Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc

"I chaptalized for the first time since 2004," admitted Francois Cotat as we tasted his 2013s from barrel, "and also had a bit of botrytis at the end of the harvest."  When one of Sancerre's leading producers begins his description of a vintage with these words, you can well imagine that it was anything but an easy year for the other estates of the central Loire.

In fact, each of the past few vintages has presented growers here with challenges, but 2013 was particularly difficult.  Frost, poor flowering, hail and rain at harvest afflicted each region differently, but among the major appellations Pouilly suffered more than Sancerre, with greater problems stemming from mildew and botrytis.  Further, even those producers who harvested late had surprisingly little sugar concentration in their grapes so that the control board allowed--exceptionally--chaptalization by as much as 2.5%.

To make a better wine it was necessary to be extremely selective at harvest.  Combined with the problems encountered during the growing season, this led to extremely low yields.  Two thousand twelve was already short, a full quarter off a normal crush, but 2013 was down by half.  Many estates have thus essentially lost a full crop over the past three years.  An Indian summer did allow those who harvested late to bring in better results, but at great risk.  Acidity levels dropped and botrytis spread.  On the whole, though, 2013 appears to be a slightly better year than 2011.

As in most of the rest of Europe, 2012 was--after a mild winter--marked by a very early bud break.  The summer was then rather cool, which allowed for a long, slow ripening process.  It was only in late August that warm, dry weather permitted a rapid concentration of sugars in the grapes.  This weather continued by and large until rain came towards the end of crush.  As the crop was still quite healthy at that time, the growers were nonetheless able to finish harvesting at leisure, making wines that were not only rich but also had the pure fruit and brisk acidity that we expect from fine sauvignon blanc.  It is without doubt the best of the recent vintages.

Two thousand eleven was more paradoxical.  "We had summer at springtime and autumn during the summer," quipped Frank Bailly.  After a very rapid start in April, the vine's development pursued its natural course, leading to one of the earliest harvests since 1893.  What sounds fantastic on paper, though, did not turn out so well in practice.  While there are producers like Jean-Dominique Vacheron who believe that the vintage has been unfairly maligned, most will say that it is perhaps the weakest of the past decade.  There are notable exceptions, but too many of the sauvignon blancs have high alcohol levels--sometimes even surpassing 15%--and low acidity, which are not the hallmarks of this variety. Two thousand was, albeit marginally better, similar in character.

The law states that a Sancerre should not have more than 13% alcohol by volume, but they can if the producer can prove that the must was naturally higher.  This happened to an extent in 2012, but was widely seen in 2011 and in particular 2009, when Francois Cotat's Sancerre reached 15%.  Like most of his colleagues, though, he understands that such ripeness can be too much of a good thing. Using canopy management, yield and date of harvest as tools, he is now trying to make wines that weigh in between 12.5 and 13%, which in my experience is a wise decision.

I suspect that most readers of this article generally open their Loire Valley sauvignon blancs within the first year or two after their release.  For the majority of the wines, this is certainly the correct choice.  In fact, many are made in a New World style that can be consumed directly after purchase, but there are those few exceptional bottles that gain in complexity with aging.  For those who relish mature sauvignon blanc, here is my read on the previous decade.

Although you will not find much left on the market, 2010 and 2008 were cooler vintages.  Not only were they better, but also more classical in style.  While sometimes a touch austere, 2010 is generally considered the better of the two because of the precision to its fruit.  Looking further back, Benjamin Dagueneau will tell you that his 2007 Silex is still too young, but my bet is that most bottles from that vintage are already empty.  Although it was a very good year, many lesser wines are by now probably past their prime.  The 2005s and 2002s are now collectors' items, but only if they hail from the finest sites of a top estate.

With a total of 3,000 hectares, Sancerre is the heart and soul of the central Loire.  About 2,400 of that total is sauvignon blanc, but there is no further room to expand.  Every conceivable site is already planted, which is why many producers are looking to neighboring appellations in order to grow.

Pouilly, which is just across the Loire on the other bank and thus politically part of Burgundy, is the best known of these.  It currently boasts 1,200 hectares of vineyards, but has a potential for nearly 1,800.  The law in France currently makes it difficult to plant new vineyards, but that is set to change in 2016.  How quickly vineyard acreage then grows will certainly be a question of demand.

