A Wine Wisdom Online Masterclass with Ron Merlino, Certified Sommelier and wine consultant to Roma Wines & Liquors.
Deceptively simple, racy, fresh, easy to drink - the perfect aperitif or the versatile bottle for an entire meal. Everyone loves Sancerre. Fine restaurants always include it on their wine lists. Casual bistros thrive on it. Connoisseurs with extensive cellars chase after it. Novices, new to French wine, find it friendly and enticing.
Why is Sancerre so popular? What makes our taste buds salivate at the mere mention of the name?
Ancient Jurassic limestone and fossilized sea beds. Yes, SOIL is what makes that glass of Sancerre you adore so utterly tasty.
The same kinds of soils that magically transform your favorite bottle of Champagne or your cherished fancy Chablis are the very ones that also create the charm of Sancerre.
Underneath the North and Central part of France lies an enormous geological formation known as the Paris Basin. This stretches from the white cliffs of Dover on England’s southern coast, traveling through the rolling hills and valleys of Champagne, passing under the great vineyards of Chablis, and ending in the very center of France itself all around and beneath the great hill of Sancerre and its neighboring villages.
All three of the these legendary wine regions in France (Champagne, Chablis, and Sancerre) share a common prehistoric link in their soils - the leftover primordial remains of a vast ancient ocean that covered most of Western Europe between 165 and 150 million years ago - a time when (yes just as in the Jurassic Park movies) dinosaurs really DID roam the earth; and massive shellfish, huge oysters, molluscs, and other sea forms swam the warm unending oceans of the Jurassic and Cretaceous time periods.
The rise and fall of the oceans and the gradual cooling of the earth over millions of years left deep, deep deposits of chalky limestone and sea shells. This sedimented fossilized sea life is exactly what makes your Sancerre taste so irresistible.
You might ask - what does soil have to do with wine? Well - everything in fact.
The French are obsessed with the notion of “terroir” - that undefinable, spiritual, philosophical belief that special places on earth favor special grapes; and when these grapes on these hallowed vineyards are nurtured by talented winemakers using knowledge collected and passed down over long periods of time - they can make some of the greatest wines on the planet.
There is a reason why great regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne have become benchmarks for great wine - and why particular vineyards within those regions stewarded by particular winemakers have established themselves as legendary.
Sancerre (though far less pretentious and much more accessible than these other regions) remains one of the world’s great places for wine - all because of its unique soils and ancient geology.
Where is Sancerre?? What are its wines??
Sancerre lies in the central east part of France - nearly in the center of the country - west of Burgundy, north of the vast forests of the Auvergne - its vineyards flanking the west bank of the great lazy Loire River, running up and down steep hillsides that dot the valleys all around the ancient fortress town of Sancerre - one with a history that goes all the way back to the Ancient Romans who planted the first grapes here in the 1st Century AD.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, Augustine and Benedictine monks planted extensive vineyards on the east bank of the Loire river in what today is Sancerre’s sister wine appellation - Pouilly-Fumé - where the wines share a very similar character and aesthetic to Sancerre itself. These very old vineyards in Pouilly-Fumé still produce extraordinary wines to this day.
In the 15th and 16th centuries Sancerre was the center of the Huguenot movement in the Catholic and Protestant Wars of Religion - enduring a legendary and tragic year-long siege from 1572-73 that ended in part thanks to the value and prestige of its wines which were actually used as terms of surrender.
Shortly after that Sancerre wines became fashionable at the Court of King Louis XIV in Versailles and remained highly acclaimed to the end of the 19th century. The region suffered a sharp decline at the turn of 20th century, only returning to its former fame in the 1950s and 60s when it’s crisp refreshing white wines became all the rage in the bistros of Paris; and by the 1970s, Sancerre was a household name around the world - a name that endures on the lips of wine drinkers everywhere to this very day.
