Sancerre is justifiably famous for its Sauvignon Blancs, but it’s high time to pay attention to the reds which, while still small in number, are fast gaining a reputation for quality and Burgundian elegance. Tina Gellie reports
Appellation 1936 for whites (from Sauvignon Blanc), 1959 for reds and rosés (from Pinot Noir)
Producers 308 winemakers, 21 merchant producers, 1 co-op
Production (2013) 169,738hl; 81% white, 11% red, 8% rosé
‘God is in the east,’ Jean-Laurent Vacheron whispers reverently as he offers a glass of his 2013 estate red. Mecca for Vacheron is Burgundy. He has made frequent pilgrimages there, been instructed by some of the region’s finest names, and is a devotee of its most exalted product: Pinot Noir. In Sancerre, whose name means Sauvignon Blanc in the same way that Chablis equals Chardonnay, this obsession might be considered unusual, but it is an increasingly common one throughout this central Loire appellation as the red revolution gains momentum.
It seems every wine region that can produce it wants to slake the public’s insatiable thirst for Pinot Noir. But the drive in Sancerre is no response to the 2004 Californian wine road-trip film Sideways.
In fact, for about seven centuries, until phylloxera destroyed the region’s vineyards in the 1860s, Sancerre was famed for its reds, which were served at royal courts on both sides of the Channel.
After phylloxera, Sancerre’s vineyards were mainly replanted with Sauvignon Blanc. Decanter’s Loire expert Jim Budd says this is probably due to a number of factors, including that early grafting of Pinot onto US rootstocks wasn’t as successful as Sauvignon Blanc, and that because of rule changes Sancerre producers were no longer able to supply Pinot Noir to Champagne.
So just like that, Sancerre became known for its whites, with the appellation for wines from Sauvignon Blanc granted in 1936, 23 years before the AC for reds and rosés from Pinot Noir. Today 2,903 hectares of vines are in production, of which about 22% is planted to Pinot Noir (a figure which has remained consistent since phylloxera). And while 57% of the total Sancerre production is exported, less than 3% of that is red wine.
Pinot from this region has never seen the acclaim (modest though it might be) enjoyed by the Cabernet Franc reds of Bourgueil, Chinon and Saumur-Champigny. While many have a light- to medium-body and a natural high acidity that makes them great candidates to chill, an increasing number of Sancerre producers are making serious, weighty reds that can stand shoulder to shoulder with top cru Burgundy.
And in a way, it’s no surprise. ‘We are closer to the Côte d’Or than we are to most other areas in the Loire, and we have the same soils,’ says Jean-Laurent Vacheron, who with his cousin Jean-Dominique is the fourth generation to run this acclaimed family estate in the centre of Sancerre, certified biodynamic in 2004.
Here, their 11.5ha of Pinot Noir are given just as much care and attention as the 38ha of Sauvignon Blanc, and the pilgrimages east have influenced the processes in both vineyard and cellar. ‘We follow a Burgundian approach,’ explains Jean-Laurent, who has worked in Burgundy as well as in California with Aubert de Villaine. ‘We do our own massal selections, ferment our own compost, hand-harvest everything, vinify by parcels, do lots of sorting…’
‘Our maximum yield is 40hl/ha for reds. Any higher and the impact on dilution is evident. This was the problem with Sancerre Pinots in the past: high yields for volume but light, thin wines.’ The bigger day-night temperature differences here, compared with Burgundy, play a part too, giving more crunchy raspberry- and cranberry-style fruits over cherry, and a spicy, peppery complexity rather than Burgundy’s earthy undergrowth.
Soils and styles
The unique soil structure in Sancerre is also key. About 40% of the vineyards lie on the white chalky limestone-clay soils in the west of the region, many on steep hills above Bué and Chavignol, called terres blanches. These are among the best vineyards for both Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, along with those on the most easterly slopes around Sancerre which are planted on the flinty silex terroir (about 20% of the appellation), which gives a trademark smoky note and superb minerality and acidity to the wines. The remaining vineyards are on limestone pebbles, or caillottes.
Taste Domaine Vacheron’s top cuvée Belle Dame, from 45-year-old vines, to see what a taste of red Burgundy from the Loire is like. Whole unstemmed berries soak for seven to 10 days in tank, get a cold fermentation and passive extraction. ‘The challenge is to avoid drying tannins, which you can get with grapes grown on silex, so we mature the wines in large, old upright wooden barrels,’ Vacheron explains.
