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The New Sancerre

It is somewhat strange that although it was Sancerre that first drew me to the Loire, these days the wines of this most famous of all Loire vineyards hardly ever pass my lips. I can’t recall which domaines I was drinking in those very early days, more than twenty years ago, although I am certain that the wines of the Vacheron family had a place in my cellar; I visited their domaine for the first time in 1992, and carried the bottles back to the UK with me.

With the passing of time I came to realise that I found more variety, joy and individuality in the wines of Anjou, Saumur and Touraine, and Sancerre passed into memory. More lately I discovered how brilliant the underdog Muscadet could be; not the watery-green acid-juice of old, but wines of distinction, minerality, balance and freshness. What better foil for seafood and similar could there be (actually Muscadet from the top names is much more than that, so I will hope you will forgive me this clichéd pigeon-holing)? Sancerre almost ceased to exist. Why opt for such a wine, when there is Marc Ollivier’s Clos de Briords to be had, or Damien Laureau’s Savennières Roches-aux-Moines, or a Clos du Bourg sec from Domaine Huet?

Plenty of reasons of course, but one force that drove me away was the confusion – not just in my own mind, but in some of the wines as well – between Sauvignon Blanc and Sancerre. As I explored the world of wine for the first time it was only natural that I discovered New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. At first I loved the wines; all that vibrant gooseberry fruit, all that zip and verve. Much of this zingy-fruity juxtaposition was due to (a) picking ripe fruit for the fruit-rich character the New World is so good at, and (b) picking some grapes deliberately early, bringing the slightly unripe zingy freshness to the wine; it was some time before I discovered this trait was down to the higher methylpyrazine levels in grapes not fully ripened. I drank them with pleasure, even in the earlier Winedoctor years; there are plenty of positive notes buried deep and not-so-deep on these pages. But, in more recent years, this has not been the case. I tired of the slightly raw attack of acid that I sensed Sauvignon Blanc was giving me; it seemed caricatured, forced even. I tired of the flavour profile, which always seemed so in-your-face; there’s only so much passion fruit and capsicum I can take in a wine. I dropped the wines from my drinking inventory.

The wines have not entirely disappeared though; my wife still adores New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and so I still have a slow but steady drip of bottles coming though my hands, including in recent years wines from Montana (just before they rebranded as Brancott Estate) and Villa Maria. I really don’t like them. They scream VARIETY and WINEMAKING whenever I taste them. Early last year I tasted two vintages of the Montana Sauvignon Blanc in quick succession – the 2009 and 2010 if I recall correctly – and concluded these wines were exactly what I shouldn’t be drinking. And yet in October, I read Jamie Goode’s opinion of the 2011 vintage, as he raved about what great quality and great value it is. To be balanced, I think he is probably right. It’s just that I don’t like it. I commented as such on his blog post.

As for Greywacke, the latest darling of the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc scene, I’ve tasted the 2009, and recognise it as a step closer towards my palate than many of New Zealand’s simpler wines. The rawness isn’t there, although I still found it focused on fruit (admittedly with some rather wild, unusually garriguey flavours too). That’s OK if that’s what you want, and many people do. Just not me. But let’s not turn this into an anti-NZ post. Just to be clear, I acknowledge the wines are well made and good value, and appeal to many. It’s just that they mask what Sauvignon Blanc is really capable of. If you persist in drinking New Zealand Sauvignon above all other styles, you’re only halfway there in really understanding this variety.

About three years ago I rediscovered Sancerre, and ever since then my consumption has been creeping ever-so-slightly upwards. The bottles have to fight with those of Guy Bossard, Marc Ollivier and Jo Landron for my attention, but they are holding their own. The reason for this was my discovery that Sauvignon Blanc can be a superb translator of terroir. But the terroir has to be allowed to speak, and early picking to enhance methylpyrazine levels, extremes of fruit ripeness and heavy industrial-style winemaking (and perhaps other aspects I/we don’t understand) can obscure this. This ability to display its origins suddenly catapults Sauvignon Blanc to a much more interesting level in my mind; when in this style, not only is the structure and flavour-profile much more subtle, balanced and less in-your-face, Sauvignon Blanc becomes a much more cerebral, thought-provoking, engaging wine.