The Hill of Sancerre and the village. Credit - winecountrywandering.com
At the Far Edge of the Loire Wine Region…
Technically, Sancerre is classified as part of the LOIRE VALLEY by the French government; but this is more a matter of bureaucratic convenience than a reflection of the logical reality of things. It lies so far east of all the other Loire valley wine regions, and so much closer to Burgundy, that it makes far more sense to consider it alongside its famous neighbor. Indeed Sancerre’s Medieval and Renaissance history was directly linked to the Duchy of Burgundy, as were its grapes and wine styles.
Sancerre is very far inland with hot short summers and long cold winters. Grapes have only a narrow growing season in which to ripen fully between the late arrival of spring and the early onset of winter. Only certain varieties of grapes can succeed well in these climatic conditions. One of those is the beloved white grape Sauvignon Blanc - the famous classic grape of the region.
Sauvignon Blanc thrives in this part of world - some would claim it produces finer wines here than anywhere else on the planet; and it’s hard to argue with that belief. It seems to actually relish the seasonal weather challenges, deftly producing large quantities of racy citrus-fruited grapes that develop extraordinary layers of floral and herbal aromas as they ripen on the vines well into the early cooler days of autumn. Winemakers try to slow down the ripening period by planting the grapes on specific combinations of ancient soils, cooler soils with clay mixed into the chalk - in order accentuate the alluring tastes of this inviting grape.
A fine Sancerre offers immediate pleasure and delicate beauty - vibrant tart splashes of lemon, lime, white apple and peach mingled with gentle herbs, grassy notes, orange blossom and honeysuckle on the nose - all of this tied together with an endless lingering texture of drying chalk and rocks - an unusual sensation that carries the flavors across your tongue for a long satisfying finish.
Sauvignon Blanc is bone dry - very high in acidity - moderate in alcohol and weight - and very easy to pair with any kind of seafood, fresh vegetables, salads, white meats, soups, or even just to enjoy on its own before a meal or with no food at all.
Like all great grapes in great wine regions - Sauvignon Blanc can communicate so much information, and offer so many diverse expressions and characters of wine within a small area. The range of Sancerre’s tastes and styles is staggering - with just one grape in one small region providing many different faces and flavors! Sancerre is a masterclass in the concept of “terroir” like no other.
It’s All About the Soil……
The seductively subtle sensory and sensual delight you enjoy in your Sancerre comes from very minute differences in the chalk content of the soils stretching across different vineyards. These seemingly small changes in the earth reflect millions and millions of years of climate ebb and flow - warming and cooling, rising and falling of sea levels - exposing the land to the air, covering it over again, and re-exposing it - all of this leaving complex traces of fossil life embedded deep under the vineyards - a complexity that is magnified by the grapes growing there, nourishing themselves from these ancient strata - and all of it expressing itself in your wine - deliciously.
These complex ancient soils roughly fall into three main types - their different combinations offering three distinct and contrasting versions of Sauvignon Blanc in your glass.
- Les Caillottes - The pure limestone chalk pebbles and stones.
- Terres Blanches - The “white soils” mixing clay and limestone together
- Silex - The flint and sandy soils intermingled with limestone and chalk
Winemakers often like to blend grapes from different vineyards sourced from two or even all three of these soil types to provide a balanced portrait in wine tastes - one that takes the best of all three and gives the drinker an “ideal” expression of the area.
Some winemakers prefer to showcase the unique character of each soil type only - in some cases - single vineyard bottlings as would be found in Burgundy. These provide a very clear vivid experience of what these ancient geological periods leave for us in the ground. Wineries may have the resources to make these rarer more site specific expressions and provide the sophisticated drinker with a more magnified view of the great terroirs of Sancerre - and they may also still offer a blend or several different blends that can play with the different tastes, textures and aromas to dazzle the drinker - much like a master coffee blender would with different combinations of beans sourced from disparate locations.
LES CAILLOTTES (AND GRIOTTES) - The “Terres Amoureuses”
Fresh, delicate, fruity, floral, slightly grassy, peppery but gentle wines.
