- Thursday 15 February 2007
Sancerre is easily the most spectacular – and largest –vineyard in the Loire. The steep rolling countryside with its arc of vineyards around the dominating hill of Sancerre is unique to the region. With one or two exceptions, vineyards elsewhere in the Loire are gently sloping.
Sancerre is particularly beautiful in the autumn when the hills are a mass of gold. As you descend the Loire, Sancerre is the first appellation – along with neighbouring Pouilly-Fumé – with an international reputation. Its success is in part due to the English-speaking world finding Sancerre easy to pronounce.
There are now 2,800ha (hectares) of vines planted here, meaning Sancerre accounts for more than half the central Loire region’s total of 5,000ha. While the vast majority is Sauvignon Blanc, about 25% is Pinot Noir. In fact before phylloxera devastated these vineyards at the end of the 19th century, red varieties dominated – principally Pinot Noir and Gamay, and until appellation contrôlée was introduced, some of these grapes went north to be used for making Champagne. It was only after phylloxera that Sauvignon Blanc took over.
Since the mid-1990s there has been a revolution in the quality of red Sancerre. Historically, most red has been made in a light, easy-drinking style from high yields. Although the majority of red Sancerre is still made in this style, a small group of the top producers, such as Alphonse Mellot, Vincent Pinard and the Vacherons are now making serious, age-worthy Pinots from low yields. This means hand picking and sorting tables in both the vineyard and the chai – especially important in difficult vintages like 2004. ‘In 2004 we checked the fruit over so carefully that it was like the salad at the Troisgros (an exclusive restaurant in the southern Loire) – not a trace of rot got through,’ boasts Denis Vacheron.
Increasingly those producers using wood are opting for larger barrels – 400, 500 and 600 litres rather than 225-litre barriques. ‘We want to avoid the taste of wood in our wines,’ is a common refrain.
Sancerre rosé makes up about 5% of overall production. It is generally pale in colour, as most are made by pressing the grapes immediately, which only extracts a little colour. A few are rosés de saigné, running off some of the juice from the red vats, which helps to concentrate the reds as well as giving the rosés more colour and structure.
Of course Sancerre remains renowned for its whites, which are derived from three distinct soil types – silex (flint), caillottes (limestone) and terres blanches (clay and limestone). They produce three very different styles of wine.
The band of flint is found in the most easterly part of the vineyard around Sancerre, St-Satur, Ménétréol-sous-Sancerre and Thauvenay. It accounts for about 20% of the appellation, and wines which tend to be mineral, often with a slightly smoky nose.
About 40% of the vineyard is limestone. Here the soil is very thin – in places virtually non-existent – with the vines struggling straight into the white rocky soil. ‘Wines from les caillottes are always the most aromatic when they are young and are ready to drink first,’ explains Jean-Marie Bourgeois. These are ready to drink in the spring after the vintage, although there has been a tendency among some producers to bottle too early – in January or February following the vintage – and not give their wine enough time to develop any complexity before bottling.
‘The longest-lived wines and those that need most time before being ready to drink are those from the terres blanches,’ continues Bourgeois. Most of the terres blanches, which accounts for 40% of the appellation, are in the western part of the appellation with many vineyards planted on steep hills. Le Clos de la Poussie (above Bué), Les Monts Damnés and Côte de Beaujeu (both above Chavignol) are some of the best-known terres blanches vineyards. Many of the best wines come from here.
Sancerre has benefited from a succession of dynamic producers, such as Jean-Marie Bourgeois, Alphonse Mellot, Jean-Max Roger and the Vacheron family. They have led both by example and also by encouraging other vignerons. The Sancerre appellation has the advantage of being compact, with the small town of Sancerre and its attractive old houses providing a clear focus.
Over the last five or six years there has been a noticeable move away from using weedkillers and towards grassing down, which both combats erosion and reduces vine vigour, as well as working the soil. Prior to 2000, heavy rain often caused serious erosion in the vineyards, as the hard, bare soil absorbed little water, so there would be torrents of mud coursing down through the steep slopes. ‘In 20 years virtually all the Sancerre vineyards will be organically farmed,’ predicts Denis Vacheron. ‘More and more producers are moving to organic or biodynamic viticulture. We are now seeing the progressive disappearance of vignerons in their 60s and 70s who refuse to change.’
Another sign of the Sancerrois working together is the opening last year of the Maison de Sancerre, which has a very interesting series of audio-visual displays of the history of the vineyard and explanation of the work in the vineyards through the year.
The Key Players
Henri Bourgeois, Chavignol
Over the years the dynamic Bourgeois family, originally under the leadership of Jean-Marie Bourgeois, has come to dominate the small village of Chavignol with their winery, various cellars, a retail shop and a fine restaurant, La Côte des Monts Damnés. The family also has a vineyard in Marlborough, New Zealand, growing Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The Sancerre whites tend to be stronger than the reds, and the top cuvée is Le Chêne Saint-Etienne.
