The Ultimate Guide to Sancerre, Part Two: Silex
Welcome to The Ultimate Guide to Sancerre, Part Two: Silex. Incase you missed it, you can read part one HERE. We will be updating this post with links to parts three, Oxfordian Limestone, and four, Kimmeridgian Limestone, as they are published in the coming weeks.
The wines of Sancerre are getting better and better, which can largely be attributed to two things: better viticultural practices, and a more Burgundian approach to terroir, i.e. single-vineyard or soil-specific cuvées. To get a better look at these changes, there's no better place to look than the flinty (aka "silex") soils on the eastern edges of Sancerre. This Q&A should give you a good idea what Sancerre on Silex is all about!
What is Silex?
Silex is a type of sedimentary soil. In Silex soils you’ll be sure to find ground up flint and rocks. “Silex” and “Flinty” can be used fairly interchangeably as you’ll see in this piece and much more if you continue your wine education. The ability to capture and retain heat, even in cool areas, makes it a coveted soil type. This characteristic allows grapes to ripen more often, and flint lends its metallic minerality to the flavor and texture of the juice, as well.
Where can Silex Soils be found?
Primarily one finds Silex soils in Sancerre, but they’re also found in the nearby Pouilly-Fume. Within Sancerre, as is our focus today, the communes that tend to have a lot of flint are Bannay, Saint-Satur, Ménétréol-sous-Sancerre, Thauvenay, and Vinon. Somewhat confusingly, Sancerre is also the name of a commune, and the east side (where the city itself is located) has a good deal of flint in its soils, too.
How does it affect wines?
At their best, the flint-based wines of Sancerre are the most elegant and and finely-etched expressions of Sauvignon Blanc anywhere. These wines can be stunning; there's little overt fruit and more of 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. It leaves behind the thinness or the spitting of foamy white caps. What is left is powerful and firm, but still obviously water at its very purest.
Who is making Sancerre on Silex?
It certainly helps Silex’s reputation that there are some excellent winemakers working these soils.
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, however, but rather rich and refined.
How can I buy these wines?
Today we’re focusing our sights on a store-wide favorite. Vacheron, as discussed above, is a producer producing wine at the very highest quality. The entry level wines are traditional and crowd-pleasing. But, if you have the opportunity to grab a bottle of his higher cuvees, this is where the wines could begin to change your life. It was while drinking a bottle of Vacheron that most customers I've spoken with and many of my colleagues really began to understand the effect of Silex soils on a wine. Hopefully you’ll have a similar experience!
Domaine Vacheron, Sancerre Blanc, 2018
Actually a blend of silex and limestone soils, this is one of the best entry-level Sancerres out there, and it shows a very "flinty," mineral-driven character
Vacheron, Sancerre Blanc “Les Chambrates", 2017
The south-facing exposition and clay soils lend this an almost Chavignol-esque density. Super saline, with notes of cream, peach, and lemon zest. Will last and last in the cellar.
Vacheron, Sancerre Blanc “Les Paradis”, 2017
A steep vineyard composed of Oxfordian limestone. Lemon, orange blossom and fresh herbal notes evolve into a salty, stony finish.
There are some other excellent wines to look for from flint soils which were not listed here, but are worth seeking out. "Belles-Dames" is the reference-point Sancerre Rouge from Vacheron. Gitton Père et Fils makes a white from Belles Dames. In Thauvenay, Serge Laloue makes an all-silex cuvée called 1166 that is outstanding. We'll get it back in stock in a few months. And in Bannay, just northeast of Saint-Satur, is where you can find "Le Rochoy" from Domaine Laporte, which is now owned by Henri Bourgeois and has been converted to organic farming.
How can I find out more?
That’s an easy one! Sign up for our newsletter, here. Every week we send out offers on our favorite wine stories with the deepest possible discounts. Sign up now and keep an eye out for a big Sancerre offer coming down the pipe.
You can also, as always, keep an eye on this blog. Our series on Sancerre will continue next week with Part 3, a focus on the soils of Oxfordian Limestone. And if you haven’t already, definitely read Part 1 which will give you an overview of Sancerre and its terroir.