These are the oldest soils in Sancerre - dating from the earliest periods of the Jurassic Era - between 160-150 million years ago! They are the pure white chalky cobbles, pebbles, and oyster beds that rest in the valley bowls in the lowest lying parts of the region. In the Caillottes locations, the vast prehistoric seas never retreated - fully covering the earth with no periods of exposure; and so over millions of years, sea fossils collected into a deep layer of limestone shells and stones.
The Caillottes soils tend to run through the center of the Sancerre wine villages - half way between the west upland Cuesta and the low lying alluvial river areas along the Loire.
Generally it is easier to consider that the Caillottes tend to be in the lower parts of a hillside or on the valley floors.
Wines from the Caillottes are easy to drink, designed to be enjoyed young - a more simple pleasure - but when added to a blend from other soil types, they can also bring a stunning degree of life and energy to the wine as well.
THE WHITE SOILS -
The “Terres Blanches”
Rich, textured, ripe citrus and tropical fruits mixed with savory, herbal notes, minerality, plus hints of violets and mint.
These are the most treasured soils in Sancerre - dating from a sub period in the Jurassic known as the Kimmeridgian Era - spanning roughly from about 157 to 152 million years ago. This was a period when there was considerable fluctuation in the ancient sea levels - and so these Terres Blanches soils are found on the higher parts of the slopes and highest elevated plots of land - those that were covered, exposed, and recovered as the water came and went.
In these vineyards - we find a mixture of heavier clay based soils along with the white chalk - and when the weather turns wet (as it does often in these parts), the soils become a thick sticky white mud which clings to shoes and boots. This mud inspired the affectionately ironic term Terres Blanches, the elegant sound of which does not fully indicate the perennial nuisance these soils can be to work on especially in inclement weather on treacherously steep slopes!
The Terres Blanches lie in the Western part of Sancerre and can also be found upslope in the Central villages as well. (This versus the Caillottes which rest downslope as mentioned above). The satellite village of Chavignol is the epicenter for these soils and tends to be the home base for some of the greatest names in Sancerre.
Most of the longest-lived, serious age-worthy and profound wines of Sancerre tend to be born from these ultra complex Kimmeridgian soils. The sheer range of flavors and aromas that Terres Blanches wines can deliver is staggering.
It can sometimes be hard to imagine that Sauvignon Blanc can express SO much inspiration - but in these wines particularly when bottled from some of the legendary single vineyard plots such as Les Monts Damnes or Cul de Beaujeu or Les Chenes Marchands - the experience can rival any of the finest wines on the planet.
Try NOT to drink these wines too young - it is common fashion to open the youngest bottling one can find of a great Sancerre - but in fact, Sauvignon Blanc can age beautifully over 5 to 7 years or even longer, adding gentle, elegant sides to its racy qualities and proving that great wines are always worth the extra wait.
THE SILEX AND FLINT SOILS - The “Terres Sables”
Crystalline, focused, elegant, clean, precise wines with a distinct smoky saline character, green herbs, cool orchard fruit, and gorgeous floral notes.
This third main soil type comes from the youngest soils in the region (a mere 145 to 100 million old) hailing from the end of the Jurassic Era and the beginning of the Cretaceous period - a time when the entire eco system collapsed, dinosaurs vanished, and the earth’s geology shifted radically.
These are softer, sandy soils mixed with ample amounts of hard dark flint, river rocks and gravel all still combined with the ever present chalk and limestone.
Silex soils are found on the east side of Sancerre resting along the banks of the Loire River and are actually most prevalent right across the river in the famous commune of Pouilly-Fumé. (See below for a short side bar on Pouilly-Fumé).
With Silex we have the best of both worlds - effusive aromas, and sharp biting mineral flavors - restrained sophisticated apple and pear fruits with a dash of lemon, and lots of texture to relish on the tongue. These are wines of great structure - one revels in the composition of these wines - the beauty of the soil is in full bloom in the glass. They provide yet one more dimension to the panoply of flavors and sensory delights that Sancerre can deliver.
