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.