Spring into Sancerre: Crisp, Elegant, Fresh, Lively

The photo above, of the beautiful hamlet of Chavignol, in Sancerre, is taken from the Domaine Famille Bourgeois facebook page. We are well into springtime in Chicago, cold, damp, dark days and then sunny, warm, breezy days like today and then repeat. I have been considering this post on Sancerre for some time, but working long retail hours got in the way. Faced with a shelf of 20 or so Sancerre labels at the wine store in the Loire section, I was not sure how to differentiate one wine from another. I looked for recaps on the web to help me learn more about the wines and I had a hard time finding a good summary, so I decided to write a post. Studying for the WSETDip, their course materials cite Sancerre as being fashionable in the 60’s and onwards. Well, Sancerre wines are alive and well in Chicago today in 2021 in the time of Covid. Songs from the 70’s and 80’s play in the background at the store and when I hear the refrain from Kool and the Gang, “She’s fresh, fresh, exciting” I think of Sancerre. The wines are really fresh, crisp and delicious!

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to make posts shorter and more frequent. Ha! At the same time, this is the year of Unit 3 for me, the Wines of the World for the WSET Diploma if I can figure out how to pay for it. Posts help me to review a wine region that I need to know about (well, yes, I do need to know about just about every major wine region in the world for the test) and I had an immediate need, how to talk about these wines to inquisitive customers. Before I get into the heart of this piece, if you are a sommelier or wine student who has come across this post and really want to dive deeply into the region I recommend you go directly to 2 fabulous sources. The first is Chris Kissack, the Wine Doctor. For a very reasonable price, the monthly subscription gives you access to tons of content on the entire Loire region and on the Bordeaux region as well. For example, his breakdown on the geology and soils of Sancerre is at a Burgundyesque level and really made clear to me that Sancerre has many layers of wine quality and wine because of the complexity of the soils. He annotates villages to producers to wines, it really is a key tool for anyone looking to put together a Sancerre wine list. The other key resource is the website of the renowned, Pascaline Lepeltier who was acclaimed the top sommelier of France in 2018 and is an ambassador and specialist in wines of the Loire. I found a lecture on her site, “Loire Valley Seminar” for the Wine Education Council that she gave in 2018. It was very helpful to listen to and would be for anyone just wanting to learn about the wines of the Loire. Sadly, Sancerre is really at the tail end of her 2 hour talk, Sancerre starts at 1:46 in, (she obviously loves Chenin Blanc) but she still makes some salient and helpful comments.

In the Days Before Pinot Grigio Became a Thing

There was a time, before Pinot Grigio, took over as one of the most popular every day white wines in the US, that if you were drinking a white wine, it had to be a Sancerre. In wine classes, when the Sancerre region comes up, it is always mentioned that it was ” a highly popular wine in the 70’s and 80’s. Maybe it is the way the word “Sancerre” (son – sair) rolls off an American tongue? There is something to be said for how easy a wine name is to pronounce and its popularity in the US. Sancerre IS more than just a “breakfast wine” per the Netflix show Emily In Paris Episode 3 (15:36 in the episode) As an aside, in Epsiode 9 of EIP ( at 17:10), there is a brief glimpse of the wine store, La Derniere Goutte, in the 6th arrondissement, that was a seminal influence in my wine life during the years I worked in the financial business and could get cheap air fare to Paris for a 4 day long weekend.

Sancerre is lucky. Consumers recognize Sancerre as a type of wine and not by the grape Sauvignon Blanc. This identification is a testament to the fact that the wines have a distinctive personality that is reflective of the place. Like Chablis, who Sancerre happens to share the same soil types with, some consumers, not all, look at the wines of Chablis as Chablis and not necessarily as a wine made with Chardonnay. I see nothing wrong with that. Sancerre and Chablis are being identified to their respective places, you can only make a sancerre wine in the sancerre wine region nowhere else. In the US mass market wine world, wine choices seem to driven by familiarity with the grape name as compared to the place name.

Below, I plan to give a brief summary of the place, the soils, the towns, the vineyards to know and the producers. For the real deal and full detail you can go directly to the wine doctor, take the French WIne Scholar course, take a WSET class, or listen to LePeltier’s lecture. Hopefully reading this sparks your wine curiosity and courage for adventuring on a Sancerre wine shelf and for digging into the wines of Sancerre or even better for a trip to the region once this Covidapocalypse is over!

