Sancerre: Classic versus Cult
I have just put the finishing touches to my schedule for a short trip to Saumur-Champigny, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé that I will be undertaking next week. It’s going to be a flying visit to see some of the top names in each of these three appellations. I do spend a lot of time seeking out ‘value’ in the Loire (not difficult – there’s a lot of it about) but on this trip I’m shooting for the other end of the spectrum. Basically, name your ‘number one’ domaine in any of these appellations and it’s likely I have an appointment there. As you might imagine I am looking forward to it immensely.
Looking at my three appointments in Sancerre I was struck by a schism in the style of wine in this appellation. When I first started drinking Sancerre it was the ‘classically’ styled wines of Domaine Vacheron that drew me in. They are one of many that produce wines in a very pure style (especially with the current range of single-vineyard cuvées), focusing on minerality first, with flavours of delicately ripe Sauvignon Blanc which to me means citrus fruits, white peach, perhaps pear. In other words nothing grassy or green (it is not hard to find greener entry-level wines from Sancerre – I come across too many when judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards), and nothing too ripe or overtly varietal either, so no passion fruit or gooseberry.
These wines, importantly, seem to me to speaking of the place from which they come with some conviction, not of the variety, not of the winemaking. There are any number of domaines that you could think of working to produce the same rather ‘classic’ style; François Crochet, Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy, Henri Bourgeois, Domaine Thomas-Labaille, Pierre & Gérard Morin, Gérard Boulay, Alphonse Mellot, Vincent Gaudry and others. I am sure most readers have their personal favourites, almost certainly some not on this list. I would regard all these domaines as producing wines with ‘typicity’. Wines that are pure, minerally, with very precise fruit character. You might say these are the classic wines of Sancerre.
But then when you scour internet forums to see which domaines in Sancerre generate the most chatter, very few of these domaines make an appearance. Gérard Boulay pops up now and again, but rarely any of the others. Instead all the obsession seems directed towards other domaines. François Cotat, for example, who makes exemplary wines from the classic Chavignol terroirs but sometimes they stray from the classic style sketched out above, with riper fruit flavours of pineapple and mango, or sometimes they have very high alcohol levels, or perhaps even a touch of residual sugar. There is nothing typical here I think. Then there is his cousin Pascal Cotat, who seems better known for his Vin de France rosé than his Chavignol cuvées, again little here that is typical. Then there is Clos la Néore, where Edmond and now Anne Vatan have a reputation for turning out distinctive wines, harvested late, rich in character and flavours that go far beyond the ‘classic’ model described above, and which have a reputation for ageing well. And I suppose there is also Sébastien Riffault, where the oxidative style dominates. Different again. How should we refer to these wines? They are, I suppose, the cult wines of Sancerre. Idiosyncratic, of limited availability, and loved by those who know them.
Which of these wines appeal most will depend on your personal preferences, what you understand of the appellation, and exactly what you want out of the wine. Personally I can see something of interest in the wines of all these domaines – I think every one has made a wine which, at one time another, has enchanted me, even if for different reasons. But to me it begs the question – who here is really ‘classic’ and who is the idiosyncratic ‘cult’? Indeed, if you asked Anne Vatan or the Cotat cousins about their winemaking philosophies they would probably say they are allowing the vineyard to speak, through the ripeness of the fruit, and they are only doing things the way their fathers or the vignerons of old did them. In that case, is my concept of classicism completely wrong? Are these the classics of Sancerre rather than the Vacherons, Mellots, Crochets and Reverdys?
Maybe I will make my mind up during my trip to Sancerre next week…..