Cave de Sancerre
With 130 members this is the only cooperative in Sancerre and is responsible for 10% of the appellation’s production. It is a big supplier to supermarkets, and in the UK supplies Tesco, Asda, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Nicolas and others. Sales to Tesco alone account for just over 10% of its 15,000hl production. The quality of the whites is considerably higher than the reds, which tend to be rather thin and stalky.
Chateau de Sancerre
The Marnier-Lapostolle family owns the château that tops the hill of Sancerre. The present château was built in 1874 in the style of Louis XII, and Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle bought it in 1919. Today the vineyards are managed by Gérard Cherrier. ‘Rather than use chemical treatments, it is important that the vines develop their own immunity and that we respect the environment,’ says Cherrier. The white Cuvée du Connétable is the top wine.
Lucien Crochet, Bue
This estate, which has long been run by Lucien’s son, Gilles Crochet, has a deservedly high reputation. ‘We pick entirely by hand,’ says Crochet. ‘I sign up 60 pickers, knowing 45 will turn up on the day.’ Crochet is keen that his whites have a mineral character, so restricts the amount of lees stirring.
Starting from just 5ha in 1950, Fournier Père et Fils has become a serious producer and négociant. They also have substantial holdings in Pouilly-Fumé and Menetou-Salon with a total production of around 1.5 million bottles a year. None of the wines see any wood. The top cuvée is the reasonably priced Cuvée Chaudouillonne.
Domaine Fouassier, Sancerre
This family company is run by Pierre and Jean-Michel and they have vines across the three types of soil in Sancerre, as well as a négociant business. Their top wines come from a single soil type – Les Romains is from flint and the Clos Paradis from the terres blanches.
Alphonse Mellot, Sancerre
Alphonse Mellot (senior) is one of the great characters of Sancerre. His enthusiasm and passion for quality are legendary. The arrival of Alphonse junior in the early 1990s raised the quality still further. The Mellots abandoned their négociant business to concentrate all their efforts on their own 46ha of vines and, in particular, to improve the quality of their reds. Here they have made remarkable progress – Generation XIX retails for €45 in Sancerre.
Joseph Mellot, Sancerre
Joseph Mellot is both a producer and négociant. Along with Henri Bourgeois, Mellot is the largest producer in Sancerre. The company also has vineyards in all the central Loire ACs except for Châteaumeillan, and is the first producer in Sancerre to have a bottling line equipped for screwcaps.
Vincent Pinard, Bue
This domaine has long made wines – both white and red – of impeccable quality. Vincent has now been joined by his two sons. Back in 1989 Pinard was one of the first to ferment his white in new wood. ‘The practice was then frowned on,’ says Pinard, ‘so I called the cuvée Harmonie.’
Jean-Max Roger, Bue
Jean-Max Roger has often been ahead of his time. For instance he was one of the first to grass over his vineyards in 1990. ‘When I started back then to grass over some of our vineyards and till the soil in the rest people thought I was mad!’ Roger’s whites and reds age well – the 1990 GC white is still delicious.
The Vacherons are a long-standing top-quality wine family with cellars in the centre of Sancerre. The older generation – Jean-Louis and Denis – is in the process of handing over the reins to the younger – Jean-Dominique and Jean-Laurent. The entire estate has recently become biodynamic, and the top wines – Les Romains (white) and Les Belles Dames (red) will easily last 10 years.
New Faces - Best new Sancerres
Gilles Guillerault, Domaine des Caves de Prieure, Crezancy en Sancerre
Gilles Guillerault is part of a group of five producers, which includes Dominique Roger in Bué, who are moving towards biodynamic viticulture. ‘I have started in some parts of the vineyard and perhaps in three years I will move over entirely to biodynamics.’ Like many producers in Sancerre who age some of their wine in wood, Guillerault uses 500-litre barrels rather than barriques. ‘They are better for our style of wine as they provide oxygenation but they impart very little wood flavour.’
Francois Crochet, Bue
After work placements with Bruno Clair in Burgundy, Château Angélus in St-Emilion and one in New Zealand, Crochet set up in 1998 with 2000 as his first vintage. Grapes are picked by hand, and he invested in a sorting table in 2004. His whites and reds have concentration and wonderful balance. The whites age on their lees and are mineral rather than exuberantly aromatic. His top wines are Le Chêne Marchand and Les Amoureuses (white) and Réserve de Mareigoué (red). I have no doubt that on current form Crochet will be one of the stars of the future.
Matthias Roblin, Sury-en-Vaux
Although his parents own Château de Mainbray, Matthias Roblin set up on his own next door in 1998. 2000 was his first vintage, as 1998 and 1999 were sent to the Sancerre cooperative. He has now been joined by his brother, Emile, and they will soon be able to expand to 12ha as well as introducing at least one new prestige cuvée.
