The Sancerre wine appellation lies in the beautiful Loire Valley in France just two hours south of Paris on the so-called ‘Left Bank’ of the Loire. (The French ascribe left and right characteristics to rivers when you face the direction of the river flowing to the sea.)
The appellation is to the east of the sprawling city of Bourges and overlooks the Loire River as it finishes its northward exploration and suddenly turns west to head towards the Atlantic near the city of Nantes.
The appellation is centered on the picturesque hill-top village of the same name that has been an important regional centre since Roman times. It is a magical town – we always get a buzz as we approach the area and see the Sancerre village thrusting up from the surrounding river plains.
It is rightly famous for the thrilling Sauvignon Blanc wines that are produced here. It is here that the grape reaches its ultimate expression.
However it is not only the famous white wines that are produced here. Sancerre is also home to some remarkable red wines crafted from the Pinot Noir grape and some beautiful, savoury rosé wines.
The Sancerre appellation is unusual in France in that only two grape varieties are permitted for three wine types. Most appellation have many more permitted types (for example Chateauneuf-du-Pape with officially thirteen – which is really fifteen when you count the white Grenache and white Picpoul which are permitted but not counted – and nearby Burgundy allowing over a dozen different grape varieties ranging from Sauvignon Gris and Blanc to Gamay, Pinot Noir and Melon de Bourgogne as well as the rare Le César).
The appellation was originally established on 14th November 1936 for white wine only. Later, in 1959, the appellation was broadened to include red wines and rosé wines.
Wine production is centered on the village of Sancerre but some of the nearby hameaus such as Chavignol and the commune of Crezancy are the powerhouses of production.
In fact, the communes of Bannay, Bué, Crézancy-en-Sancerre, Menetou-Râtel, Ménétréol-sous-Sancerre, Montigny, Saint-Satur, Sainte-Gemme-en-Sancerrois, Sancerre, Sury-en-Vaux, Thauvenay, Veaugues, Verdigny and Vinon are all permitted to produce Sancerre appellation wines.
And a note to new world producers of Sauvignon Blanc wines, irrigation is not permitted in the Sancerre appellation!
One of the secrets of the success of the Sauvignon Blanc grape here is the soil which is derived from the Kimmeridgian limestone that it shares with northern Burgundy (Chablis) and southern Champagne (Aube).
Andrew Jefford in his seminal work The New France divides the soils into three types:
‘The first is locally known as terres blanches (white earth), a marl which contains exactly the same comma-shaped fossils as is found in Chablis and the Aube, Exogyra virgula. The second type, locally called caillottes (little stones), is a rubbly limestone formed by the weathering of other, harder Kimmeridgian strata. There are also sizable deposits of flint, called silex in French. ‘
In his book called Terroir which analyses the environmental factors that contribute to the tastes and aromas of wine, James E Wilson talks about the scarp that dominates the western side of the Sancerre appellation in an arc from Chavignol around to Crezancy where some of the best examples of Sancerre wines are to be found. He even discusses how more robust and long-lasting wines are created by blending wines from grapes grown in a caillotte terroir with those from the terres blanches.
There are many great producers in Sancerre and below we feature some of them who are producing wines of special interest.
Domaine Daniel Chotard
Domaine Daniel Chotard is run by the genial Daniel whose family has been involved in wine production for many generations. He is obsessed with jazz and every year there is a concert in his cellar. His vineyards are on the gentle slopes surrounding Reigny near the village of Crézancy en Sancerre.
The 2008 Sancerre is a beautiful example of what the Sancerre appellation can deliver. Pale yellow glints through the glass and white flower aromas greet the nose. This elegant white wine is a perfect accompaniment for seafood dishes or poached chicken. The alcohol level is a pleasant 12.5%.
Daniel has been eulogised in the Kermit Lynch newsletter (Kermit is the author of the fabulous book 'Adventures on the Wine Trail' and a leading US importer of French wines):
This may be the sexiest Sancerre out there. The musically gifted Chotard is a master at coaxing the nerve plus the roundness and complex fruitiness out of his Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Not bad - classic Sancerre verve and stoniness and Dagueneau-esque intensity.
We also like his red wines crafted from the Pinot Noir grape with the Champ de l’Archer cuvee being a particular favourite.
Domaine Roblin is run by brothers Matthias and Emile Roblin who tend vineyards just outside Sancerre in the village of Sury-en-Vaux.
The domaine comprises eight hectares of Sauvignon Blanc and one and a half hectares of Pinot Noir on the hillsides of Maimbray and Sury-en-Vaux. Their top white wine is called Les Ammonites after the fossils found in the terres blanches derived from the Kimmeridgian limestone. It is not fined or filtered and is a rich, powerful, minerally and thoroughly delicious wine.
Domaine Gerard Boulay
The Domaine Gerard Boulay wines derive their special flavour and intensity from the amazing Monts Damnés climat in the hamlet of Chavignol where some of the best Sancerre whites are produced (and don’t forget the wonderful goat cheese that bears the name of this hamlet as well).
The wine is fermented with indigenous yeasts and does not see any new wood although some of it is fermented in old barrels. The result is a piercing, wonderful wine with great complexity.
Domaine Edmond Vatan
We can’t write about Sancerre without paying due homage to the doyen of Sancerre winemaking, Edmond Vatan. His wines are crafted with extreme care and with passion. His vines are planted in the most difficult terrain near Chavignol. He strives for very low yields and doesn’t use any chemicals either in growing the grapes or making the wine. The wine is fermented using indigenous yeasts only.
The result is a wine of considerable elegance and charm that is the pure essence of Sancerre. We tried a bottle of this magical wine at Michel Bras’ restaurant recently and it was truly stunning.