Loire Misunderstood #4: Sancerre; not for the Sauvignon
It’s been a while since I have taken the opportunity to promulgate one of my beliefs regarding the wines of the Loire Valley. Indeed, the last episode seems to have been the Light and Easy-Drinking Reds post that I wrote back in July. Time to get on with another one, I think.
A focus for my updates next year will the central vineyards, i.e. Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Menetou-Salon, long overdue I think, a realisation that came to me when I visited Sancerre and Chavignol earlier this year. When Sancerre is good, I really enjoy it. When it isn’t, it can be pretty horrible stuff. I believe in part this reflects fruit ripeness, as certainly the less appealing wines usually have a fairly raw, green fruit character to them that never appeals to my palate.
This is looking at Sancerre at a very basic level though – after all, anybody can distinguish between unripe and ripe Sauvignon Blanc. You only have to look at the wines of Graves, and contrast those that delay for ripeness (Domaine de Chevalier, Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Brown) with those that tend to pick earlier (Olivier, Carbonnieux) to see what a huge effect picking ripe fruit can have. It’s just the same in Sancerre.
Where Sancerre starts to get really interesting though is in terroir expression; this is where the wines leave behind the fruit flavours (green or otherwise) that we would normally associate with Sauvignon Blanc (you know the drill – green bell pepper, asparagus and pea, moving to yellow pepper, yellow plum and ultimately passion fruit when ripe) and begin to express characteristics that talk more of the soils that the fruit. I assume this reflects yields as well as ripeness, and perhaps there are other nuances also at play. I aim to find out more next year.
Most of Sancerre is limestone, with terres blanches (classic Kimmeridgian limestone, like Chablis) or caillottes (much more stony soils, often Portlandian/Oxfordian). The major difference this engenders is in the substance of the wine, which is frequently quite bold, firm and structured in style. The flavours can vary from orchard fruit to a more minerally character, reminiscent of white stone. A much rarer terroir is silex, in other words flint; here the wine often seems to have a more lifted, dancing character, with a lacy, filigree style; I often liken it to Mosel Riesling more than any other wine, although obviously it doesn’t have the sweetness or the Riesling character. But look beyond technical issues such as residual sugar, and mere flavours, to the way the wine feels in the mouth, and you will see the similarities. The flavours often tend more towards citrus character, especially tangerine and other orange fruits, all of which would be very surprising to a palate used only to, for example, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
It is really at this stage that Sancerre gets interesting to me. It is strange to think so much New World Sauvignon Blanc was planted to emulate this style, and yet at the very peak of the Sancerre appellation there is really no suggestion on the palate that Sauvignon even has a role here. I come to these wines to sense the soils from which they come, not for the Sauvignon.