In the past, there was a great deal of chasselas planted in Pouilly, much of which was sold in Paris as table grapes, which is why the name Pouilly-Fumé was created to distinguish sauvignon blanc from its plebeian cousin, but today there is very little of the latter left.  The French usually describe Pouilly-Fumé as being more feminine, with Sancerre being the masculine end of the spectrum.  These terms, though, are less well understood in English.  Let us say that Pouilly-Fumé tends to be a touch finer, not quite as dense and more quick to mature.

Most of that difference, I believe, has more to do with soils than with climate, but those strata seldom follow political boundaries.  I generally cannot distinguish individual villages within the appellations here quite the way I think I am able to do in Burgundy, but each soil type definitely has its own character.  The eastern part of Sancerre and much of Pouilly, especially around Saint-Andelain, is silex.  The middle and much of the west of Sancerre, including the heartland of Bué and Chavignol, but also parts of Pouilly near Saint Laurent de l'Abbaye, are either chalky loam or Kimmeridgian lime.  The French then use the term caillottes to describe those sites with a predominance of large chalky stones, which make sauvignon blanc sing.  Most wines on the market, however, are a blend of at least two if not all three of these soils.  It is generally only in the single-vineyard bottlings that one soil type will makes it presence felt.

Silex tends to bring forth wines with very brisk acidity, which can often make sauvignon blanc not only austere, but also one-dimensional, especially if the grapes are not quite ripe.  Until Didier Dagueneau made this soil type famous, it was generally considered, to an extent, a second-class citizen.  Even today, although there is growing interest in the bright, well-delineated wines that can be made on these soils, chalk is still recognized as the first amongst equals.

The chalky Kimmeridgian soils found in many parts of the central Loire are very similar to those in Chablis and Champagne.  Here, though, it is not chardonnay, but sauvignon blanc, that is given one of its purest expressions, with a distinctive saline quality that sets it apart from those grown almost everywhere else in the world.

Chalk's presence is perhaps also the reason pinot noir has continued to flourish here.  Before phylloxera, most of this region was actually planted with gamay, but by the time of the creation of the appellation in 1936 only sauvignon blanc and pinot noir were registered as official varieties.  Given the cool setting, it is surprising that making rosé was only an afterthought.  Although many of the red wines may not have been much more than that before, it was only in 1959 that Sancerre Rosé became a permitted alternative in the appellation.

While there is a lot to be said for sauvignon blanc from years of moderate ripeness and bright acidity, it is not generally a quality parameter for pinot noir.  Global warming, though, has had a profound impact on this region.  Not only is the acreage planted with pinot noir growing, so too is the quality, with producers like Lucien Crochet, Alphonse Mellot and Vacheron making wines that can rival those of their brethren in Burgundy in purity and finesse at only a fraction of the price. Today, just over 20% of the surface area in Sancerre is planted to pinot noir.  My tasting notes below include no reds or rosés because the focus here is on sauvignon blanc, but I have mentioned them occasionally in the portraits of those who are the best in this discipline.

For most consumers the subject of style is at least as important as soil.  A generation ago most of the Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés shipped to the United States were made in a squeaky-clean fashion similar to that of most of the commercial sauvignon blancs from New Zealand.  While some of the smaller estates never abandoned their traditional ways, or their barrels, a large part of the wine most of us drank in those days was fermented in stainless steel using cultured yeasts.  As the squeaky-clean style of sauvignon blanc was never taken quite to the same extreme as in the New World, and yields were generally lower, the sauvignon blancs from the Loire generally retained more character, but few had the pedigree of the finest wines made by Gerard Boulay, Francois Cotat or Alphonse Mellot today.

While better vineyard management, lower yields and more severe selection at harvest have all had an important influence on this development, two other factors that engender stark debate have also contributed to the current fashion: barrel aging and malolactic fermentation.  My view is that there is no wrong or right in this matter, and that there is room in the market for various styles, but the proponents of the new school--or old, if you will--have sometimes either taken things too far or not quite managed to make their "tools" work.

"The best barrel is the one you never taste," says Jean-Dominique Vacheron, and I think he is right.  Sauvignon blanc does not have the weight or depth of chardonnay, so a little new wood can sometimes be too much.  Not only that, sauvignon blanc is a semi-aromatic grape variety with its own very distinct profile.  Barrel aging, if not handled wisely, can stunt or even overshadow its intrinsic nature. I  have occasionally mentioned that in my tastings notes, especially when I am unsure if a given wine will ever digest its wood.