Didier Raimbault, Verdigny
‘My family has been making wine for generations,’ explains Didier Raimbault, ‘and like most people here we were mixed farmers. Grapes were one of many crops that we grew. My family has only been concentrating on wine since 1975 and I took over in 1996.’ Since then he has increased the area of vines from 7ha to 17.5. In addition to his classic range of Sancerres, he also makes L’Intrigué, a late-harvest wine with 50% botrytis but vinified dry.
Philippe Raimbault, Sury-en-Vaux
You can tell Philippe Raimbault is fascinated by geology from all the fossils gathered in the local vineyards and displayed in his winery. Philippe took over the family vineyards in 1998, and on a recent visit I was particularly impressed by two whites – the 2005 Apud Sariacum (the ancient name for the village of Sury-en-Vaux) and the exotically fruited Les Chasseignes 2002.
Alphonse Mellot, Cuvée Edmond 2002
Rich, slightly toasty fruit along with the typically marvellous balance of fruit and freshness the 2002s have. Can be drunk now or kept. £19.04; Gns (2001)
Gérard Boulay, Clos de Beaujeu Chavignol 2002
On a recent visit Boulay’s wonderful wines were a revelation. Made somewhat in the ripe, rich style of the wines of the Cotat brothers. The marvellously well-balanced 2002 has wonderful vibrant fruit – exotic fruits and citrus with a touch of honey in the long finish. N/A UK; +33 2 48 54 36 37
Henri Bourgeois, Le Chêne St Etienne 2000
This limited-edition cuvée has a touch of asparagus among its complex aromas as well as a touch of wood spice, richly textured fruit on the palate and a long and
N/A UK; +33 2 48 78 53 20
Château de Sancerre, Le Connetable 2003
With the majority fermented in barrel, this has remarkable freshness for a 2003, with rich yellow plum fruit but a refreshing length.
N/A UK; +33 2 48 78 51 52
Domaine Lucien Crochet, Le Chêne 2004
Floral aromas with some exotic fruit flavours and a long mineral finish.
Henri Bourgeois, Le MD de Bourgeois 2004
From the very steep Monts Damnés slopes above Chavignol, this is always one of the classiest Sancerres, with a complex blend of grapefruit and minerality. £14; Ami
Vibrantly youthful, mineral, grapefruit aromas and flavour. Will fill out over the next 6–12 months. £12.99; Maj
Vincent Pinard, Cuvée Nuance 2004
Lovely, soft but vibrant citrus fruit and some exotic fruit in the long finish. £14.54; HBa
Alphonse Mellot, Grands Champs 2004
Deep coloured, dense, youthful, rich, concentrated black cherry and plum fruit; structure and length. 2008. £34.83; Gns
Vacheron, Les Belles Dames 2003
Rich, silky fruit – both red and black – with some wood spice. Drink or keep. £23; WSo
Best value Sancerres
Dominique Roger, Domaine de Carrou 2004
This has lively grapefruit allied with a touch of exotic fruit; good, lively with an attractive freshness at the end. £11.10; T&W
Jean-Max Roger Cuvée GC 2004
Wonderfully mineral and grapefruit flavours with just a touch of asparagus. This can be drunk now
or will age well. £12.69; Grr
Philippe Raimbault, Apud Sariacum 2004
Vibrant citric fruit – lime and lemon – balanced with flinty minerality and long aftertaste. Very good value. £8.99; Whb
Roger Champault et Fils, Les Pierris 2004
Good, ripe, zippy citrus and gooseberry fruit, with refreshing length. £9.50; RSJ
Château de Sancerre 2004
Well-balanced with white peach and yellow plum fruit, quite full on palate and a hint of grassiness in the finish. £11.99; Maj
Florian Mollet, L’Antique 2004
Pale lemon with grassy, gooseberry fruit and quite an austere mineral aftertaste. Can be drunk now or kept for another two to three years. £11.99; Sai
Gilles Guillerault, Domaine des Caves du Prieuré Blanc Facetié 2004
Barrel fermented and aged, giving complex nutty and honeyed aromas, rich fruit with a hint of butter and considerable length.
N/A UK; +33 2 48 79 09 41
Matthias Roblin 2005
Quite marked grassy and gooseberry fruit with good vibrant mineral finish. £10.10; VTr
Pascal et Nicolas Reverdy, Terre de Maimbray 2004
Attractive asparagus and grapefuit aromas with quite an austere, mineral but refreshing finish. £10.95–12.95; Hsl, Ten
Serge Laloue 2004
Attractively vibrant grapefruit with good mineral finish. These 2004s are drinking well now. £9.95–9.99; Maj, WSo