Sancerre Sees Red


It has been less than a century since the authorities formalized the marriage of Sancerre and Sauvignon Blanc. Still, the variety’s dominant role in the area was far from assured before phylloxera. Sauvignon Blanc only started in 1898 to spread its roots with any vigor beyond its heartland of Chavignol. Chasselas was favored thanks to its abundant yields; white wines often contained a varying proportion of Sauvignon Blanc in the blend. However, until the destructive aphid forged a path to the central point along the Loire River’s course, red varieties, notably Gamay and Pinot Noir, covered a large swathe of Sancerre and its neighboring villages. According to Thibaut Boulay, a university professor and vigneron in Chavignol, it was common to find Gamay planted next to Pinot Noir to boost the wine’s color – he estimates a ratio of one Gamay vine for every 10 or 15 Pinot Noir vines. This served the region well. In the 19th century, French writers often praised its reds, and in 1800, the statistician Jacques Peuchet noted they “had the most in common with those of Burgundy.” And yet, reds were left out in the first appellation round in 1936. It took another 23 years for red wines and Rosés to gain the right to use the appellation name. Gamay was duly given its marching orders in 1959, and Pinot Noir became the only red variety permitted. Despite their historical importance, Sancerre reds are now often forgotten. Order a glass of Sancerre and in 99 cases out of 100, you’ll likely receive a dry, crisp, white wine. Sauvignon Blanc has become the dominant force in the appellation, accounting for 85% of its production, with reds representing 10% and Rosé just 5%.

The vineyards that lie to the east of Sancerre, towards the Loire river, sit on flint rather than clay and limestone.

A Wine Island

Sancerre and its satellites sit apart from the rest of the Loire’s vineyards. Located within the Berry region, it is the same distance from Sancerre to Tours as it is to Beaune, the heart of the Côte d’Or. Nestled high above the big bend of the Loire River, the people of Sancerre have often looked east rather than west, both politically and viticulturally; when it comes to learning about vines and wines, Beaune is the favourite place for budding winemakers to study rather than the quintessential Loire Valley town of Amboise. There are commonalities in climate. Sancerre and Dijon sit on the same latitude: 47.3. When it comes to growing season temperatures and the various ways they can be measured, there are only marginal differences. Sancerre also sits apart from the rest of the Loire geologically and geographically. While the western section of the Loire, covering Muscadet and parts of Anjou, sits on the metamorphic Armoricain Massif, and the area around Saumur and Tours lies on the sedimentary Parisian Basin, Sancerre and its satellites sit on the same Kimmeridgian chain as Chablis and the Aube. This Kimmeridgian is a band of chalky marl and marly limestone strewn with seashells, according to geologist James E. Wilson in Terroir. Wilson explains that these “wine areas are ‘islands’ that are separated from the major regions that they are traditionally associated with.”

Sitting on clay-limestone and with a not-dissimilar climate to the Côte d’Or, there’s clearly potential for superlative Pinot Noir, but it remains off the radar. In Paris, red Sancerre was viewed as a bistro wine, an amusing sideshow to the real Sancerre, which was indisputably white. In many instances, this remains the case, but it deserves attention – or at least some of the wines do. Arnaud Bourgeois, the general manager of Famille Bourgeois, admits: “It remains difficult to sell red wines from Sancerre, but when we show them to people, they are very happy with the quality.” But what should these people expect from a red Sancerre? I’d love to say definitively, but the wide variety of styles makes that almost impossible. Acidity has long been the backbone of both red and white Sancerre. Still, even this fundamental element of white Sancerre has been called into question in recent vintages. In 2018, 2019 and 2020, acid levels were far below their racy norms while alcohol levels raced ahead unless the wines could be picked early, and in the warm 2020, some reds verge on the green side.

