The Smoking Savouriness of Sancerre’s Sauvignon Blanc
The bucolic rolling limestone hills of Sancerre rest on the Loire River’s left bank on the eastern edge of the Loire Valley. The appellation delivers one of the world’s most classic expressions of Sauvignon Blanc that is known for its bright, bracing acidity with grassy, gooseberry flavours along with its hallmark gunflint smoky aromas. These incredibly aromatic and textured wines can also have flavours ranging from green fruit to citrus to stone fruit depending on the varying terroir throughout Sancerre. Though Sauvignon Blanc gets most of the spotlight, Pinot Noir also offers exquisite expressions with its red and rosé wines that wine lovers shouldn’t overlook when discovering all that Sancerre has to offer the world of wine.
A Little Sancerre History
Vines have been growing on Sancerre’s rolling, lush, green slopes since ancient times with the first historical accounts going all the way back to 582 in Gregory of Tours’ book called the “Historiae Francorum”. However, it wasn’t until the Saint-Satur Augustine monks and the ruling Sancerre counts came along in the twelfth century that grape growing became a serious activity. During this time, Pinot Noir reigned over the vineyards and was sent along the Loire River for export throughout the kingdom. Even back in these times, Sancerre wines were held in high esteem, especially by Duke Jean de Berry, the third son of King John II of France, who believed they were the finest wines in the entire realm. Unfortunately, phylloxera – that sap-sucking pest that feasts upon the roots and leaves of grapevines – made its way into the region and pillaged all of the vineyards in the mid-1880s. Afterwards, Sauvignon Blanc became extensively planted since it fairs well in the area’s continental climate and limestone and clay soil. This terroir helped shaped spectacular white wines that have been AOC-classified since 1936. Remaining true to its origins, Pinot Noir grapes are still used to make red and rosé wines, which gained AOC status in 1959.
Interestingly, although Sancerre is part of the “central vineyards”, they aren’t actually in the centre of the Loire Valley at all. Rather, they’re named because they’re in the heart of France. Along with its neighbour Pouilly-Fumé that’s just across the river, Sancerre is in the most eastern extension of the region. Since it’s quite far from the Atlantic Ocean, it has more of a cool continental climate than the rest of the Loire, so there are short, hot summers and long, cold winters. The cool conditions mean that one of the main threats for the vines are frosts in the spring. The Loire River in the east and forest to the west help to moderate those extreme continental temperatures that allow the vines to thrive in the area.
The vineyards grow on the south-facing slopes of the bucolic hills surrounding Sancerre, a medieval hilltop town, at elevations between 200 to 400 metres. One of the most important aspects of Sancerre’s terroir that contributes to the uniqueness of its Sauvignon Blanc wines is the complexity of its soils. The soils roughly fall into three categories. In the western hills in towards Ménetou-Salon, you’ll find clay and limestone soils, known as “terres blanches”. Around the village of Chavignol, you’ll discover that the soil also includes Kimmeridgian marl. Wines from the western part tend to have a more powerful flavour profile and more body. As you head closer towards the town of Sancerre, the limestone soil becomes more pebbly, known as “caillottes”. From this terroir, you get lighter bodied wines with delicate perfumed notes. On the slopes to the east, this is where you find a siliceous-clay soil that have many flint deposits, known as “silex”, which adds very distinctive mineral elements, especially the appellation’s renowned gunflint smoky aromas. These wines are heavily fragrant and have the longest ageing potential out of all Sancerre wines.
For the harvest, it generally takes place at the end of September and the beginning of October. Depending on the location of the vineyards, the harvest method varies. Since many of the vines anchor themselves on steep slopes, mechanical harvesting isn’t possible, so the vineyard teams have the laborious task of hand-harvesting. However, mechanical harvesting is becoming more common for the vines in the flatter areas towards the appellation’s western side. Once the grapes are picked, they’re then sent to the winery to be perfected into white, red and rosé styles.
Sancerre Estates: Celebrating the Best of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir
There are a vast array of prestigious ambassadors for Sancerre, and one of the most illustrious is Alphonse Mellot that dates back as far back as 1513. The estate has been passed down from father to son for generations with the eldest son carrying on the name of the founder, so this father and son team continue the winemaking traditions from centuries past to make wines of exceptional quality. Their most famous vineyard is the 30-hectare Domaine de la Moussière that produces Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir cuvées of great finesse and fruitiness from the appellation’s revered Kimmeridgian limestone soil. Domaine Vincent Pinard is also another historic estate in Sancerre, which takes a natural, organic approach in the vineyard and in winemaking to make its white, red and rosé wines. The 17-hecatre estate has its vines on the Bué hills with its Sauvignon Blanc in limestone and its Pinot Noir in clay-limestone. The whites are wines of great fruit purity and finesse with astounding minerality while the reds offer fruity freshness with an elegant texture.
Another appellation emissary that has devoted its passion to creating unique expressions of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir for ten generations is the Famille Bourgeouis. The family works with 72 hectares spread across a mosaic of terroirs. The Sauvignon Blanc vines in Kimmerigdian marl give intensely flavoured wines of exotic fruit and exquisite structure. Those from clay-limestone offer fresh, fruity cuvées while those in flinty soil offer smoky nuanced wines with minerality and great finesse. Pascal Joliet is another remarkable Sancerre estate, which dates back to 1926 when the Jolivet family entered the world of wine. Pascal Joliet runs the estate now under his own name with help from his talented Italian oenologist, Valentina Buoso. Joilet strives to amplify the purity of the fruit in his wines with the use of indigenous yeasts, and a results, his whites offer dazzling fruit purity with a refined and subtle character. Last but not least out of the acclaimed Sancerre estates is Lucien Crochet that has 35 hectares of vineyards for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Gilles Crochet follows in the footsteps of both his grandfathers and his father, Lucien Crochet, crafting terroir-driven wines. The whites offer fleshy fruit aromas revolving around citrus or apricot notes, and all-embracing chalky minerality and refreshing acidity on the palate. The reds give red cherry fruitiness supported with a silky, beautifully textured palate.
The singularity of Sancerre’s terroir allows it to express the very best of its flagship Sauvignon Blanc variety, which has become world-renowned for its flinty smokiness and bracing acidity – all of which leave wine lovers yearning for just one more sip of Sancerre radiance.