Those who choose to ferment or even only to age in oak have a second conundrum to resolve, namely how to deal with malolactic conversions.  I prefer that term because it is not actually a fermentation process, but a bacterial one that converts malic into lactic acid, or the acidity of an unripe apple into that found in milk.  Unless you keep the wine sufficiently cool or add sulfites, it is a natural process that is difficult if not impossible to impede.

On the positive side, a wine that has gone through malolactic fermentation is more stable.  On the down side, the malos can dramatically change the character of any given sauvignon blanc in a way that many consumers would not welcome.  In better vintages, ripe grapes contain so little malic acid that the change is almost unnoticeable.  In cooler ones, however, with higher concentrations of malic acid at harvest, the conversion can break the backbone of a wine and engender aromas reminiscent of yogurt that few of us associate with sauvignon blanc.

For that reason, most producers who employ wood in their cellars do everything they can in the vineyards to ensure that they harvest only ripe grapes.  Even then, though, each winemaker has his own approach. Benjamin Dagueneau says that "it is not really an issue.  If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't."  Claude Riffault, on the other hand, dislikes what occurs to the profile of a sauvignon blanc that goes through malolactic fermentation and so uses sulfur to stop it.  Like most producers of riesling, he privileges the purity of sauvignon blanc in its natural form in spite of the fact that he ferments and ages in barrel.

As I wrote earlier, I am convinced that there is no wrong and right in this matter.  Interesting wines can be made at both extremes, as is clear when you compare Patrick de Ladoucette with Francois Cotat.  The important thing is to understand what you want, do it correctly and communicate your style to the consumer.

Beyond barrels and malolactics, there is also a third issue I should raise, that of botrytis.  Not long ago, most producers accepted a small amount of botrytis as part of the equation.  To quote John Wayne, it came with the territory.  Given the almost Atlantic climate, a certain amount of humidity is a given when you need to wait until well into October in order to harvest ripe grapes.  Unless you pick very early or use fungicides, it is difficult to avoid at least some botrytis in most years.

Today, most producers do whatever they can do naturally to prevent it.  One does not: Sebastien Riffault.  He wants to make a wine the way he thinks they would have tasted a hundred years ago, which means not only embracing botrytis but doing as little else as possible to the wine.  I invite readers to look at my portrait of him to understand what all this entails, but needless to say it is controversial.  In any case, it only goes to highlight the fact that there is no one style of sauvignon blanc on the Loire.  Further, it would be difficult to pretend that any single style would have more pretention to nobility than the others.  Instead, there are good examples and, unfortunately, also poor ones.

Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are certainly the most expensive versions of sauvignon blanc in the market, but they still offer outstanding value relative to other elite whites.  Most of the better bottles, in fact, cost only a bit more, if at all, than upper-tier sauvignon blancs from New Zealand, Austria or California.  More adventurous consumers, though, might look instead to the nearby appellations of Ménétou-Salon, Quincy and Reuilly, which can be equally good and whose wines are often a third less expensive.  In particular, Ménétou-Salon, which borders directly on Sancerre, and thus has in part the same Kimmeridgian soils, can be--especially in the hands of producers like Chavet, Gilbert or Minchin--hard to distinguish from its neighbor.  It has only 487 hectares of vines, though, of which only two-thirds is white, and is thus more difficult to find. Quincy (270 hectares) and Reuilly (150 hectares) are even smaller, but estates like Chatenoy, Mabillot and Les Poetes, portrayed here, are worth looking out for.  Occasionally, even a simple Sauvignon de Touraine, like that of Jacky Preys, can be lovely to drink, but all of these regions have the slight disadvantage of being more marginal climates and thus less consistent in quality.

I spent the better part of a week in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in late June researching this article.  The producers featured below are merely the ones that I was able to visit on that trip.  I wanted to see not only the leading estates but also larger estates whose wines are well represented in export markets and thus more likely to be found by readers outside the major metropolitan areas.  Those additional recommended producers either sent samples to my office on the Rhine or are ones whose wines I tasted while elsewhere in France.  Some of them--like Carrou, Fouassier, Minchin, Vincent Pinard and Edmund Vatan--are first-rate estates that I would like to have visited while I was there, but who were either out of town when I passed through or that time did not permit me to see.