For many wine lovers, New Zealand sets the standard for sauvignon blanc these days. But long before anyone even thought of planting wine grapes in New Zealand, there was Sancerre.
Don't get me wrong: I love a pungent, tangy New Zealand sauvignon blanc. But the sauvignon blancs of France's Sancerre region, toward the eastern end of the Loire River Valley, have a distinctive minerality and a nice restraint that make them easier to pair with food than some of the more dramatic Kiwi versions. (White Sancerre is made from sauvignon blanc, even though the grape name doesn't appear on the label.)
Sancerre's minerality reflects the area's soils. The three major types are the limestone-clay soils known as terres blanches, which yield full-bodied wines; pebbly limestone soils called caillottes, which produce aromatic, elegant wines; and the clay-flint soils called silex, which make up only about 15 percent of the vineyard area and tend to produce wines with a flinty, sometimes smoky character. Southern and southeastern exposures generally are considered to be the best.
The Sancerre region encompasses the land around 14 villages, including the town of Sancerre, and most vintners farm blocks in numerous areas. Gilles Crochet of Domaine Lucien Crochet, for example, has 80 separate parcels.
"It's very complex to work," he says.
Much of the time, vintners blend numerous parcels into one wine, although grapes from special sites often
Sancerre's popularity has driven up prices and also has resulted in the inevitable underperformers, who are content to trade on the region's fame. However, the best producers keep vineyard yields low and are scrupulous about quality.
Many of the 2010 wines are still in stores; the 2011s are just starting to show up. The 2010 is considered a more classic vintage, with tighter wines, while 2011, with its hot September, produced wines that are a little fleshier and more generous. They're ready to drink.
The wines at Hippolyte Reverdy illustrate these differences. The winery's 2010 Sancerre ($26) is racy and slightly herbal, with pink grapefruit and mineral, while the just-arrived 2011 Sancerre is fleshier and easy to drink.
The Lucien Crochet wines offer a similar contrast. The 2010 Sancerre ($29) is complex and bright but not too tart, with mineral, citrus, green apple and a hint of anise and a long finish; the 2010 Sancerre "La Croix du Roy" ($33) is very precise and has even more minerality. (The 2011 Sancerre, which isn't available yet, is racy but has a lot of fruit.)
The 2010s at Domaine Vacheron, especially the higher-end bottlings, display a fair amount of weight. The 2010 Sancerre ($32) is very persistent, with citrus, green apple and mineral, while the 2010 Sancerre "Les Romains" ($60) displays more richness and flintiness. The 2010 Sancerre "Chambrates" ($63) is richer still, with nice roundness and creaminess.
All the vineyards at Vacheron are farmed organically and biodynamically, but winemaker Jean-Dominique Vacheron doesn't like what he calls the "esoteric" image attached to biodynamic farming, which incorporates a belief in cosmic forces. He says he simply wants to grow good grapes.
The wines of Franck Millet are a good value. The 2011 Franck Millet Sancerre ($17 when it comes to market) -- 2010 is currently available -- is fleshy and lively, while the 2010 Sancerre "Insolite" ($25) is more powerful.
The classic match for white Sancerre is tangy goat cheese, which is produced in abundance in the region. The wines also are excellent with an array of seafood and salads. (These foods also pair well with the other sauvignon blanc wines from this part of the Loire, such as Pouilly-Fume, Menetou-Salon and Quincy.)
Although Sancerre is most often associated with sauvignon blanc, pinot noir also is grown for both red and rosé wines. The reds generally are made in a lighter, fruity style, although Domaine Vacheron and Lucien Crochet are among the producers that make reds with more depth and richness. The 2008 Vacheron "Belle Dame" Sancerre Rouge ($60), for example, is rich and structured, with lively fruit, some earthy notes and firm tannins. (The 2007 is currently available.)
Contact Laurie Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I tasted a number of interesting wines during a brief visit to Sancerre. At Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy, the 2010 Sancerre "Cuvee les Coutes" ($25) is quite racy, with mineral, apple, citrus and a hint of anise, while the 2011 is more floral and fleshier. The same winery's 2010 Sancerre "Les Angeslots" ($31) offers racy citrus and pear, a hint of anise, some floral notes and a touch of oak.
The 2010 Matthias & Emile Roblin Sancerre "Enclos de Maimbray" ($25) is another racy 2010, with a lot of minerality, while the 2010 Henri Bourgeois Sancerre "La Cote des Mont Damnes" ($30) is made in a bigger, riper style, accented by mineral notes. The 2010 Domaine Fouassier Sancerre "Clos Paradis" ($22) also is made in a fleshier style, with white fruit, mineral and nice texture. On the other hand, the 2011 Daniel Chotard Sancerre ($26; the 2010 is currently available) is fresh and citrusy, with pink grapefruit, mineral and a slight herbal note.
Pascal Jolivet exports a number of Sancerres. Two of the best from 2010 are the Sancerre "Clos du Roy" ($34), which displays a lot of mineral, along with racy citrus notes, and the Sancerre "Le Chene Marchand" ($49), which is a little floral. Jolivet also makes a reliable basic Sancerre ($24), though I found the 2011 to be a little too herbal.