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Understanding the 'F' Word
By Tina Caputo
May 13, 2008
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In the United States, most wines are labeled according to the grape variety from which they're made.  Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are just a few examples.  There are a few exceptions, however, and perhaps the most confusing one is Fumé Blanc.  Though it sounds suspiciously like the name of a grape, there is no such variety--it's just another name for Sauvignon Blanc. 

The Fumé Blanc name was coined by Robert Mondavi in 1966 as a way to help boost stagnant Sauvignon Blanc sales.  In those days, American Sauvignon Blanc wines were mostly cheap and sweet, and weren't taken seriously by winemakers or wine drinkers.  Mondavi changed all that when he decided to make a Sauvignon Blanc in the crisp, dry style of the wines from France's Loire Valley region.  Rather than lumping his wine in with California's sweeter-style Sauvignon Blanc wines, Mondavi set his apart by calling it Fumé Blanc--a nod to the Sauvignon Blanc wines from the Loire Valley's Pouilly Fumé region. 

Generous guy that he is, Mondavi didn't trademark the term so that other wineries would be free to use it--and many did, with great success. 

Today, of course, Sauvignon Blanc no longer needs an alias.  Through decades of high-quality winemaking, the variety has shed its downscale image to become one of America's most respected dry white wines.  Even so, some producers still choose to label their Sauvignon Blanc wines as Fumé Blanc, including Dry Creek Vineyard, Grgich Hills Estate, Robert Mondavi Winery, Castoro Cellars, Chateau St. Jean, Ferrari-Carano and Lolonis Winery.  However, most continue to do so for the sake of tradition, rather than for marketing reasons. 

Does Fumé Equal Oaked?

When searching for a point of distinction between Fumé Blanc and today's dry Sauvignon Blanc, many people point to oak, believing that "Fumé" refers to the smoky character imparted to the wine through barrels.  (Fumé means 'smoke' in French.)  Au contraire.  Though some wineries do use oak when making their Fumé wines, it's not a requirement.  There are no rules--official or otherwise--when it comes to Fumé production, so winemakers are free to use or forego barrels as they see fit.  Depending on how the wines are made and where the grapes are grown, Fumé Blanc wines can be grassy and herbal, spicy and woody, or zesty with citrus and tropical fruit character. 

After more than 35 years of producing Fumé Blanc wines, Sonoma County's Dry Creek Vineyard has decided to set the record straight about the misunderstood moniker.  This month, the winery launched a nationwide promotional campaign called "What is Fumé?" that is designed to educate wine lovers about Fumé Blanc wines.  Since the winery's first vintage in 1972, Fumé Blanc has been one of its best-selling wines and the backbone of its operation. 

During the past several years, however, the folks at Dry Creek Vineyard began hearing murmurs that maybe it was time to drop the Fumé name in favor of the more widely accepted Sauvignon Blanc.  Winery VP Kim Stare Wallace and her family gave the idea serious consideration, but then scrapped it when they discovered that Fumé Blanc had become synonymous with Dry Creek Vineyard in the eyes of the winery's fans.  Instead of giving up its identity, the winery chose to take educational action. 

Throughout the month of May, Sauvignon Blanc/Fumé fans can participate in educational tastings and Fumé-focused food pairings in the Dry Creek Vineyard tasting room (for info, visit drycreekvineyard.com).  The winery also created an informational website (whatisfume.com), and a line of 'Do You Fumé?' tasting-room goodies--like t-shirts and beach chairs--designed to show younger wine drinkers that Fumé isn't passé. 

Will Dry Creek Vineyard succeed in dusting off Fumé Blanc's old-fashioned image?  Maybe not.  But the wines are mighty tasty--no matter what you call them. 

Dry Creek Vineyard Reviews:

Including its flagship Sonoma County Fumé Blanc, the winery makes three different Fumé wines, including the limited-production, single-vineyard DCV3 and Taylor's Vineyard wines--without oak influence. 

Dry Creek Vineyard, Sonoma County Fumé Blanc 2006 ($14.50): Crisp and bright, this is the winery's largest-production Fumé (34,295 cases).  The wine is stainless steel fermented, as are all of Dry Creek's Fumé wines.  The wine has aromas of grapefruit and lime, with grassy citrus flavors and enough acidity to make it pleasantly refreshing without stripping the enamel from your teeth.  88
 
Dry Creek Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley DCV3 Vineyard Fumé Blanc 2006 ($25): In 1972, winery founder Dave Stare planted the DCV3 vineyard in a former prune orchard with the intention of producing Loire-style Sauvignon Blanc.  He was declared nuts by local viticultural experts, but went ahead with his plan and became the first person to plant Sauvignon Blanc in Dry Creek Valley.  Slightly more acidic than the winery's Sonoma County version, the wine has a stony aroma, with lemony citrus character and a lemon peel finish.  The winery made less than 500 cases of this, so you'll have to be quick.  87

More Fumé Blanc Reviews:

Robert Mondavi, Napa Valley Fumé Blanc 2006 ($14): Though the wine was barrel fermented, Mondavi's winemaker used neutral oak barrels that don't impart obvious oak flavor to the wine.  The Fumé's aroma had a bit of a sulfur note when first poured into the glass, but it blew off after a minute or two.  The wine has a creamy roundness from sur lie barrel aging, with pear, melon and citrus flavors.  85

Robert Mondavi, North Coast Fumé Blanc Private Select 2006 ($10): Richer and rounder than the Napa Valley Fumé, this wine is barrel fermented and aged for more toasty oak character.  It has melon and pear flavors, like the Napa Valley version, with a more overt oak influence.  84