The Ultimate Guide to Sancerre, Part Two: Silex
Sancerre is one of the most recognizable names in white wine. But bottles of Sancerre often have another, much less famous name, on the label -- often in bigger print even than the name of the grower: Silex.
Sancerre, Terroir, Silex
Why do growers put this relatively obscure word front and center?
“Sancerre” may be a powerful brand on its own. But a large part of what makes the Sancerre region so great is its special soils. Silex is a unique and special soil of which many growers are rightfully proud.
What is Silex and why do we care about it?
Silex is a type of sedimentary soil that is rich with flint. In fact, silex is the English word for flint.
Silex is closely associated with limestone soils -- they can exist in close proximity. But flint is generally a harder stone and can have an almost metallic look.
Sancerre’s silex soils were created by millenia of erosion of limestone that left much of the harder flint stones behind. This means that in many “silex” vineyards you will also find some limestone and other rocks in the mix.
Flint doesn’t just give the vineyards a different look, of course; it gives the local wines a special character. While the most famous -- and longest lived -- Sancerre are those grown in kimmeridgian limestone soils, Silex makes for utterly delicious and distinctive wines that are highly prized by many wine lovers.
And that’s why you so often see Sancerre bottlings with names like “Cuvee Silex’ or variations on the theme!
What does Sancerre from Silex soils taste like?
Flint can do a lot for a wine. At their best, the flint-based wines of Sancerre are the most elegant and finely-etched expressions of Sauvignon Blanc anywhere, with distinctive citrus, herbal, mineral and even smokey notes.
Silex has a reputation in some corners for giving a “flinty” character to the wine -- a smokey note that the French call “pierre à fusil” -- literally, “gunflint.” One old French name for Sauvignon Blanc, “Blanc Fumé,” is said to have come from this characteristic, Fumé being French for smoked or smokey.
Wine geeks also often say that Sauvignon Blanc grown in flint has a special kind of precision: fruit and mineral flavors may not be as intense as when Sauvignon Blanc is grown in limestone, but they are beautifully drawn with distinct layers of flavor -- even when those flavors are intimately related.
What's in a name? If Blanc Fumé, the old name for Sauvignon Blanc, sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because Robert Mondavi used it as the basis for his Fumé Blanc labels, when he started promoting California Sauvignon Blanc decades ago.
Or it may be because Sancerre’s neighbor, Pouilly Fumé, still retains the old moniker. In fact, Pouilly Fumé’s original name was “Blanc Fumé de Pouilly.”
How do Silex Soils have these effects?
Part of this completeness of flavor may come because of the soil’s ability to promote steady, even ripening. The stones capture and retain heat, even in cool areas, which it then gifts to the vines. This alone makes silex a coveted soil type in a cool region like Sancerre.
But fundamentally, there is still a lot of mystery to how soils influence the final wines they make. It feels like flint lends its metallic minerality to the flavor and texture of the juice, yet scientists will mostly tell you that they can’t say why. They’ve never been able to show that minerals in the soil work their way up the vines to the grapes.
Whatever it is that makes the magic, Silex wines can be stunning. When they’re young there’s a lovely citrussy focus -- often with notes more of tangerine than of lemon or lime. They have a silky, transparent quality that highlights herbal and mineral notes.
The aromatics are somehow exuberant and discreet at the same time. Think of pure, clean mineral water with a backbone.
When you see water flowing, smoothly, over rocks in a mountain stream it seems to take on a strength. Ide t What is left is powerful and firm, but still obviously, perfectly pure.
Where do we find Silex Soils?
Flint is sprinkled throughout the Loire Valley -- and it’s obviously very important in Pouilly-Fumé. Within Sancerre, it is focussed mostly on the eastern side or the appellation, nearer the river.
The communes that tend to have a lot of flint are Bannay, Saint-Satur, Ménétréol-sous-Sancerre, Thauvenay, and Vinon. The commune of Sancerre itself, lies on the dividing line, with its east side rich in flint and the west home to some of the most famously intense Kimmeridgian sites.
How do I find a bottle of Sancerre from Silex Soils?
First, and simplest, look for a label that says “Silex”! Many growers call attention to their wines made from Silex right in the wine’s name.
You can also look for producers who are based in Silex rich areas.
Two of them, Domaine Vacheron and Alphonse Mellot, are based within the town of Sancerre. These are two of Sancerre's leading domaines, and they are both biodynamically certified. The stylistic difference seems to be that Vacheron is a little more austere and mineral, while Mellot's wines have a bit more weight and richness. But the styles are overall pretty similar and I highly recommend both.
Henri Bourgeois is one of the largest producers in Sancerre, but the quality here is high and farming is organic. While based in the hamlet of Chavignol, the domaine has major holdings all over the region, including much of the commune of Saint-Satur. Here Bourgeois produces several site-specific cuvées, including "Cuvée d'Antan Silex", which is vinified and aged in oak. It's not oaky, but rather rich and refined.
Of course , the easiest way to find out, If you’re in a reputable shop or a good restaurant, is to ask for help. We love talking about wine and will be thrilled to help you find the bottle of Sancerre that will set you on the path to long relationship with Silex!
You can also browse our selections in New York and California:
Shop Sancerre Wines in New York
Shop Sancerre Wines in San Francisco