Drinkers often tend to fall into one of three soil type “camps” and those who find the allure of the flinty wines appealing tend to become addicted to them. Silex wines are not as warm and direct and friendly as their Caillottes counterparts - they require a bit more intellectual energy - but they reward the sophisticated drinker with longevity and breadth of expression in much the same way as the Terres Blanches wines do.
A handful of great wine names in Sancerre proudly label themselves as “Silex” producers - embracing the qualities of these soils as a hallmark of their Sauvignon Blanc aesthetic. The deft use of Silex vines in a blend of different soil types can be quite haunting and amazing indeed.
POUILLY-FUMÉ — Sancerre’s Silex Neighbor
Drinkers may often not realize that Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre are one and the same regarding style and type of wines. All too often Pouilly-Fumé is confused with Pouilly-Fuissé which is another wine producing village entirely - located in the Macon region south of Burgundy and producing fine white wines from Chardonnay - but Fuisse and Fumé are very different wines.
Pouilly-Fumé derives the first word of its name from the town of Pouily-sur-Loges on the east bank of the Loire river nearly opposite to Sancerre. It also enjoys its second word thanks to the very Silex soils we have been discussing here above - Fume being the French word for smoky - reflecting that gunflint quality the soil translates directly into the wines.
Pouilly-Fumé shares all the same terroir and climate as Sancerre - but it produces exclusively white wine from nothing but the Sauvignon Blanc grape whereas Sancerre does have some rosé and red wines produced from the Pinot Noir grape which will be mentioned below. The proportion of flint and silex is considerable in Pouilly-Fumé and can be more uniformly found throughout its vineyards.
The smoky, refined, objective and profound wines of Pouilly-Fumé are sadly all too often overlooked - and as such, they can offer tremendous value for savvy wine buyers.
History here is important. The Augustine monks established the massive Abbey of Saint-Satur in 1054 on the left bank of the Loire just east of Sancerre right on top of the original ancient Roman settlement. The Augustines were inveterate winegrowers. They planted an extensive array of new vineyards across the river in what is today Pouilly-Fumé. The small hamlet of Les Loges is the spiritual center of this Medieval wine legacy today - where the original Augustine vineyards are still tended by prestigious winemakers who fight for their claim to portions of these coveted ancient vineyards.
When you pick up a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé you are opening your senses to a slice of history that is thrilling to consider and experience! Don’t miss them - even try one side by side with a Sancerre and compare the soils and styles.
A Word about History in Fact …Sancerre Wines were always Red, Not White!
Appearances can be deceiving. We assume that because the wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are white wines today, that they always were so - yet this is not true. Until the early part of the 20th century, nearly all of the wines in this area were RED! They were made from the very same grape that graced the great vineyards of Burgundy just nearby - Pinot Noir.
As I mentioned before, Sancerre shares very much the same geology, geography and climate as Burgundy does - and in past centuries the wine growing monks planted the grapes they knew excelled in these regions, which were the red varieties of Pinot Noir and Gamay.
Politics and commerce informed this choice of grapes as well. Medieval Burgundy and its neighbor lands cleverly defined a wine identity that was unique and distinct from other parts of France. Competition for a share of the international European wine trade was fierce. Pinot Noir was highly regarded in foreign markets and at the royal courts of Europe. So from the 15th century onwards Pinot Noir was the only grape allowed to be grown by law anywhere in the Kingdom of Burgundy.
Things have long since changed, but there are still remnants of this red wine history in Sancerre - indeed about 1/5 of the vines are planted to Pinot Noir and one can find excellent bottles including some lovely rosés. Winemakers in Sancerre (not in Pouilly-Fumé, for no reds are allowed there at all) swear that their pinots are as good as those in Burgundy. This is a matter of some delicious debate, but these Sancerre reds are wines worthy of serious attention for the curious and cultivated wine drinker.
Now that we know that Sancerre and Sauvignon Blanc were not always synonymous throughout the ages you might wonder - how did they come to be linked??
At the end of the 19th century a tiny insect that attacks the roots of grape vines was unknowingly transported by ship from North America to Europe. This tiny pest was native to North America and was not known to exist at all until it reached Western Europe and began to rapidly decimate the great vineyards of Europe.
