There is More to Sancerre than Sancerre
I spent a day last week in Sancerre, visiting domaines in Chavignol and Bué (as well as a flying visit across the Loire to Pouilly-Fumé). It got me thinking about what Sancerre is, and why some people reject it and some adore it. And I also got to thinking about how Sancerre is farmed and how the wines – or rather the appellation as a whole – is marketed, particularly in contrast with other regions, especially Burgundy which is not that far away (Sancerre is closer to Chablis than it is to Vouvray – apologies if I am repeating myself with this little nugget).
I can’t address all my thoughts here but I can the first one. There is certainly more than one ‘type’ of Sancerre (and no, I don’t mean red versus white, or oaked versus unoaked!), just as there is more than one type of Chablis. Simply because, I think, there is more than one type of terroir here. This was most apparent tasting with Jean-Paul Labaille at Domaine Thomas-Labaille. He opened with his 2014 L’Authentique tasted from cuve, an entry-level wine which is pretty, with clean fruit in the floral vein, and fresh acidity. It was an attractive sample, and a wine which once bottled I could certainly drink, but it lacked any hint of minerality, and for that reason it lacked a little interest too. Jean-Paul knows this, and he described it as a “Vin de Sancerre”, implying a ‘generic’ style.
Then it was onto Jean-Paul’s other cuvées, from a number of different parcels in Chavignol, and suddenly there it was, all the powdery, rocky, flinty minerality I look for in this appellation. These you might call varietal rather than terroir wines, but Jean-Paul thinks of each of his as a “Vin de Chavignol”. It was, for me, and for him I think, the minerality that set these wines apart. I found the same minerality later in the day, tasting in Chavignol again, and also in Bué (Chavignol doesn’t have a monopoly on minerality). Within the appellation this distinction between some sites or indeed villages and more ‘generic’ Sancerre seems well recognised, although not always well-received. I remember not that long ago receiving a somewhat cross message from one vigneron, based right in the heart of Sancerre, when I featured a wine I described as being “from Chavignol” on Winedoctor. “Chavignol is not an appellation” was the general tone of the reply. I guess the fact that Chavignol was written large on the label, much more prominently than Sancerre, didn’t help.
Sancerre is a vineyard of slopes, classically with wheat planted on the windswept plateau and in the too-fertile valleys (as pictured above, the little road in bottom-left being the route out from Sancerre to Chavignol). Some of these slopes are better than others. Some have famous names – Les Monts Damnés, for example – or as an alternative we can speak of desirable geology – Kimmeridgian limestone or marl seems to be the one to go for. It seems strange to me that such names and phrases are largely absent from the Sancerre lexicon. Most of us probably know the top half-dozen famous vineyards, but after that it becomes hard work. Contrast this against Burgundy, where every slope is divided up with meticulous attention to detail. I wonder if in this Sancerre is a victim of its own success – that word on the label is enough to secure sales, so why bother with nuances such as slope, vineyard, terroir or village of origin?
There are some domaines, though, where the individual vineyards are being seen as increasingly important, and perhaps in the not-too-distant future these names will be seen as more significant than the word Sancerre itself. But I will come back to that another day I think. For the moment I will simply conclude that there is more to Sancerre than at first meets the eye. There is more to Sancerre than, well, just Sancerre.