Week 4 of 4 Week France course // Sancerre
Sancerre-A brief introduction to the region
In preparation for week 4 of our Online Tour De France we are briefly exploring Sancerre.
The ancestral home of the now-ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc variety, today we travel to the appellation of Sancerre, to find out more about its chequered past, terrior and why it is one of the most significant and well-known regions of the huge Loire Valley region.
Image from Wine Folly
Sancerre is located in the ‘Central’ section of the Loire valley, which is not very aptly named as it really isn’t central at all, but actually the eastern-most section of the whole valley. This means it is also the furthest away from the Atlantic Ocean, which has a massive influence on much of the Loire, but not here in Sancerre, which is classified as decidedly continental. In fact, Sancerre is geographically closer to Burgundy’s Cote d’Or than to much of the regions it shares an appellational zone with! There is one common thread however; like pretty much every other major Loire Valley wine region, Sancerre sits on the Loire River, which has been the lifeblood of the region for millennia. The Loire is a slow, winding river which originates hundreds of kilometres to the south-east in the Ardeche Mountains, right near the Cornas wine region of the Northern Rhone! This slow-moving river is perfect for large transport barges, which would bring trade from central France into the region, as well as ship wines out to the rest of the world via its mouth on the Atlantic Ocean.
Sancerre, with its dramatic location on top of a large hill, warm but not hot weather in the spring and summer, and abundant rainfall with good drainage was recognised as a premium site for viticulture early on, originally by the Romans. These ideal environmental conditions combined with easy access to shipping lanes led to the wines of Sancerre becoming quite popular throughout Europe for centuries, however not in the guise you and I think of as ‘Sancerre’ today. In fact it was only in the early 20th century that the grape variety this appellation hangs its hat on, Sauvignon Blanc, was first planted here! The region, for much of its past was known as a producer of cheap and cheerful barrels of light red Pinot Noir or dry, largely flavourless whites made from Chasselas. Cellaring was never a priority here in Sancerre due to the constant movement of the shipping lanes across the Loire River; as soon as it was made, it was sold and shipped for resale up the river, and this was reflected in the varieties they farmed. Varieties that required ageing before release such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, who were grown in neighbour/rival Bordeaux to the south were simply not bothered with here.
In the late 19th century, Phylloxera ravaged all of Europe, and Sancerre was no different. It was discovered that Chasselas, the unexciting yet prolific workhorse of the region did not take to being grafted to American rootstock, and as this was (and still is) the only way to curb the ravages of this pesky bug, Chasselas’ popularity plummeted. The little known and fairly new Sauvignon Blanc, which is a white mutation of Cabernet Sauvignon, discovered in Bordeaux to the south, was then found to graft well- the rest was history! Sauvignon Blanc filled the hole Chasselas left; it was prolific in the cool climate, it loved the rain, and could be harvested and turned into wine without much input of oak, lees stirring or much winemaking at all. To raise its profile and get consumers to trust this new arrival, the traders of Sancerre pushed hard to get Sauvignon Blanc into Parisian Bistros as the white equivalent of Beaujolais- quick turnaround from harvest to bottle, easy to drink, crisp, fresh and a perfect match to seafood. This was a sector of the market that German Riesling had a firm grip on, however this grip loosened as diplomatic relations between France and the Austro-Hungarian empire crumbled. So it appears the success of Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc is not necessarily just about flavour, but a fortuitous turn through the failure of another variety and a war! Whatever the reasons for the success of this variety and this region, they have ensured their fame on a global scale today, with very few fine dining restaurants omitting a good-quality Sancerre from their wine list.
Now one thing we need to keep in mind about the Sancerre appellation is that it is huge! I hate to disrupt the romantic ideas of tiny, lovingly tended plots- though these do exist in the premier sections- however truth is that today Sancerre takes up a whopping 7,000 hectares! To put this in perspective, the whole of the Northern Rhone could fit in this region three times over, and the entire Hunter Valley could fit comfortably into this region! The area under vine of this appellation has quadrupled since the mid-20th century after the aforementioned rise in popularity of variety and region, and today has 14 distinct communes, each with a slightly different soil type, orientation and therefore is slightly different in style.
For the last few centuries as Sauvignon Blanc has populated vineyards all over the world (even their ever-present neighbours/rivals in Bordeaux are making varietal Sauv Blanc today!), Sancerre has held a vaunted position as the Premier location for world-class varietal Sauvignon Blanc, and though they may deny it vehemently, many new world winemakers aim for this style of wine when they make their Sauvignon Blanc. The classic tasting note for a Sancerre is pungent and pronounced aromas of gooseberries, grass, nettles, with a distinct aroma and flavour of stony minerality and sometimes passionfruit in warmer communes. Sancerre is always less fruit-forward and citrusy than South American counterparts and less grassy than a New Zealand example. The wines always possess the classic racy acid profile, low (12-13%) alcohol, are rarely oaked and finish bone-dry. They are for near-immediate drinking, and match seafood and summer remarkably well!
The region is not just famous for its wines; the Chavignol sub-region produces some of the world’s best goat’s cheese, which unsurprisingly goes amazingly well with a cold glass of Sancerre!