Phylloxera (its scientific name) rendered the roots of traditional Vinifera grape vines (the family of vines from which most of the great wine grapes of the world derive) unable to process water and nutrients from the soil - effectively suffocating them. Between the 1860s and the 1880s nearly every single major wine producing region in Europe was afflicted; and the history of wine as we know it was nearly wiped out.
Imported European Vinifera vines had never been able to grow successfully in North America - and until the root louse reached Europe, no one fully understood why. Local indigenous North American grape vines (non Vinifera vines) were genetically resistant to this root louse and therefore able to survive and produce grapes and wines in places where the Vinifera could not.
The solution to Europe’s woes was found by grafting the European Vinifera vines onto imported North American “louse resistant” root stocks - and thus within an inch of extinction, the world of fine wine was saved for us all.
European wine regions began to dutifully graft their vines but they encountered some unexpected problems. Not all the old grapes were happy with the new root stocks - some adapted fine, others did not. In Sancerre, the beloved red Pinot Noir did not work well at all - and winemakers quickly had to figure out a way to reconsider what they planted - debating what would produce a successful harvest and a fine quality of wine. And they hit upon Sauvignon Blanc!
Phylloxera on a vine root.
Triumph Over Tragedy
By the early 20th century Sancerre growers began to replant their ancient vineyards with this wonderful white grape. As before in the 15th century they now understood they needed a new market-driven wine identity - and in this case they found one that could work very well in the emerging artsy bon vivant culture of the 1920s; fresh, friendly, easy to drink white wines that everyone could enjoy - a style of wine not duplicated anywhere else in France at the time.
Adversity gave birth to a total re-invention for Sancerre - one that proved visionary and remarkably successful. Sauvignon Blanc not only adapted perfectly to the American root stocks, it also expressed far more of the nuances of all those ancient soils more directly and deliciously than the old Pinot Noir vines ever could.
And so a new star was born - one of the great classic wine styles of the world - all thanks to the struggle of nature and necessity. Sancerre gives us all today not only its glorious and delicious wines, but an uplifting parable of hope and courage in these challenging times of our own.
Sauvignon Blanc grape cluster from the
Henri Bourgeois estate in Sancerre.
One Final Note - Vintage Does Matter!
Before we delve into the wines themselves, we must talk about the notion of vintage. Nature never duplicates herself. No two vintages, seasons, years are ever the same where weather is concerned. In a cool marginal climate like Sancerre - these fluctuations of temperature, sun, rain, humidity, and wind can all have an enormous effect on the growing conditions of the grapes - and consequently on the way they taste.
The differences between one harvest and the next can be considerable - and the flavors of those seasonal differences are magnified in what you taste your glass, especially in a region like Sancerre. I cannot underscore strongly enough that one of the great joys and delights - as well as challenges - of drinking fine French wine is understanding vintage. Informing yourself about the conditions of a given year on your bottle will help you to better appreciate the charms and beauty of the wine within.
Pay careful attention to the years - revel in the profound shifts from one year to the next. Notice how they express themselves in the subtle beauty of the Sauvignon Blanc. You will be amazed just how different two successive vintages of the very same wine can taste. Know what these characteristics are - compare and contrast them - expand your horizon of knowledge so that you can choose the very specific detailed type of wine you prefer over time.
Warm years like 2018 can produce round full rich and tropical flavors in your glass - less racy acidity, more immediate and plump pleasure on your palate.
Cooler years like 2017 can offer sharp tart vibrant laser like wines that dance and dazzle your tongue - more citrus fruit and lots of chalkiness.
Classic years like 2019 where everything is in balance give you just that - wines of impeccable balance, a mix of ripe fruit and green herbs, with a dose of earthy texture bringing everything together in the glass.
Also! Let your Sancerre age a bit - don’t be afraid to drink an older bottle - you will find out that time reveals new pleasures in the wine you may not have expected - a seamlessness, a mellowing out of elements that can quietly murmur to your senses like poetry. All too often these wines are never given the chance to mature and evolve. This is a missed opportunity to view Sancerre much as you would any other great wine region - as a wine that can be lived with and observed immediately or over a longer period. Engage with these stunning wines - immerse yourself in their wonders - and savor them with passion and pleasure.
