.
Vins jaunes, literally translated as ‘yellow wines’, are aged under a flor-like cover of yeast and the resultant rich wines are known for their nutty, Sherry-like character – as well their intensity and ageing potential.
Jura’s Château-Chalon appellation produces exclusively ‘vin jaune’ from Savagnin.
‘It’s a far cry from ‘modern’ Jura, but a distinctive style which still has its place, especially if served with local foods such as Comté cheese,’ wrote Lawther last year.
You could try this combination for yourself at Jura’s February festival, the Percée du Vin Jaune, described by Andrew Jefford as the Glastonbury of French wine.
Some producers have taken the ‘vin jaune’ principle and modified it. Lawther wrote, ‘The tendency these days is to age traditional Savagnin for a year or two, without topping-up, allowing some oxidative notes but retaining fruit character’.
You may also see Jura Savagnin blended with Chardonnay, which today makes up around 45% of Jura vineyards. Savagnin accounts for around 15% of the region’s vineyards, or 300 hectares, according to the Jura wine council.
The grape also plays a supporting role in Crémant de Jura sparkling wines, as one of five grapes authorised for use; the others being Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Poulsard and Trousseau.
Savagnin has ancestral links to a host of other varieties.
It had the prestige of being named as one of several ‘founder’ grape varieties of the modern wine scene by Jancis Robinson MW, Julia Harding MW and Dr José Vouillamoz, a world-leading grape geneticist, in their 2012 book ‘Wine Grapes’.
For example, Sylvaner is a natural cross between Savagnin Blanc and lesser known Österreich Weiss. And Gewürztraminer is believed to be a mutation of Savagnin / Traminer.
In the early 21st century, it emerged that Savagnin had journeyed beyond its European heartland in greater numbers than many had assumed.
In 2009, DNA tests showed that most of an estimated 150 hectares of ‘Albariño’ planted in Australia was, in fact, Savagnin Blanc.
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