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Domaine Vacheron Sancerre Rouge Belle Dame 2010

Domaine Vacheron Sancerre Rouge Belle Dame 2010

The red wines of Sancerre are an increasing fascination for me. There is no doubt, of course, that the white wines of this famous appellation receive most attention from the world’s wine writers, usually with a love-them-or-hate-them feel to the writing. I’m in the love-them camp; the white Sancerre of today is rich and minerally, like holding a mirror up to Chablis, a wine to be taken seriously. Others, however, still can’t get past the fact that the wines are made using Sauvignon Blanc, the grape which – along with Pinotage and perhaps even Merlot – jobbing wine writers love to hate.

But this wine is made using Pinot Noir, the grape wine writers love to love. The variety has been here for centuries, probably longer than Sauvignon Blanc. I say ‘probably’ as although many hold the opinion that Sauvignon Blanc suddenly appeared here in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, during the post-phylloxera plantings, the writings of the historian Malfuson tell us that white vines were well established in the region, with an appreciation of which sites were best for whites, long before that. Thus, who knows when Sauvignon Blanc first appeared? I’ve covered this before, when the wonderful 2007 Sancerre Rouge à Nicolas was my weekend wine, and so I won’t go into it again in detail here. I would rather look at Pinot Noir in current times, and perhaps look forward rather than back.

Writing in his nifty little tome The Wines of the Loire (Hamlyn, 1990) Jasper Morris, a writer and merchant whose intellect and rich knowledge of wine I admire greatly, wrote of red Sancerre “much red Sancerre is a poor thing, insufficiently concentrated to stand up to barrel ageing and perhaps better suited to maturation in ordinary vats to preserve the charming, if uncomplicated, freshness”. For the time, and indeed for many red wines of the region even today, I think such comments are correct. On the whole, even now much red Sancerre is a light or perhaps medium-bodied wine of vibrancy and piquant summer-fruit flavours, cherry with a faint backbone of steely acid. But this no longer applies to red Sancerre in its entirety, as today there is an ‘upper class’ of wines which are a much surer proposition, and which are getting better year on year.

Domaine Vacheron Sancerre Rouge Belle Dame 2010

The processes by which this has been achieved are perhaps too complex for me to understand, but I have at least a few ideas. The Pavlovian response whenever describing vinous improvement in the Loire Valley over the last two or three decades is climate, but let’s not fall into that trap here. Yes, it plays a role, but all the big developments in the Loire Valley in recent times (the creation of the crus communaux in Muscadet, the resuscitation of the moelleux style in Anjou, the rebirth of Montlouis and now Vouvray) have largely been down to the vignerons. Here in Sancerre a change in mindset (not treating the red wines as an afterthought), the increasing parcellation in the vineyards which goes hand-in-hand with the recognition of better sites with older vines, the influx of young vignerons who have experienced a stage or two in Burgundy, South Africa or California, the lowering of yields, the sensitive use of oak and so on all play a role. Now we have, alongside the juicy, vat-aged summer wines, more serious efforts, wines of depth, texture and substance, which can age to reveal all of Pinot Noir’s complexities. These are wines of real interest, and very different to the wines of Jasper’s time.

The cuvée Belle Dame from Domaine Vacheron is perhaps one of the longest established names in this field. This was the very first site-specific cuvée for this domaine, introduced in 1995 (the white Les Romains first appeared in 1997). The lieu-dit of origin is Les Romains, the terroir an Eocene flint. After fermentation this cuvée will see out a year in barrique, during which time the wine also undergoes malolactic fermentation, followed by six months in large wooden cuve, and then there will be a period of rest in bottle before the wine is released. All told the wine first leaves the cellars four years after the harvest. The 2010 Sancerre Rouge Belle Dame has a bright and vibrant hue at its core, with a rather translucent pink rim. The nose shows some of those complexities already, as alongside the scents of gently macerated cherry I also find here a certain smokiness that segues into rather savoury notes of chestnut mushroom. The palate is very cool, fresh and tense, the vibrant fruit character reinforced by a quite lovely acidity. With Pinot Noir it is always about the feel of the wine too of course, and this does have a hint of silk in its texture. I find it all very convincing, a wine with a strong presence in the field of red Sancerre. There are others though, wines from Vincent Gaudry, Pierre Morin, Lucien Crochet, Alphonse Mellot and others that are worth our attention. I will get around to writing of them all, given enough time. 17.5/20 (31/8/15)

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