Located across the Loire river from Pouilly-Fumé, the Sancerre appellation is the home of many of the world's best Sauvignon Blanc wines. Although they lack the distinctive smoke flavor of the best Pouillys, Sancerres are generally considered better wines on technical merit. Unoaked, nervy, thin Sauvignons, they have a distinctively tangy, minerally aura of green fruit. New Zealand Sauvignons are considered similar to Sancerre, and are now offering better prices, but Sancerre's consistent quality is currently keeping it at the top of worldwide Sauvignon production.
Sancerre's main village shares its name; although it is only a little over six square miles, it contains many of the vineyards where the best Sancerres source their grapes. A dozen other villages, however, are also included, which adds up to 5,400 acres of planted vineyard space, almost all of it made up of Sauvignon Blanc. This is more than twice the acreage of Pouilly-Fumé, giving Sancerre a simple size advantage. Production is more than three times that of Pouilly, adding up to around 1.5 million cases a year of wine.
As one of the major wine appellations of the Loire Valley, Sancerre has increased in standing recently. Complex vinification techniques and perfect climate are what makes the region so legendary; in addition, there seems to be a dearth of low-quality producers in the area. Sancerre is an extraordinarily reliable appellation. However, this undisputed fact allows producers to add on a significant price premium, as a result of which the low-priced New Zealand Sauvignons are more popular in world markets.
As a result of its non-wine history, which was full of events like wars, fires, and stampedes, the Sancerre area is a tourist attraction. Though the region's early days were turbulent, wine has been consistently made here for hundreds of years. However, originally the Sancerre appellation made only red wines from Pinot Noir. Unusually, the region benefited from the phylloxera epidemic since the vines were replanted with Sauvignon Blanc. It was found that Sauvignon made excellent wines here, and by 1936, the region was well-known enough to receive AOC status before almost every other region in the Loire.
The Sauvignon Blanc world itself has undergone an interesting transformation since the Sauvignon Blanc grape became fashionable, a trend that perhaps started in the late 1970s or 1980s. As a result, the formerly monopolistic two appellations of the Loire Valley were faced with competition from all over the world, since the Sauvignon grape was quite easy to grow. New Zealand is the biggest challenger, but other warm climate regions in South America and South Africa are also experimenting with the grape.
Climate and Viticulture
Though it lies right across the Loire River from Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre is a much more exciting region in terms of climate and viticulture. While Pouilly-Fumé's soils are mainly flat, Sancerre's vineyards are sloping. The weather of the region is cold and sometimes frost can ruin an entire crop, but the river has a warming influence that makes this a rare occurrence. This weather is perfect for the style of Sauvignon Blanc, bitter, slightly "unripe", yet impressively vibrant and energetic.
The size of the Sancerre appellation means that soil isn't a huge influence; in fact, great Sauvignons can be made from both chalk soils and limestone soils--complete opposites in viticultural terms. For the most part, Sancerre is located on flinty, chalky soils, which make the most powerful wines, with marl and gravel soils making for less uncompromising styles.
Producers, believing in the grape's natural ability to make intense and powerful wines, generally make the wines sans oaking. These are some of the most natural white wines in the wine world, which really adds to their already impressive technical credibility. A few producers are experimenting with oaking, but they remain a criticized minority.
- Sauvignon Blanc: Sauvignon Blanc is 100% varietal in the white wines here, and the white wines compose almost all of production. Famous for its often bitter, untamed, green flavors in the majority of its wines, the Sauvignon grape yields a much more flamboyant and complex style in Sancerre. Nonetheless, it isn't too difficult to find brutally powerful examples either, with some of them showing typical Sauvignon aromas of lime, lemon, grass, and tangy minerals, as well as edgy dryness and acidity. But the best wines have dry yet refreshing and deep aromas of pear, yellow fruit, and herbs, and are surprisingly rich. The best Sancerres have good aging potential for white wines, up to 10 years. It takes experts to distinguish between the wines of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre, but simply put, Sancerres are more classy and elegant while Pouilly-Fumés are more intense and powerful.
- Pinot Noir: Pinot Noir was originally the main grape in the Sancerre region, but after the phylloxera epidemic Sauvignon Blanc was found to be more successful. However, Pinot was replanted and still makes up about 20% of production. Though the wines rarely get exported, they can be a real treat, with very dark berry flavors and spicy, earthy elements. The intense, classically made rosés are often considered better than the reds.
The Sancerre appellation is one of the most reliable in the Loire; even the red wines rarely go astray quality-wise. Below is a list of 10 producers whose wines are the best in terms of critical consensus; however, it should be noted that these wines are also more expensive than your average Sancerre.
