François Crochet Sancerre Réserve de Marcigoué 2004
Hands up, I'm guilty. I don't dedicate enough time or words to red Sancerre, or indeed Sancerre as a whole, red, pink or the much more commonly encountered white. Indeed, I don't dedicate enough time to any of the central vineyards, which includes Pouilly-Fumé, the increasingly interesting Menetou-Salon (which shares Sancerre's terroir characteristics more strongly than you might realise), and also Quincy, Reuilly, and the lesser-known Côteau du Giennois and Châteaumeillant. The principle reason is that this is Sauvignon Blanc territory, and I'm not a long-standing fan of this particular variety. Yes, there are some wines that transcend the variety, and which speak more of the vineyard and perhaps the skill of the winemaker than the green and grassy fruit, but in the majority of cases this isn't true. And I write that even though it was the vineyards and wines of Sancerre that first drew me to the Loire, long before I had ever heard of Vouvray, Cheverny or Quarts de Chaume.
Strangely, although Sancerre is today famed as a white wine appellation, and the spiritual home of Sauvignon Blanc (before it went walkabout, ending up foremost in New Zealand, but also South Africa and Chile, among others), this has not always been the case. Only a few decades ago Sancerre was dominated by red varieties and red wines, Pinot Noir being the variety concerned. Quite why the appellation underwent a white revolution is not certain, but there are several viable theories. None concern prescience upon the part of the Sancerrois; they couldn't have known just what a phenomenon Sauvignon Blanc was to become. Instead, it is plausible that phylloxera played an important role; as the vineyards of France were replanted using grafted vines in the late 19th century there was a natural period of experimentation, of trial and error, in discovering which vines and which rootstocks worked well together, frustratingly this being something that could change from one soil type to another. Early trials with grafted Pinot Noir planted in Sancerre's soils proved difficult, whereas the grafted Sauvignon Blanc established itself with ease. If this were true, who could blame the vignerons to switching from their red varieties - not only Pinot Noir but also Gamay - to Sauvignon Blanc.
Alternatively, market forces may have played a role. Before France's appellations came into being, there was much more flexibility regarding what happened to grapes once harvested. Today, fruit must be picked from within certain zones, and often fermented within the boundaries of that same zone, in order to keep hold of its valuable appellation contrôlée status. One century ago, however, fruit could travel far and wide, and there are plenty of near-apocryphal stories along these lines, including beefing up the wines of Bordeaux with Hermitage, or the blending of weak and willowy Burgundy with wines from Algeria. Another well known route for newly picked fruit was for the Pinot Noir from Sancerre to travel east to Champagne. Once appellation law prevented this trade, the Sancerrois had one fewer reason to continue on with Pinot Noir.
Whatever the reason Pinot Noir has been a minority interest in Sancerre for a long time now. It accounts for about 20% of all plantings, but because yields are lower and a significant proportion is channelled into rosé, red wines only account for about one bottle of Sancerre in every ten. Nevertheless a number of estates are turning out excellent wines, increasingly so during the last decade. One notable estate is Alphonse Mellot, wines which prompted me to exclaim - when I tasted them with the Mellot family in early 2009 - "How can red Sancerre taste this good?". The image of weedy, watery, near-rosé reds is a thing of the past it seems. This week's wine is yet another example; it might not have the flesh or confident oak of the Alphonse Mellot wines, but that's no problem, as it has no shortage of substance or weight. The 2004 Sancerre Réserve de Marcigoué from François Crochet has a reassuringly good colour in the glass, dense but not over-dark or opaque, with a good level of pigment for a Pinot Noir, and in terms of hue it is still looking remarkably youthful. It has a lively and quite seductive character on the nose, initially showing aromas of dark chocolate, rather concentrated and defined, with nuances of dark cherry, slightly bitter and smoky. I get a feeling this has been polished by oak, but there is little sense of that aromatically, the only overt suggestion being a touch of ground coffee perhaps. Overall though it suggests great density, nuanced with a touch of floral perfume. It is balanced and elegant on the palate, but with some good, well-honed substance, a very seductively styled wine as indeed the nose suggested, a touch fleshy, yet defined with a good, lightly bitter grip. A good substance and finish, long and structured, with more of that tannic grip here too. A very complete wine this; for red Sancerre, really impressive. 17/20 (22/8/11)