Phenomenal Fume Blanc

by Peter May

Renaming  a poorly performing product sometimes helps it achieve the success it deserves. For instance, look at phenomenal Fume Blanc.

     This tale starts over thirty years ago in California's Napa Valley. In those days wine was not a popular drink in the US and wine lovers mostly preferred European wines. Restaurants might have one or two California wines on their wine menu, but they'd be placed at the bottom under the dismissive heading 'Domestics'. Generally the place you'd see American wines in restaurants was as a cheap house wine, where they were called burgundy when red and chablis if white or pink. Much California wine was misleadingly sold under European names such as Burgundy and Chianti, or brand names.

     But good wine makers who were proud of their wines didn't want to hide them under foreign names. They could have used geographical areas, like the French do, to identify their wines. But French law limits which grapes are grown in each area so a wine lover would know that red Burgundy, for instance, can only be made from Pinot Noir. That wouldn't work in California where many types of grape varieties are grown. In the Napa Valley a winemaker could choose from more than a dozen varieties.

     So variety names became the standard used by good winemakers. Drinkers became familiar with names such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.

     One of the leading wineries in Napa Valley was - and still is - Robert Mondavi. They then grew cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling and bought grapes from other vineyards. One of their growers offered them a particularly fine crop of sauvignon blanc. This was an unfashionable variety in America at the time. No one was really sure why. It could have been because little was grown and thus the sauvignon blanc name was unfamiliar, or perhaps the wines just hadn't been very good. And wine drinkers didn't know what to expect as a lot was made very sweet. Or perhaps the name was just too difficult.

     Robert Mondavi knew he would have a difficult job making a success of a sauvignon blanc varietal. However French wines made from that variety were popular. But as the French didn't put the variety name on labels, drinkers that enjoyed Loire wines like Sancerre and Pouilly Fume probably didn't realize they were drinking sauvignon blanc.

     Robert Mondavi decided to buy that consignment of sauvignon blanc grapes and he determined to craft it into a light refined Loire style wine. After experiments with sweet and dry styles they put an American twist on the French names and labeled the dry as Fume Blanc. Formally marketed first in 1968 it has remained one of their most popular wines ever since. It undergoes a little oak aging that gives a smoky edge to match its name which translates as white smoke.

     If you're getting a little tired of chardonnay try asking for Fume Blanc, pronounced either few-may blawn or foo-may blank depending whether you're in a European or American mood. Many Califiornia wine makers now offer fine sauvignon blanc under the name Fume Blanc, and when you choose Mondavi's you are drinking a little Napa Valley history.

If you have been, thanks for reading.

Mondavi Fume Blanc 1978 label
Mondavi Fume Blanc 1978 label - note the variety name is also shown

© Copyright Peter May 2002.

Other articles on this site are listed by clicking

U n u s u a l
Unusual Wine Varieties Wine from Strange Places Funny and Weird labels
Unusual Wines Links Please sign my Guestbook
Back to Home Page
index about me
1 January 2002