‘I like a more structured style of Pinot – a Bonnes Mares – but we are also trying to stay true to the elegant, perfumed Volnay style my grandfather [the famous Jean Vacheron] started. I think we meet in the middle,’ he smiles.
Over at Domaine Vincent Pinard in Bué, brothers Florent and Clément Pinard work the 4.5ha of Pinot Noir on their 17ha estate ‘in a biodynamic mindset’. Their vines are on terres blanches soils, giving a weightier wine than Vacheron’s but still with that fresh, quaffable allure. The two red cuvées here, Charlouise and Vendanges Entière, are from the same 50-year-old vines harvested at 38hl/ha, with the latter mainly whole bunches plus unstemmed berries. Both are among the region’s best reds.
Jim Budd cites the movement in the mid-1990s by a young generation of winemakers to make serious Pinots as a turning point in Sancerre’s red revolution. Vacheron, Pinard and Pascal and Nicolas Reverdy joined Alphonse Mellot Jr in the cause, and the Mellot name made people sit up and take notice when he produced his Génération XIX cuvée that still is one of the standard-bearers today.
By 2002, yields had fallen from 60hl/ha to 40hl/ha and hand-harvesting and vigilant sorting in both vineyard and cellar became the norm. Large barrels replaced small barriques and slowly the fresh fruit flavours shone through over the oak. These light, simple red afterthoughts were now given serious consideration.
The next generation
At Domaine Lucien Crochet, the focus was being given to reds even before appellation status was granted to Sancerre’s whites in 1936 – unusual, as most family-run properties only began to estate bottle 20 years later. Today this estate in Bué boasts an ultra-modern winery, and Lucien’s son Gilles is one of the most talented vinifiers of red in the region, farming 9ha of Pinot Noir on an organic estate of 38ha. Croix du Roy is a mix of several parcels with 60% aged in barrels for a year then blended and matured in tank before bottling. The Prestige Cuvée is only made in the best years from the oldest vines (50 years or more) on caillottes and terres blanches soils, matured in oak – 40% new – for 20 months before release.
Up in Verdigny, at Domaine André Dezat, cousins Firmin and Arnaud Dezat are continuing the fine work of their respective fathers Simon and Louis and their legendary grandfather André. There are just 7ha of Pinot Noir on the domaine’s sustainably farmed 40ha estate, of which just 5ha goes to red wines, but viticulturist Firmin says they are the vines he thinks about the most.
Having worked at Cuvaison in California and his winemaker cousin with a number of stages under his belt in Burgundy, the pair know where they want their Pinots to sit. ‘Of course we would like to have the best reds in Sancerre,’ says Firmin. ‘We think they are very good now and in the Burgundy style. But we are young. With more experience, and after becoming organic, they will be better. We don’t want to change dramatically what our fathers and grandfather did; it’s fine-tuning. Lots of small changes can make a big difference.’
Both the classic cuvée, from vines up to 30 years old, and the prestige bottling, including fruit from 60-year-old vines, are made from the free-run juice of destemmed whole berries with some press wine added if needed to bolster colour. While the classic cuvée is matured in two-to five-year-old barrels, the prestige wine still matures in 100% new oak. Having tasted the new generation’s tight, dense, liquorice and blackcurrant pastille-laden 2013, perhaps one of those small changes in future might be to tone down the new oak on such delicate fruit, but regardless, their fathers’ beautifully pure cherry clafoutis-like 2006 certainly shows the wine’s ageing potential.
Given that the revolution is still in progress, Budd says it’s hard to determine how long Sancerre Pinot might age, though the wines’ naturally high acidity is in their favour: ‘I’ve tasted 1996s that are still drinking well, so I would certainly say 10 years, maybe 15 and even 20 years in very good vintages… time will tell.’ Sancerre has been spared the bad weather that has beset other French regions, so most recent vintages are decent, although Budd cites 2014 as one to snap up when it’s released, as well as 2010, 2009, 2008, 2006 and 2005 if you can find any.
Much has changed in the past two decades for Sancerre reds, whose best wines and producers deserve greater consideration as they continue to improve. God might be in the east, according to Jean-Laurent Vacheron, but some prayers are certainly being answered in the Central Loire.
Tina Gellie is associate editor of Decanter magazine
Written by Tina Gellie