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The Ultimate Guide to the Terroir of Sancerre, Part 4: Oxfordian Limestone

Sancerre’s Oxfordian Limestone Soils don't get quite the same press as their Silex and Terres Blanches neighbors, but they are at least equally important to the region’s wines -- and especially important to the fun, crisp, easy-drinking white Sancerre wines that are so perfect for sharing with friends.

Read this, the fourth and final instalment in our Guide to the Terroir of Sancerre for more details on what sets these soils apart, what you can expect from the wines they produce, and where to find great examples.

Want an intro to Sancerre? See Part 1 of our Complete Guide to Sancerre here

What are Oxfordian Limestone Soils and How Are They Different From the Rest of Sancerre's soils?

Oxfordian Limestone Soils are, predictably enough, limestone soils from what many geologists refer to as the Oxfordian era (which ended a little over 150 million years ago). They are very stony soils, but unlike Silex, there’s little or no flint in the Oxfordian soils; and unlike Kimmeridgian, there’s relatively little clay.

Oxfordian Limestone is soft and breaks down pretty easily into two main forms, which many local producers distinguish: Griottes and Caillotes.

  • Caillotes soils, the more common of the two, are dominated by sizable limestone pebbles.

  • Griottes, the rarer of the two, is made of even smaller limestone pebbles.
    • Some writers say that the name “Griottes” is an allusion to a French word for cherries, because of the similar size of the pieces of limestone.

How Does Oxfordian Limestone Affect the Wines?

The stony Oxfordian Limestone tends to give us wines that are earlier-drinking, lighter and more delicate than Silex or Kimmeridgian. Most “entry-level” Sancerre bottles tend to be blends dominated by Oxfordian Limestone sources. While these aren’t wines that fade super-quickly (you can drink good examples even five years on without problem), they also aren’t generally built for longer term aging. With more obvious fresh citrus notes and less density, these are great wines for enjoying casually upon release -- Sancerre for a sunny day with friends!

But don't mistake Oxfordian Sancerre's friendliness for simplicity! The wines offer a range of layers of flavor below that fresh fruit: Sauvignon Blanc’s famous herbaceous notes, of course, but also a distinct limestone minerality and sometimes even savory notes.

Where in Sancerre Can One Find This Terroir?

Oxfordian limestone tends to run north-south from Sainte-Gemme down through Bué and below. This includes wines from, among other places, Verdigny, Sury-en-Vaux, and the center of the Sancerre commune.

But it's not that simple, of course. Just as Kimmeridgian soils can pop up here and there within what generally gets described as Oxfordian regions, by the same token, you find some Oxfordian soils sprinkled in parts of Sancerre that are better known for Silex or terres blanches.

Are there Longer-lived Oxfordian Wines?

There are (as always in wine!) some notable exceptions to the idea that Oxfordian soil doesn’t make ambitiously longer-lived wines.

Bué, for example, is one of the landmark villages on that north-south trail of Oxfordian soils. And  the village gives us many wines that are quintessential examples of Caillotes: light, floral, elegant with precise flavors.

But it’s also home to a few renowned vineyards with reputations for more powerful and age-worthy wines. The Grand Chemarin and -- especially -- the Chêne Marchand are, like the famous sites of Chavignol, the kinds of vineyard that growers bottle as single-vineyard wines, featuring the site name prominently on the front label.

And those single-vineyard bottlings can be very powerful, complex wines. Domaine Lucien Crochet], for example, makes a Chêne Marchand that is from Oxfordian soils and yet is powerful and complex and does very well with age.

Even Crochet’s more “entry-level” wine, “La Croix du Roy,” in great vintages will age beautifully for years. A bottle of 2010 was simply dazzling eight years after the harvest, with mineral and smoke notes, but also herbs, citrus, and cream. And it showed no signs of fading. It was the sort of bottle any wine nut should be hunting out, a real challenger to 1er cru Chablis. driving home just how much of a crime it is that Sancerre isn't cellared more regularly.  

Bué: an exception that proves the rule?

Some commentators hypothesis that Bué's is a sort of “exception that proves the rule” of Oxfordian limestones making short-lived wines. The story is something like: any long-lived wines from Bué are the result of the unique quality of its vignerons or something subtly different in its limestones or subsoils.   

Others take the view that Bué's most celebrated wines show that the so-called rule that Oxfordian terroir makes only lighter, easy going wines, is anything but a rule. In fact, these wines demonstrate that an ambitious grower with good most of Sancerre can make wines that transcend the merely easygoing.  

We don’t think we have the data yet to say for sure. But on some level, it doesn’t matter: The real lesson is that each of Sancerre’s three key terroirs -- and all of its villages -- are of high enough quality to make wines that, in addition to being dependably delicious, are worthy of every wine geek’s attention, truly on a par with the great and age-worthy wines of Burgundy and all of France’s best regions.

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