By changing its dominant grape from Pinot Noir to Sauvignon Blanc the famed Loire AC made its fortune. But the future looks red again, says Jim Budd
When Alphonse Mellot Jr told his father he wanted to make serious red Sancerre, Mellot Sr told him it wasn’t possible. He is now happy to admit that he was wrong, as proved by his son’s series of single-vineyard reds and the premium Generation XIX, a wine that stands comparison with premier cru Burgundy.
The return of Alphonse Mellot Jr to join his father to run the family vineyards in 1993 was a key moment in Sancerre’s red revolution. Today, as Sancerre rouge celebrates its first 50 years of appellation contrôlée status, the movement that started in the early 1990s has gathered pace. After years of making light, often dilute reds from Pinot Noir, an ever-increasing number of Sancerre producers are making noteworthy, substantial reds.
Mellot Jr’s recipe for success was not complicated – yields were cut and he started to take the same care in the vineyard with Pinot as his father had with Sauvignon Blanc. I first became aware of the change in the late 1990s when I tasted the 1995s and ’96s from Mellot, Domaine Vacheron and Nicolas and Pascal Reverdy. Others have followed, says Gilles Guillerault of Domaine des Caves du Prieuré: ‘Things started to change in 1996. Between then and 2002 yields fell from 60hl/ha (hectolitres/hectare) to 40hl/ha. In 2003 we started picking by hand, and now we sort both in the vineyard and the winery.’
The increased profile these wines have attracted has led some to the mistaken belief that producers have jumped on the global Pinot bandwagon and that its planting in Sancerre is a recent development. In fact, the reverse is true. Before the arrival of phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, Sancerre was mainly planted to red varieties, Pinot among them but also Gamay and other grapes that have since disappeared. Sauvignon Blanc was present before phylloxera, as it was just across the Loire river in Pouilly, but it didn’t become the main variety until the vineyards were replanted in the early 20th century.
Thereafter, Pinot was so overshadowed by Sauvignon that when the first ACs were created in 1936, the Sancerre appellation was for whites only. It was not until 1959 that it was extended to cover reds and rosés made from Pinot Noir.
The push to Pinot
I have long been intrigued as to why this established, predominantly red wine area was transformed into a white one. Was it a far-sighted move that anticipated the success of Sancerre’s Sauvignon in the latter part of the 20th century? ‘It was a commercial decision,’ says Jean-Marie Bourgeois of Domaine Henri Bourgeois. ‘Producers wanted to offer both white and red.’ This may have played a part but, when Sancerre was replanted in the early 20th century, polyculture was the norm and farmers had just two or three hectares of vines – barely enough for more than one variety. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Sancerre producers launched their wines on the Paris market.
While there are likely to have been many reasons for the change, several producers, such as Stéphane Riffault of Domaine Claude Riffault, mention that the first Pinot grafted onto US rootstocks did not take well here, whereas Sauvignon did. Another factor may have been the loss of their market in Champagne – before the tightening up of rules, Sancerre used to supply Pinot to Champagne houses.
Whatever the reason for Sancerre’s transformation from red to white, the change made its fortune, making it the Loire’s wealthiest, best-equipped AC. Sauvignon continues to dominate: of the 2,808ha planted, only 619ha (22%) are Pinot. As some is made into rosé and yields for Pinot are lower than Sauvignon, red production accounts for just 11%. Nevertheless, it is Sancerre’s reds that are providing the excitement. Unfortunately, the excitement is somewhat of a French secret, as reds from the Central Vineyards represent less than 3% of their exports.
In December 2008 the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins du Centre (BIVC), the promotional organisation for the Central Vineyards, arranged a tasting of 160 reds, with more than half from Sancerre but also examples from Reuilly, Coteaux-du-Giennois, Châteaumeillant and Menetou-Salon. It was a fascinating opportunity to get an overview of how the red revolution is progressing.
The tasting underlined that, with the exception of Coteaux-de-Giennois, quality in reds has improved dramatically (though there are still big variations and some faulty wines). Consumers are also confronted with a range of styles, from light and fruity to concentrated cuvées that spend a year or more in wood.
The red revolution has not yet run its course, says Benoît Roumet, director of the BIVC. ‘Many producers have changed the way they work in the vineyards but some still have things to learn about vinifying Pinot Noir successfully. That will take time.’ In the meantime, for adventurous, informed consumers, there is much reward to be had.
Written by Jim Budd