Much of Sancerre lies on Kimmeridgian limestone marl (or terres blanches as it is known locally), especially in the western reaches of the appellation, including the oft-praised cru Chavignol. This is the same band of chalky limestone that runs across the upper reaches of France, and it reappears at Chablis and in the southern Champagne region of the Côte des Bar. Wines from thoughtful growers aiming for something other than simple fruit expression from these slopes have a solid structure and firm, stony, minerally character; to my mind, they are more closely related to Chablis than other Sauvignon-based wines. The composition and substance of the wines are similar; I hope that, in the same way New World Chardonnay and Chablis are recognised as very distinct styles, with Chablis the ultimate cool-climate expression of the variety (although “expression of the soil” would be more appropriate to my mind) we can develop a better understanding of Sancerre in the same manner, through drawing similar distinctions. Other soil types in Sancerre give different styles of wine; there is caillottes, pebbly Portlandien/Oxfordian limestone; I’m not sure I could draw an easily defined or indeed identifiable tasting distinction between these wines and the Kimmeridgians. But then around Sancerre itself there is silex, or flint, and these wines are certainly distinctive. Whereas the limestone wines are solid, structured, these are much more filigree in style, with lacy fruit character, often with tinges of ripe citrus fruit, tangerine perhaps, or peach. They are fascinating to taste, especially when compared and contrasted with the limestone wines.

Not a hint of gooseberry, capsicum, passion fruit or the dreaded cat’s pee anywhere, you note?

I believe – although I am willing to be corrected – that much of this Sancerre rediscovery is not just down to changes in my own palate, but to improved awareness and confidence at some Sancerre domaines regarding their wine and their terroir, with new-found comfort at being distinct from New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc rather than feeling a need to imitate that very successful style. And, perhaps hand-in-hand with that, a more concerted effort to aim for appropriate ripeness (rather than greener, methylpyrazine-influenced style) in the fruit, enhancing terroir expression in the process. This is The New Sancerre. The wines of François Crochet have been very convincing in this regard, and to a lesser extent Pascal Reverdy. The wines of Alphonse Mellot – a totally biodynamic estate – have also been highly regarded by many, although suddenly much more convincing – in view of the arguments put forward above – are the single-vineyard wines of Domaine Vacheron, which have suddenly burst onto my tasting and drinking radar again, almost twenty years after my first visit to their domaine. I tasted the new range of lieu-dit wines in London late last year, and found them hugely convincing; these are brilliant wines, very expressive, displaying distinctive terroir-related characteristics, definitely “wines worth talking about” to quote Hugh Johnson. I will be writing them up as soon as possible. And the likes of François and Pascal Cotat hardly need a mention, such is their fame. Although the wine I tasted last night was from none of these domaines; it is not from an unknown domaine, not by a long shot, but it is from a vigneron not previously discussed on these pages (part of my promise to myself to try to ‘discover’ more rather than just sticking with old favourites). More importantly it is delicious, and very true to its marly origins. It will be my Wine of the Week on Monday….for now, its identity remains a secret.

16 Responses to “The New Sancerre”

  1. Chris,

    Could not agree more. NZSB and Sancerre are nothing alike and I too tired very quickly of the NZ style. Well made SB from Sancerre has a profile all of its own and none of the characteristics of her counterpart from NZ. I also find a “richness” in SB from Sancerre that I do not find elsewhere which takes the place of the over acid styles from other regions, which I agree makes these wines much closer to Chablis in profile. Biggest problem is finding value wines, as much is priced ,fairly high here, with the entry wines from Quincy starting at about $17-18 and Sancerre itself increasing quite rapidly from here to the mid 20s.

    Gary

  2. Thanks for that response Gary. Agree that price does put me off some wines a little! Especially when compared to the many other choices the Loire offers many of which are 1/3 or 1/4 the cost!

  3. Chris,

    How do you rate, in this context, the dry whites of Bordeaux that contain a high proportion of Sauvignon Blanc?

    Richard

  4. Hi Richard. I think they can be very good wines, and the vintages which are not so good for red wines can sometimes be very good indeed for dry white, eg. 2002, 2006, 2007.

    On occasion the wines can be stunning. My limited experience of Laville Haut-Brion certainly suggests so, but clearly these wines are very expensive. But Domaine de Chevalier is of very high quality – but very pricy compared to say, Sancerre (but not in the same league as Laville).

    I find very attractive purity of fruit in some of the wines, in a more elegant fashion than the New World style (although one or two can be heavy on the oak and need time). But in terms of structure they don’t seem to offer the same mineral bite and interest that you get from Sancerre, which is cheaper as well. So although I often praise the white wines of Bordeaux, and feel theyare perhaps under-appreciated, I (guiltily) admit that I don’t buy them personally as I find options elsewhere that both (a) appeal to my tastes more and (b) are cheaper. A double-whammy!

  5. Wonderful essay! The sauvignon blancs produced around Sancerre (Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Pouilly Fume) are wonderful and oceans apart from their New World cousins. And from my limited tasting experience, no NZSB can compare to the exceptional and unique flavor profiles of upper echelon LVSB (Dagueneau, Baron de L). Of course, at those prices . . . .

  6. Thanks Michael. Because of the prices, my own experiences with those domaines you mention is fairly limited, although I remember being blown away by a Dagueneau Pur Sang, long before the prices began to climb. I keep meaning to take a trip over to visit, but have difficulty finding the time.

    Thanks for mentioning the other appellations – I purposefully focused just on Sancerre here, but there is much to be said about Menetou-Salon and Pouilly-Fumé as well.