The commune of Sancerre (image from Wikiped

Sancerre, like the Italian red wine Barolo, is the name of a wine, the name of a wine region that includes multiple communes/towns and the name of a commune/town itself.

Map from Taylor’s Wine Shop

Where Is Sancerre?

Sancerre is considered to be in the Central Vineyards of the Loire Wine region. I like this map because although it does not show the actual Loire river, it does put Sancerre pretty darn right in the middle of the country. It is called the Central Vineyards because it is located at the halfway point of the Loire river which flows North and then West. If you were to draw a line representing the Loire, the line would start just below Lyon and go upwards through Sancerre, up to Blois (the commune in the area of Touraine, the land of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, where I lived and studied during college) and then directly west to Nantes. From Paris it is about a 2 hour and change car drive. The train from Paris to Blois where I lived was a little over 2 hours.

The other interesting thing about this map is that it shows Sancerre as being as close to Chablis, if not closer, than it is to its closest Loire region, Touraine. Why this is interesting is that the Sancerre region is more related to Chablis and Champagne in its soil characteristics than it is to Touraine, its Loire wine region neighbor. Sancerre, Chablis, and the lower reaches of the Champagne region share the chalky Kimmeridgian soil which in Sancerre is called Terre Blanches and arguably produces the longest aged and most complex wines and gives Sancerre wines that chalky personality. In her lecture, Lepeltier makes the point that the Sancerre region should be looked at by commune, the same way you look at Chianti Classico or Barolo. The 14 communes (Bannay, Bué, Crézancy, Mênetou-Ratel, Ménétréol, Montigny, Saint-Satur, Sainte-Gemme, Sancerre, Sury-en-Vaux, Thauvenay, Veaugues, Verdigny and Vinon), all have 14 personalities based on their differing subsoils and top soils and locations. The commune that has the most prestigious vineyards, Les Montes Damnés, Le Cul de Beaujeu amd La Grande Cote is Chavignol not the commune of Sancerre.

Photo of the town of Bué from Jean-Max Roger wine facebook page

The Soils, the Towns, the Vineyards

In any description of the wines of Sancerre, the 3 main soil types will be mentioned: terres blanches (kimmeridgian limestone/marl), caillottes (sometimes referred to as griottes, which Chris Kissack attributes the names to how the topsoil looks, small pebbles, griottes or larger stones caillottes, limestone) and silex (flint). In a simplistic but understandable view, the town of Chavignol has the most terres blanches soils, Bué more caillottes (but has plenty of TB as well) and Sancerre more silex (understanding that the soils do overlap quite a bit). TB produces the longest aged wines, caillottes the most perfumed and ready to drink and silex more flinty, weighty wines. As in most fine wine regions, there are notable slopes where the vineyards producing the highest quality wines are found. So on bottles you may see, Les Monts Damnés, arguably the most renowned vineyard located in Chavignol, Col de Beaujeu (Chavignol), La Grande Côte (Côte d’Amigny Chavignol), La Grand Chemarin (Bué), Le Petit Chemarin (Bué), Le Chene Marchand (Bué), Les Romains (Sancerre), Le Paradis (Sancerre), Le Grands Champs (Sancerre), Chambrates (Sancerre).

Crottin de Chavignol

Chavignol, the Cheese, the Town, the Wines

In its description of Crottin de Chavignol, wikipedia states that this goat cheese is the claim to fame for the small hamlet of Chavignol, I would argue and say it’s the vineyards and the wines they produce are the town’s claim to fame. Lepeltier mentions that although prior to WWI, most of the vineyards in Sancerre were growing pinot noir, not sauvignon blanc but as the railroad came in and cheaper, riper pinots were being shipped to Paris from the south, the Sancerre vineyards were replanted to Sauvignon blanc. But Chavignol was one of the communes that has grown Sauvignon Blanc in its vineyards for centuries. As a food aside, though, if you can’t find Crottin de Chavignol to pair with your Sancerre, I would suggest locating a Capriole cheese, like the wabash cannonball made in Indiana or Prairie Fruits Farm’s, located in southern Illinois, angel food cheese, made in the crottin style.