- Gerard Boulay: The basic wine is phenomenal here, with open, simple citrus fruit and herb flavors. The Chavignol Blanc is drier but has more flair. The Clos de Beaujeu is another step up, with honeyed, weighty fruit flavors and potent minerality. The Monts Damnés is more mineral-driven, but has some impressive spicy herb notes. La Comtesse is the $100 main cuvée here, with incredibly pungent flavors of fruit and herbs and strong minerality. The Chavignol Rosé is curranty and unique.
- Francois Cotat: Among these pricey wines, Les Culs de Beaujeu is an entry-level wine at $50, offering amazingly thick citrus fruit flavors. The Les Montes Damnés is rich and smoky, with Burgundian yellow fruit flavors. La Grande Côte is powerfully perfumed, with flavors of honeyed tropical fruit. The Chavignol Rosé is a real treat too, with musky fruit flavors, floral scents, and powerful minerality. Cotat's brother Pascal Cotat also makes very good Sancerres.
- Lucien Crochet: Crochet is an exceptionally devoted producer in Sancerre, making wine nowhere else. La Croix du Roy is inexpensive ($20) and top-notch, with ripe, fresh fruit and herb flavors. Le Chêne is more in the $35 range and has impressive green fruit and floral qualities. The Cuvée LC is an oaked style, and has received a poor critical reception, but is a very distinct wine. The deep, wild, minerally rosé is also remarkable here.
- Fournier Pere et Fils: The Grande Cuvée Fournier Vieilles Vignes is one of the top reasonably priced cuvées in Sancerre, selling at $25. Dry but rich, with vibrant yellow fruit flavors and simple minerality, it is a refined but still pure essence of Sauvignon.
- Hippolyte Reverdy: These wines are well-valued at $25. Flinty and zesty, with flavors of citrus, stony minerality, mint and herbs, these bitter Sauvignons are energetic and vibrant and in good vintages can be exceptional.
- Pascal Jolivet: Jolivet is a large producer that just set up shop in the Loire, and has a very small amount of property in both Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre. However, they are already beginning to be successful in both appellations; the basic Sancerre is minty and dry in a good Sauvignon style. The Château du Nozay is smoky, fruity, and powerful, managing to combine elements of both classical Sauvignon and the more refined style of Sancerre. The Clos du Roy is more citrussy. The Les Caillottes is grassy, with stony, energetic flavors of citrus and herbs. Prices are still a bit low in relation to quality.
- Alphonse Mellot: Several of the cuvées are very exciting here: the elegant, spicy, surprisingly deep and complex Edmond, the fresh, much more vibrant Generation XIX, the rich, layered La Demoiselle, and the classically flavored Les Romains. However, the rarely seen Satellite wins on complexity and distinctiveness. All these wines are built for aging.
- Domaine André Neveu: Most of this domaine's wines are good, but two of the cuvées are especially flavorful. The Silex cuvée is shockingly precise, with bitter, pure citrus flavors. The Les Montes Damnés is even better, with energetic scents of floral honey, flowers, and minerals. Both of these wines are classically made, with penetrating, complex flavors, and can age well.
- Claude & Florence Thomas-Labaille: This domaine proves that only a few cuvées are necessary to really make a producer's reputation; Labaille is one of the best producers of Sancerre, and only has four cuvées. The red version of L'Authentique is good, but the fresh, floral white is better. The Les Monts Damnés is powerfully done, with wild, heavy, almost sweet yellow fruit flavors. This is certainly a modern style of Sauvignon, and it could even be mistaken for white Burgundy. The Cuvée Buster, made from within the Les Monts Damnés vineyard, is even more intense and focused, and has the Pouilly-Fumé smoky quality that almost all Sancerres lack. These wines are all under $30.
- Domaine Vacheron: Vacheron is among the best producers of Sancerre, although the wines are atypical and thus are divisive for critics and drinkers. The basic Sancerre is one of the best that can be found, with all the typical Sauvignon Blanc tastes and then some: pungent citrus fruit, lemongrass, herbs, smoke, and stony minerality. For twice the price, the Les Romains has poor critical reviews, mainly because of Vacheron's controversial use of oak. Still, these weighty, tropical-fruity styles are fun for those who like oaked wines. Whatever you think of these idiosyncratic whites, Vacheron is definitely the leading producer of reds in Sancerre: the basic Pinot Noir Rouge has spicy red fruit flavors and good thickness, while the La Belle Dame is more powerful and earthy.
A couple of producers (Boulay and Cotat) have a Chavignol label on some of their wines. This indicates the village in which the wine was made. The usage of lieu-dit vineyard names, however, is more common. The best-known of these is Les Monts Damnés. Yes, it literally translates to "the damn mountains." Other good vineyards include the Clos du Roy (spelled in many alternate ways), Les Romains, and Les Caillottes spots.
Sancerre's sister appellation, and main competitor, is the Pouilly-Fumé region, located right across the river. Read up on it to gain a lock on your knowledge of Loire Sauvignon.