  7. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for this factual & enlightening article. Living in Singapore, the market here is flooded with Southern Hemisphere sauv blancs. I’m getting quite tired of the stereotypical and predictable NZSBs – that was until I tasted the rather profound Greywacke Wild Sauvignon 2009 which uses a variety of wild yeasts. Wow! I was blown away! It’s not to be confused with the entry level SB which is predictable and stereotypical Marlborough.

    I’ve also just placed an order for some Domaine A ‘Lady A’ sauv blanc 2008 (Tasmania) which I hear is other worldly and Australia’s best offering of this grape varietal. I’ll let you know after I try it.

    Unfortuately Loire SBs are rather overpriced over here, approximately double that of New World SBs, so my experience with these lovely sounding wines is limited.

  8. Great article. Although, as a lay consumer, the steadily increasing price of good Pouilly-Fuissé and Fumé wines is a problem for me.

    I do wish that experts would stop re-discovering Loire wines. It only pushes the price up. Chris, if you do visit the region please don’t try the very unpleasant rosés made from Cabernet Franc, (as cabernet franc is still unfashionable and these wines are still available for a pittance) and I suggest that you avoid the Fête des Vins in Bourgueil and Amboise as everything there is rubbish (and still affordable).

  9. Alex, thanks for those comments. I’m sorry (but I suppose not surprised) to hear that these wines are relatively expensive. In truth, the same is true in the UK; it is rare to see a Sancerre come in below £10 (I judge the Loire in the Decanter World Wine Awards and the price band info is provided to judges – a Sancerre in the sub-£10 category is certainly noted) but there are NZ Sauvignons available for half that price (even less in recent years).

    Graeme, very funny! As I’m sure you already know I am off to the Salon a week today. Fear not – I won’t write too much about your favourite rosés. I tend to prefer the more fragrant Grolleau to the more structured Cabernet Franc style of rosé! :-)

  10. There is some terrific white Bdx out there, but you need to look beyond the expensive upper crust wines and the inexpensive under $10 whites that typically come out early. I find these wines interesting, age worthy, and they put on quite a bit of weight with ageing, much of this come with the blend of SB with semillon. A recent white which I had a half case and opened at 8 years contained a high percentage of sauvignon gris.

    As an aside, always look at vintages no one wants, 2001/2002/2004, continue to be impressed by my findings. Example 2002 Pape Clement Blanc, excellent as i have had one recently. Found on clearance in one of my local shops for $25/btl. I bought the entire stock of four six packs for myself and friends.

    With respect to food pairing, as these age you will need more robust cuisine to pair with due to the weight they put on, very different as with reds which as they integrate usually become more versatile with food.

  11. Hi Chris!
    If you ever get flight over to Vienna, please drive north to the Palava region 30km away in the Czech Republic. Try the whites, but particularly the Sauvignon Blanc of Reisten, in Pavlov town. While I am not a huge fan of going placing international varieties in new areas, it works. “Tradition is a successful experiment,” and the limestone and indigenous strains of yeast create a firm foundation.

  12. Thanks Gary, good advice there. Certainly agree on vintages – the 2002s I have tasted have certainly been good. It sounds as though you drink more of these wines than I do though!

    Justin, hi! Thanks for those hints. I really have no experience of Czech whites – I spent a few days there sometime in 2007 or 2008 and found the beer to be superb, although I didn’t have the chance to discover any decent wines (it wasn’t a wine trip). I should like to discover more – I’ve really enjoyed the Hungarian wines I have tasted over the last year and expect many of the more eastern reaches of Europe has much yet to be discovered.

  13. Good essay. I have moved on to, only because I have found a great selection of drier whites from Spain and Portugal here in town. Still active in the Loire however, grin wink.

  14. Chris,

    I have a good amount of 2001/2004, with having bought only certain things from 2002 based upon their bring tasted by someone I trust after release. Need to be very selective in 2002, but some value there if you get it right.

  15. Hi Chris,

    Describe a Sancerre? Should be easy, a relatively small appellation with a relative limited production of a famous wine style. Alas, I had a Sancerre blind a couple months back and have been complexed by the sheer diversity of the region ever since.
    Where was the grapefruit? The tangy grass that the cat likes? Now I can’t help buying Sancerre just out of curiosity, a costly affair. Is there no uniformity left in the world of wine?

  16. Hi Mark. My first thoughts would be to divide up into those wines that are varietal versus those that are terroir. Those that are varietal can vary in ripeness and thecat’s pee, grass, grapefruit that you mention comes in here, as well as capsicum and asparagus, and as you get more ripe you get more tropical fruits especially passion fruit.

    Then the terroir wines; these are the wines I find really interesting, and here we have differentt styles from silex, from limestone, etc. This is a subject for another post, but as indicated above it is the latter group of wines that demonstrate the true greatness of Sancerre I think.