And now for some wine …… THE WINES IN STOCK AT ROMA!!
KARINE LAUVERJAT SANCERRE 2019 - $26.00
This is a classical, balanced, elegant, blended Sancerre hailing from two different parts of the same hillside slope in the village of Sury-en-Vaux. Vines from the lower part of the slope bring fresh bright fruity Caillottes chalk pebble soil character, while vines from the upper part of the hill deliver the richer fuller more savory notes of the Terres Blanches clay and limestone mix. The Lauverjats work the land sustainably and cleverly use seaweed as a natural deterrent to pests and disease in the vineyards - a nod to the ancient marine history of the land below them.
This is everything you crave in a Sancerre - poise, beauty, gently tart lemon and citrus, fresh green grass, nettles, salty sea and chalky earthy notes. It’s all there in the fabulous hands of the talented Karine Lauverjat. She is one of the rare female winemakers in Sancerre. This is the very well-composed 2019 vintage which should prove to have a long life ahead if you choose to wait a few years or buy a few extra bottles to try later.
KARINE LAUVERJAT SANCERRE 2018
375mL half bottle format - $14.00
All the same as the full bottle above but in this case coming from the warmer riper fuller 2018 vintage - with a touch more mango and papaya in the fruit alongside the citrus and green herbs. Drink this one now - take it on a picnic, pop it into your bag (the small size makes it easy to do so) - and just drink this without thinking too much - let it delight you on a hot summer afternoon by the beach.
DOMAINE DU NOZAY SANCERRE 2018 - $31.00
The under-the-radar estate of Domaine du Nozay offers some of the finest value in Sancerre. The house has a long history going back to the 17th century and the de Benoit family have been farming the land here in the northerly town of Saint-Gemme since the early 1970s. Nozay's soils have an intense amount of chalk and a sizable proportion of flint - giving the wines a unique style. This is delicate, gentle wine with a portrait-like flavor wheel of Meyer lemon, white peach, lemon verbena, a good dose of smoky flint. The deft use of lees contact adds balance and texture on the palate. It sees no oak only stainless steel, and yet the wine nearly feels as if there is some oak there given its mellow demeanor.
For such a warm vintage as 2018 this wine remains beautifully poised and restrained - nothing is too overt here. For the avid drinker of Sancerre who wants to discover a new face in the region, Nozay provides a sophistication that is matched only by its family’s dedication to organic farming and nurturing the grapes with meticulous devotion. Like a fine stained glass window, no element is out of place in this wine. The whole is surely more than just the sum of its parts. Don't miss this bottle!
Bourgeois is the largest producer in all of Sancerre. He has extensive land holdings in every village of the region allowing him to blend many different soils types into his wines, rendering diverse shades of color, flavor and detail. Few winemakers have as many options at hand as Bourgeois does and every bottling expresses something unique and creative.
Unlike our other producers in the store who hand harvest their grapes, Bourgeois believes that mechanical harvesting can create a better wine - enhancing and highlighting its effusive sensory notes on the palate and on the nose. This wine is certainly full of robust overt intense tropical fruit married to powerful green grassy elements. Bourgeois does not seek subtlety so much as concentration, and this wine delivers that to the fullest. It is dense in texture - relying on lots of lees contact to add another dimension to the wine. Even though this comes from the very vibrant and linear 2019 vintage, this wine still tastes potent and substantial.
The Porte de Caillou cuvee blends grapes from two villages, Chavignol and Sancerre - most grown on the heavier clay Terres Blanches soils with a lesser proportion of the lighter chalk and limestone Caillottes sites.