A Recipe-Free Zone

Ask a winemaker what red Sancerre means to them, and they’ll typically give you a Gallic shrug. But there are commonalities in the vineyard: the parcels tend to be small and are planted predominantly on clay-limestone soils rather than the narrow band of flint to the east of the town. The grapes are typically hand-harvested – only a small selection of wines in the tasting were machine harvested, contrasting with the region’s whites. However, the Gallic shrug seems to be valid when it comes to the cellar. There appears to be little agreement about the route from grape to glass, but then you could say that about any Pinot Noir region: there are producers that swear by full destemming and others who claim a small percentage of whole bunches are a key to making their cuvées sing. Recent warm vintages have allowed winemakers to work with at least a percentage of clusters to build structure and spice. There are few who dare to produce a 100% whole-cluster-fermented wine, but in the tasting, there was one such wine and it certainly showed its stemminess in its aromatic profile and texture. Some producers favor a pre-fermentation cold soak to promote aromatics and color, while others do not. Fermentation varies depending on the winemaker’s intention for the wine – is it for drinking young in a Parisian bistro or a vin de garde? At Vincent Pinard, for example, temperatures rarely go above 25˚C to preserve fruit and freshness, whereas others allow the vats to warm beyond 30˚C. Maturation vessels vary widely from stainless steel and Burgundy barriques of varying ages to large format barrels and even the occasional amphora. While there were a few drying examples in the tasting, most producers have judged their oak use – or lack of it – well, but it hasn’t always been this way. Alphonse Mellot became the 19th generation to join the family business in 1990 and has been making Pinot Noir for over 20 years. “When you start, you want to make bodybuilder wines,” he says. “In 2009, I changed everything. I was using too much wood – 225- and 500-liter barrels – and now I have bigger vessels. New oak should just be an accompaniment to both reds and whites.”

A selection of some of the best-performing red Sancerres in the line-up, including Domaine Vacheron, Daniel Chotard and the two Crochets in Bué village, Lucien and François.

While the winemaking inputs may vary, the finest wines are typically fragrant with a delightful perfume of red fruits and florals, plus notes of woody herbs, if whole bunches have been employed. The best are typically light in body and delicate, but they are occasionally plumper, particularly in warm vintages when 14-plus alcohol percentages provide greater richness. Wines that come from clay-limestone soil have a sense of plumpness on the mid-palate and an attractive chalkiness that coats the mouth like a veil. Crézancy-based Daniel Chotard evocatively describes the influence of this terroir on the wines: “the satin of chalk and the substance of clay”. For those rare Pinot Noir vines planted on flint, known as silex, there are mixed opinions as to the venerability of the combination. Etienne Roger of Jean-Max Roger is no fan, and that’s why his hectare of Pinot Noir ends up as a Rosé. Indeed, these wines can often be firm and bracing, as can whites made on this soil, but then Jean-Laurent Vacheron of Domaine Vacheron pours a glass of their Belle Dame, which proves that Pinot Noir grown on flint can produce outstanding wines.

While some of the cult names like Chavignol-based Anne Vatan and François Cotat don’t make a red, focusing exclusively on 100% Sauvignon Blanc, the upper echelon of red Sancerre producers reads like a rollcall of top white producers: Mellot, Vacheron, Claude Riffault, Vincent Pinard, both Lucien and François Crochet, as well as the new talent of Jean-Philippe Agisson. There is still a lot of modest Pinot Noir made in the region that deserves chilling and serving as a simple, quaffing red in a Parisian bistro but there is also a lot of modest Sauvignon Blanc made here too. Whether red or white, the work of the most conscientious producers can be perceived in their wines.

The likelihood that Pinot Noir plantings will grow and take a share of the land from Sauvignon Blanc in Sancerre in the short term is difficult to envisage for financial reasons: Sauvignon is much easier to grow, less expensive to make and quicker to sell than Pinot Noir. However, the heartbreak variety gives those Beaune-trained producers a passion project and a window into the region’s viticultural past. It also allows Burgundy lovers to discover another Pinot Noir region not too far from the hallowed Côte d’Or. The best inevitably come with a price tag to match, but there is still value to be had on this wine island.

I tasted the wines in this report both in the cellars of Sancerre and during an extensive tasting of reds from Sancerre and its satellites at home in England.

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