The great thing about the region of Sancerre is that the different towns create wines of different character. However, most of the entry level, Sancerre AOC wines are blends of at least 2 if not all soil types and tend to be fresh, crisp and enticing. The great thing about AOC wines is that the grapes must be grown in specific areas, with yields in this case, no more than 65hl/hectare and on hillsides with slopes of 200-400m which ensures the fruit quality is more consistent than grapes grown outside the AOC. The most renowned wines are either from Chavignol or from Sancerre and its flinty character and then Bué (the more you dig into Sancerre the region, the more you realize there are a lot of really good wines made in all of the 14 communes). Gerard Boulay (their Sancerre Chavignol wine has been my favorite wine to date, see below in wine descriptions), Famille Bourgeois and Francois Cotat and Pascal Cotat (cousins) are all located in Chavignol and produce wines ranging from soil blends to specific plots including Monts Damnés. Didier Dagueneau, the legendary maverick producer, who sadly died in an ultralite accident over 10 years ago, and whose winery is located in Pouilly-Fumé, across the river, produces a Monts Damnés wine as well. His son, Benjamin has been running the estate and the Dagueneau wines are priced at super premium levels.

The town of Sancerre is the residence of the legendary Vacheron winery who is known for producing wines of specific plots. The grandfather of the current generation was president of the Sancerre appellation in the 60’s and was a driver in raising the profile of the wines in Paris wine bars and beyond. Their wines although of different plots have a complex, flinty character. Pascal Jolivet wines is headquartered in Sancerre as well as Alphonse Mellot.

Bué, from what I could determine forms the lower point of a triangle between Sancerre where is it southwest of it and Chavignol which is northwest of Sancerre and north of Bué.

I think this map was created to show the vineyards of the Sancerre region versus the Pouilly-Fumé region. But back to my point at the beginning of this piece, we do have a few Pouilly’s on the shelf but people for the most part do not come in asking for Pouilly-Fumé which is much harder to pronounce, they ask for Sancerre. You can see that Bué is further to the south of Sancerre. In Bué one finds, Lucien Crochet, Vincent Pinard (noted in Lepeltier’s lecture), Jean-Max Roger.

There are so many other notable producers, Claude Riffault is located in Sury-en-Vaux. Pascal and Nicolas Reverdy in Maimbray. Domaine Paul Cherrier in Verdigny.

Tasting the WInes

Part of the fun of Sancerre is that there is plenty of depth and complexity and price points to choose from in wines. I paid for most of these myself over the course of the last 6 months. Thanks to Binnys monthly sales, I did buy some of them when they went on sale.

Lucien Crochet 2018 Sancerre – Bué Blend of different soils, sits on the lees for sometime, not racked until the spring, full of citrus, grapefruit, lemon, grass, fresh, crisp, minerally edge

Henri Bourgeois La Côte des Monts Damnés 2019 – Chavignol Matured on its lees, 9-10 months This had a lot of texture, wet stone, chalk, concentrated pink grapefruit and lemon zest with a touch of grass, I could have let it open up a bit longer

Domaine Paul Cherrier 2019 Sancerre – Verdigny Crisp, fresh, lemon and grapefuit, grass with a stony edge

Domaine Henri Bailly 2018 Sancerre – Bué Citrus and mineral notes, crisp

Sancerre Le Mont 2019 – Foucher Lebrun – Cosne-sur-Loire This was the most restrained of all the Sancerres I have tasted. Grapefruit and lemon were there but muted, it had a stony personality as all Sancerres do. Foucher Lebrun is considered a petit negociant.

Gerard Boulay Sancerre Chavignol 2019 – Chavignol This was my favorite of the Sancerres I have tasted, it had almost an alsace riesling quality in terms of fruit concentration and acid lift, it was a wine with lots of energy.

Where did that Chablis come from?

This piece and my summary of the wines is really only a tip of the iceberg of Sancerre wines. If I had a bigger personal wine budget I would seek out some of the harder to find pricier labels. But I have confidence that I won’t be disappointed by many of the entry level wines by producers in any of these villages. As the days get warmer, I will be drawn to fresh, crisp, refreshing wines and Sancerre wines fit the bill. Don’t be afraid to dive into Sancerre or consider it a one note region. There is much to discover for the curious palate as in they produce Pinot Noirs as well.

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