VINCENT GAUDRY SANCERRE LE TOURNEBRIDE 2018 - $30.00
Organic and Biodynamic Viticulture
Vincent Gaudry was the first winemaker to adopt biodynamic farming in Sancerre becoming fully certified in 2004 - long before anyone else dared to take such a courageous leap in the area. He is passionate about the notion of soil and lives day and night to express the minute details of his cherished land under his vines. Responsible care for the earth is an obsession for Gaudry, and many have since followed in his footsteps in the region thanks to his beliefs and vision.
Le Tournebride is a blend of all three soil compositions - limestone, clay and flint - and it thrives on the rich power and weight of the ripe concentrated biodynamic Sauvignon Blanc grapes to translate these soils in your glass. Even though this wine sees no oak one would swear it was aged in barrels. There is a creamy richness to it that sits well with the melon and guava fruit all speckled with sweet green herbs. This wine expresses very gentle soft minerality and highlights the joyful fruit inherent in the grape. 2018 was a warm vintage and you can taste the extra heat. Le Tournebride makes for a nice easy but serious introduction to the world of Sancerre - ideal for someone who has traditionally enjoyed drinking New Zealand and other new world Sauvignon Blanc. This is also a fine food wine, robust enough to be versatile throughout a meal.
From the Neighboring Village of POUILLY-FUMÉ:
MARC DESCHAMPS POUILLY-FUMÉ LES CHAMPS DE CRI 2018 - $27.00
This wine is a gem! Marc Deschamps is one of the legends of French wine. His Sauvignon Blancs are among the finest on the planet, and yet he remains relatively overlooked - just like his chosen appellation of Pouilly-Fumé.
Les Champs de Cri comes from a single vineyard plot in the Medieval wine commune of Les Loges - the vines planted by the Augustine monks in the 11th century. Here the abundant flint in the soils mixed with large limestone cobbles delivers a wine of deep, earthy complexity on light elegant fast feet. This wine shines, it dances in your mouth. Your taste buds are dazzled by a collaboration of gentle orange blossoms, alluring jasmine, pear and peach fruits, dry steely stony minerality, even a hint of beeswax and violets. The interplay as you sip is deceptive, for as the fruits fade away from your taste buds, the gentle power of the flint and rocks just builds and builds in your mouth, and the length of this wine is staggering.
Deschamps is nothing short of a magician. He can accomplish seemingly all sides of the flavor wheel in one sip - his intuitive hand can almost convince your tongue that it can taste seemingly contrasting things at once and still find it all utterly delicious. He leaves the wine in contact with its lees for a long time adding sensual texture and structure. And the very old vines he uses for his Champs de Cri produce grapes that reveal mellow, deep Sauvignon Blanc fruit.
This is a remarkably great wine - one that can be enjoyed now or can be stored away for many years to come. Not a trace of the hefty warm character of the 2018 vintage in this wine - it remains pure, clean, focused and driven. The pinnacle of Sauvignon Blanc on earth.
Two Bottles from Another Part of the Loire - Chenonceaux in Touraine
Sauvignon Blanc grows throughout the long reach of the Loire Valley wine region - and that is quite a reach given that the river runs for nearly 500 miles of wine terrain from the inland stretches of the center of France all the way to the Atlantic coast.
And while the grape never quite scales the height of greatness elsewhere along the Loire that it does in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, it can still offer some wonderful budget-conscious value wines of friendly, frank, honest and pleasing quality.
The Chenonceaux is a relatively new wine region - having only been officially designated in 2011 - and its vineyards line the Cher River - a tributary to the great Loire itself. There are ample amounts of limestone, gravel, sand, and clay in these parts and the wines are increasingly finding more respect as drinkers explore the charms of Loire wines at friendly prices.
For those of you who don’t yet want to spend the extra money on a fine Sancerre, these two wines can still give you a feel for the fresh tropical fruit and grassy notes that Sauvignon Blanc joyously offers at a comfortable price. These are easy drinking wines not meant to be meditated on, but rather drunk with leisure and relaxation.
