Sancerre’s Charm Offensive


In 2023, Sancerre will commemorate 450 years since the siege of the town was lifted. The people of Sancerre, a haven for Huguenots, resisted Catholic attacks and a blockade on the fortified town for over nine months, with many of the townspeople dying of starvation within its walls. Although the French army had tried to storm the city numerous times and lost as many as 600 troops, the city held out until it became part of a wider peace deal, ending the fourth war of religion. At the time, Sancerre’s wine cellars were raided as part of reparations to King Charles IX.

The rooftops above Sancerre looking out towards the vineyards, including Les Romains.

While the village’s fortifications were pulled down, its lofty hilltop position now makes it the perfect vista over the surrounding villages. With its latest harvest, Sancerre is mounting a charm offensive, and it is on a large scale. Warm, dry conditions in 2022 created a healthy and abundant crop which marked a contrast with 2021, when growers faced an onslaught of frost, hail and rot. Tanks and barrels that had stood empty for a year filled quickly as the vines provided bountiful yields. 

Contrasting 2021, there was little trouble for grape growers in 2022. The spring passed without incident despite a relatively early bud break, but frost fighters were primarily given a rest. The vines were in a fruitful mood, producing many buds, while a warm and dry spring ensured smooth flowering. The only cause for concern was a few downpours caused by unusually warm weather in June, which raised the risk of fungal disease. But the skies remained clear throughout the rest of June, July and August, with four separate heatwaves occurring (+35˚C), which caused the Le Trail de Sancerre (Sancerre’s annual sporting event) organizers to bring forward the runners’ start time to early morning to avoid the 40˚C afternoon temperatures.

The region headed towards an early harvest under a blazing sun. There was certainly some water stress, but on September 6, rain swelled the small, concentrated berries, leading to a larger harvest and a few minor botrytis worries. Another hot and dry summer in Sancerre? Sounds like 2020 all over again. However, the wines are much better balanced in 2022. Yes, these whites display ripe, often tropical fruit with few green Sauvignon characters and have richness and charm, but alcohol levels are not excessive. You’re more likely to find a wine with 13.5% alcohol in 2022 rather than 14.5% in 2019 and 2020, which is a relief. It’s widely thought this resulted from the season’s naturally higher crop load, which took longer to ripen its fruit. As Sebastien Redde of Michel Redde explains, “If you have 35hL/ha, and it’s a hot year, you make jam.” Acid levels are on the low side, providing gentle refreshment rather than crispness, unlike 2021. In the better examples, which speak more clearly of their site, the chalky texture of the different limestone-based soils and the precision that comes from flint contribute tension when acid fails to provide. 

This path lies on the fault line in Sancerre which separates the limestone-based vineyards (left) from the flint terroir (right).

It was easier to make a good wine in 2022 than it was in 2021, and the general standard is more consistent across the area. That said, the best 2021s, which have spent extended time on lees and in bottle before, are real diamonds that speak of a style of steely Sancerre that we had almost written off after the warm vintages of 2018, 2019 and 2020. They have laser-like precision and clarity with intense concentration and expression of terroir. Two thousand and twenty-one may have come as a bit of a shock to tastebuds after the previous three vintages, but if you like your Sauvignon with a taut, herbal profile, then it is for you. Some winemakers look back at 2021 and shake their heads, while others now rue the high-in-alcohol wines of 2020. It’s not an approach Vincent Gaudry condones: “There are no bad vintages. It’s just those growers who have not adapted to the conditions properly.” Inevitably, plenty of wines don’t justify their inflated price tag. The continued global demand for Sancerre, and Pouilly-Fumé, means bulk prices are high, and value for money is hard to find. There are far too many wines that lack concentration. Did they pick too soon after the rain? Were yields too high? What’s more, there are far too many Pouilly-Fumés that display a hard green edge despite the season. In contrast, the lower-quality Sancerres retain a sense of charm and tenderness, even at higher yields and with machine picking. A wine is the sum of its details.

Regarding winemaking in 2022, the alcoholic fermentations were healthy but with low acidity levels. There was certainly an argument for acidification. Higher pH levels meant that bacteria were more likely to have a chance at success, and for those who choose to use little or no sulfur, malolactic conversions were common. The malic acid levels in the grape were low, minimizing its effect, although the occasional creamy notes do peek through in some cuvées. A period on fine lees is a conventional part of making Sancerre, but in 2021, some producers had gone a step further, stirring the lees to add body and richness to the linear wines. Yet in 2022, nature provided texture and plumpness, and batonnage was not in the cards.

Despite leaving the appellation, Domaine Didier Dagueneau remains a beacon of quality in Pouilly-Fumé.

The River Runs Deep

The Loire River divides Sancerre from Pouilly-Fumé. A bridge connects the two wine appellations at the Loire’s mid-way point. Sancerre looks down from its elevated position in terms of its location and its current place in the world of wine. It hasn’t always been the case, with the prestige of Pouilly being higher at times, but Sancerre currently holds the trump card.

Producers within the two appellations give differing opinions on why the general standard of Pouilly-Fumé isn’t as high as Sancerre, from “too much machine harvesting” to a “lack of dynamism.” They also attribute it to “a dispersed rather than cohesive community” and “an area run by grape growers, not winemakers.” Nevertheless, global demand remains high, as do bulk wine prices, giving little incentive to improve. Prices are generally higher for Sancerre than Pouilly-Fumé. Its most famous producer, Domaine Didier Dagueneau, now labels their wine as Vin de France, representing a significant loss for the appellation’s prestige. It is not unfair to say that Pouilly-Fumé’s most respected producers now sell their wines because of their own reputation, not the appellation.

That’s a divide that deserves digging deeper into and one I’ll attempt to tackle in my following report as I seek to understand further the similarities and differences between two villages that share so much but sometimes seem further than just a bridge apart.

The wines were mainly tasted in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, both at domaines and in a regionally organized collection of samples.

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