Ultimate Guide to the Terroir of Sancerre, Part One
We are pleased to begin a new 4 part series on Sancerre. We will be diving deep into the main terroirs of this classic region. Sancerre is a consumer favorite, certainly, but very few people know the rich history and stunning geography of this famous region.
In today’s post, Part One, we will introduce you to the Sancerre we know and love, and prepare you for a deep dive on three stunningly individual terroirs.
What is Sancerre?
Over the last several decades, the name Sancerre has become synonymous with premium dry white wine, making it the safe choice for consumers with no other requirements. As such, it's become one of wine's greatest hits, a wine region with nearly unparalleled brand recognition and customer devotion. This is fair, as virtually any Sancerre is taut, articulate, and often of reliably good quality.
Much of that vinous consistency owes to its ideal climatic and geographic conditions. Sancerre possesses some of the most enviable white wine terroir in all of France. Yet, the irony is that despite all the fame, these crucial terroirs are largely unexamined by casual wine drinkers and devoted geeks alike. This same lack of awareness extends beyond terroir; many fans of the region are totally unfamiliar with the names of its best and most historic winemakers—producers who define the possibilities of what Sancerre can be.
But this is slowly changing. Today we’re looking at just some of the fundamental aspects of the region, and I will be writing a few more blogs which will serve to look at Sancerre in greater detail.
Where is Sancerre?
Sancerre is a viticultural region located in France's Loire Valley, about 2 1/2 hours south of Paris. In terms of production quantity, it is one of the Loire's biggest regions, making over 20 million bottles annually.
What kind of wine is Sancerre?
As mentioned before, Sancerre is most famous for its white wines, which account for the vast majority of its production, but red and rosé wines are produced, too. The whites are made from Sauvignon Blanc, while red and rosé wines are made from Pinot Noir. Both grapes have been cultivated in the region for centuries, but it's only been in the last 80 years or so that Sauvignon Blanc has begun to dominate; before that, the region produced mostly red wines from Pinot Noir and Gamay.
Why was there a shift to white wines?
That change was precipitated by phylloxera, the pest which destroyed Europe's vineyards in the late 19th century. When winemakers replanted, they needed to graft on to phylloxera-resistant root-stock, and this was easier to do with Sauvignon Blanc. So, there was a large shift from primarily, historically, red wines to the Sancerre of today: primarily white wines.
It wasn't until the late '50s and early '60s that Sancerre really took off in popularity, when it eclipsed frost-ravaged Chablis to become the fashionable, bistro white of Paris. From the parisian bistros, the trend spread to other European cities, especially London, before carving a considerable niche stateside over the last 25 years.
What makes Sancerre so special?
This is a region of unique and exceptional terroir, which from a geological perspective can be loosely broken into three parts: (1) Oxfordian limestone, which is sometimes referred to as caillottes or griottes; (2) Kimmeridgian limestone; and (3) silex, better known here as flint. Each of these soils seem to have a pretty significant impact on the taste of the wine, although such generalizations are far from perfectly reliable. We will dive deeper into these soil types in the coming posts.
Since Sancerre has a fairly homogeneous climate and, like most of Burgundy, uses just one grape for its reds and one for whites, it's a perfect region for discovering the effects of geology on a wine's taste. To get to know Sancerre intimately is to have had a crash course in terroir itself.
Is there a Grand Cru Sancerre?
But, unlike Burgundy, Sancerre's vineyards are not classified into qualitative categories; there are no grand cru, premier cru, or village wines here. Sort of standing in for "villages" are Sancerre’s 14 communes: Bannay, Bué, Crézancy, Menetou-Râtel, Ménétréol, Montigny, Saint-Satur, Sainte-Gemme, Sancerre, Sury-en-Vaux, Thauvenay, Veaugues, Verdigny, and Vinon. Whew! We don’t expect you to memorize these communes, there is no test. If there was a test, we would probably fail alongside you.
Vinously speaking, these communes are not equals. There's really no point in talking about the wines of Menetou-Râtel, for instance, but Bué certainly must be explored. Confusingly, the greatest sub-region of Sancerre isn't even one of the communes; it's the tiny hamlet of Chavignol, home to the famous vineyards of Monts Damnés and Cul de Beaujeu and such elite producers as Francois Cotat and Gérard Boulay.
Therefore, it makes little sense to have a 14-installment series on the communes of Sancerre. This is not Burgundy. The best approach is to break the region down by the three principal soil types, looking at the winemakers and vineyards that exemplify the characteristics of each. It's mercifully much simpler and far more sensible that way!
Can I buy some good, value Sancerre?
Today I'd like to look at a kind of Sancerre that does not belong to any of the above categories, yet one that is as significant as it is ubiquitous: a wine made from a blend of several vineyards and soil types that typifies what you find served by the glass in a restaurant. It's a fitting style to commence this look into Sancerre, and it shows just what kind of quality can be had at the "entry level."
For New York, the wine is made by Serge Laloue, an up-and-coming, quality-conscious winemaker in the region.
Serge Laloue, Sancerre, 2018 - $24.99
For the SF store, we're pointing you toward Domaine Denizot. Thibauld is an 8th generation winemaker who believes whole heartedly that only blends can show the true heart of Sancerre.
This wine is terroir transparent, fermented in concrete vats with indigenous yeast and aged on fine lees. These days, it doesn't get much cheaper that mid-twenties, and blends don't get much better than Denizot (and Laloue, above). For a good overview, the best place to start this journey, we've got you covered!
Domaine Denizot, Sancerre, 2018 - $24.99
What else is there to learn?
Part Two: The predominantly silex (flint) soils, which extend southward from Saint-Satur to Thauvenay, and that area's most significant producers: Alphonse Mellot, Vacheron, and Henri Bourgeois.
Part Three: The Kimmeridgian marl of Chavignol, which has many significant vineyards and producers, including the ones named earlier.
Part Four: The Oxfordian limestone soils, the best wines of which can be found in the commune of Bué. Here we will look at the wines of Lucien Crochet and others.