DOMAINE LA RENAUDIE TOURAINE SAUVIGNON BLANC 2019 - $15.00
Patricia Denis makes the wines here and her husband Bruno tends to the vines. This is a small family-owned operation that has some remarkable 40 year-old Sauvignon Blanc vines planted on clay and sandy soils along the banks of the Cher River. The wine is a perfect representation of the fruity, ripe, direct, and appealing character of the grape. There is ample green bell pepper, gooseberry notes and generous sweet fruit. Everyone can enjoy this wine.
These vines are nearly 30 years old and they thrive on a classic mix of clay and flint soils as well as chalky limestone here - offering baked, candied pineapple and effusive fresh cut grass flavors with a touch of passion and guava fruit. The wine picks up density from the extended skin contact the grapes receive during fermentation. A very modern approachable version of the grape in France.
And for those who wish to go to the “Dark Side” of Sancerre ….RED Sancerre that is….
We do have a few reds and one rosé from Sancerre in the store as well! Pinot Noir is the legacy grape here - as in Burgundy - and those growers who do keep a small portion of their vines dedicated to this demanding variety are rewarded with some special and memorable versions. These are wines for the connoisseur indeed. They are hard to find, and often expensive. But they are worth exploring, if only for their unusual counterpoint to the sea of glorious white wines to which they play a supporting role.
Pinot Noir in Sancerre. Credit: vins-sancerre.com
Pinot Noir can struggle to ripen fully in Sancerre and it is often therefore made as a rosé - where the tart nature of the fruit can excel in a clean crisp rose style. Such is the case with this mirror image for the white Sancerre listed above also made by Henri Bourgeois - hailing from more dense, clay-based soils in the village of Chaivgnol. The grapes see two days of skin contact (for color and texture), followed by fermentation and short aging in stainless steel with time resting on the gross lees. This is all candied strawberry, raspberry, sandalwood spice and a kiss of tangerine. Mouthwatering, fun, ephemeral.
VINCENT GAUDRY SANCERRE ROUGE VINCENTGETORIX 2017 - $40.00
Organic and Biodynamic Viticulture
Rarest of the rare - this comes from a tiny 1 hectare plot of pinot vines resting atop unusually iron rich soils. Gaudry ferments the wine in resin lined cement tanks and lets nature take its course with no intervention of any kind. Tart cherry, plum, violets, a hint of spice all herald this shockingly excellent Pinot Noir from the great master. In traditional Burgundy style, this wine sees long aging in neutral oak barrels to add body without wood flavor. With it’s long finish, herbal and cool in style - this will appeal to the pinot devotees who want something a touch unique yet familiar. The wine name is a play on the Roman governor Vercingetorix who ruled this region during the earliest period of vine planting in the 1st century AD.
ALPHONSE MELLOT SANCERRE ROUGE LA MOUSSIERE 2014 - $52.00
Organic and Biodynamic Viticulture
The Mellot family have been crafting wines in Sancerre since the early 16th century. They are among the legends of the region, and their La Moussiere vineyard rests in the heart and center of Sancerre itself, sporting the classic mix of white chalk and heavier clay. While La Moussiere produces one of the most famous white Sancerre’s of all, there is a small section of red Pinot Noir planted here as well - and the result is a textured, ripe, dark berry version from 45 year-old vines aged for a year in mostly 100% new oak barrels! Robust and broad, this is a sturdy and profound pinot noir that can hold itself well against hearty winter foods. A big wine for those who like bold pinot noir.
Now that you’ve learned about Sancerre, grab a bottle of one of these wines - or try many and see if you too can detect the soil and style differences. You won’t be disappointed with these wonderful, delicious, energetic and beautiful wines as the later days of summer settle in.
Some of you may find the obsession here and become avid devotees of these wines - and for good reason. No doubt you’ll keep coming back for more new taste sensations. Others may discover that there is far more inside your glass of Sancerre than you ever imagined. And the rest of you can just sit back and let the wines provide some momentary pleasure.
If you DO find yourself craving and thinking about Sauvignon Blanc more than you expected, stay tuned for a follow up focus on SAUVIGNON BLANC AROUND THE WORLD to come soon. We will explore the many other faces and types of this glorious grape grown in diverse and even exotic regions - with very different but equally inspiring results.