Andrew Jefford makes sense of the Central Loire.

The light was beginning to fade into a gloomy November dusk.  I was keen to get my bearings, so Arnaud Bourgeois agreed to take me to the top of the Monts Damnés.  We turned up our collars against the icy wind from the north, and looked out over the darkening slopes, down to the little hamlet of Chavignol nestling beneath.  The town of Sancerre, high on its distant hilltop, dominated the landscape like a command post; Arnaud explained that the Loire unravelled behind it, though it was invisible from where we stood.  At last: the kingdom of Sauvignon Blanc.  I’d finally made it.

The first time you visit a wine region is always a precious moment.  Nothing is quite as you expect; the intensity of the learning experience is never again matched.  So with this trip, one that I’d been hoping to make for years.

It was no accident, perhaps, that it had taken so long: we may be close to the heart of France here, but it’s a lonely and rural heart, far from the major cities, the transport hubs, the key points of national articulation.  The landscape south from Paris reminded me of my Norfolk childhood, on England’s bare and windy eastern flank: flat cabbage or cereal fields stretching away into a lost grey horizon, broken only occasionally by a few bare trees.  This is calm, quiet, rural Berry, famous for goat’s cheese, green lentils … and the “very rich” book of hours commissioned by the C15 Duke Jean de Berry.

Then, out of the flatland, the hills suddenly explode.  Heading south, they’re like the first rifle shot of what awaits the Clermont-bound voyager.  That the hills of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are such a contrast to the land which surrounds them was my first surprise.  At this latitude and with this degree of continentality, of course, the warmth which comes with a suitably exposed hill slope is the only enabler of viticulture.

Why, though, does Sancerre have more than twice as much vineyard as the Pouilly-Fumé zone across the river Loire (2,954 ha compared to 1,307 ha)? Simply because it has many more hills, and those hills are steeper and in some cases higher (few vineyards in Pouilly lie above 200 m, whereas Sancerre reaches over 300 m).  Sancerre is a herd of elephant hills, jostling each other; Pouilly, across the river, is a quiet gazelle gathering, by way of echo.

What, though, about soils?  Caillottes, terres blanches and silex: these are the words that you will find again and again on labels, and from this comes the general understanding that soils here are of two types: either limestones (the marly terres blanches and the stony caillottes) or flint (silex).  Sancerre, that general understanding continues, boasts the former while Pouilly-Fumé is dominated by the latter.  This summary has the virtue of simplicity, but my second great surprise was how inadequate it was.

clay soils pouilly fumé

Clay soils at Château de Tracy in Pouilly-Fumé. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

Both appellations are clay-soiled, profoundly so in the case of the so-called silex sites; Pouilly is a region of cool clays with varying degrees of stoniness (the silica-based flint is very hard and unyielding, giving little to the soil other than a destructive surface on which to blunt plough blades).

Sancerre, meanwhile, has all three soils types in succession, west to east: terres blanches, then caillottes around the town, then silex next to the river.  But even that is a simplification, with the exact soil mix varying constantly – and clay is the theme which unites them all, and which would certainly most affect plant performance.  That may be the reason why it’s almost customary to say about both appellations that (in the words of the authors of The World Atlas of Wine) “it would be a brave taster who maintained he or she could always tell a Pouilly-Fumé from a Sancerre”.  Why would you differentiate them clearly, if they are both Sauvignon-based white wines grown on closely sited hill slopes in clay soils?  Differences exist, but they are whispered nuances.

Kimmeridgean limestone, loire

Kimmeridgean limestone. Credits: Andrew Jefford.

My third great surprise, though, was a terroir insight of a different sort.  Those who have read James Wilson’s book Terroir will know of his suggestion that French wine ought to have a region called the Kimmeridgian Chain (see Wilson’s chapter 9): a line of limestone scarps of shared origin which links the zones of the Central Loire with Chablis (just 100 km separate the two) and the other Auxerrois vineyards, and then on to Champagne’s Côte des Bars a further 100 km up the road.  I’ve always thought this a fascinating insight.  This trip drummed home to me just how sound it was.

The white wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé may be made of Sauvignon Blanc, but they are emphatically not varietal wines.  This is their joy – their very un-Sauvignon-like appeal.  (The more ‘varietal notes’ a Sauvignon has, the less interesting it becomes.)  Everyone in the Central Loire recognizes this so completely that they generally omit to mention it – but it’s the key to understanding these appellations, their profundity and their grandeur.

Forget Sauvignon as you taste these wines; taste them, instead, as northern whites of subtle, often unemphatic scent; of nerve and sinew; and with textured subtleties (call it ‘minerality’ if you like) and vinous drive which carry and counterbalance their inner freshness.  Drunk from a plain decanter, you may often be reminded of Chablis more than anything else.  Open palates soon understand that the varietal difference is unimportant.

How do the Champagnes of the Côte des Bars fit into this?  The main unifying theme to the Kimmeridgean Chain, I’d suggest, might not be the Kimmeridgean soils per se – but rather the topographical fact of the hill slopes themselves, lying at close latitudes along the edge of the Paris basin within their continental landmass.  Note, though, that the hill line of the Chain tracks not just east but north, too: Sancerre lies at 47˚19’ 55”; Chablis a little further north at 47˚46’ 51”, and Bar-sur-Aube further north again, at 48˚42’ 28”.  It’s logical that the most northerly sub-zone on the Chain should find itself making not fresh-flavoured white still wine but sparkling wine base; we’ve just crossed a latitudinal threshold.

I also had a chance to visit almost all of the other Central Loire appellations, where fascinating developments are underway.  To understand what and why, though, a bit of background.

Demand for Central Loire wines in general is strong, with roughly half of production (worth 140 million euros) exported, and over half of that going to the two English-speaking markets of the USA and the UK.  Sancerre is more or less fully planted, and Pouilly only has another 400 ha or so, whereas the other appellations have room to spare (Menetou-Salon could double plantings).  Expansion into these, therefore, is underway – but where should growers choose?

Quincy, like Pouilly-Fumé, is a white-wine only appellation (296 ha planted); moreover the vineyards are sited on sandy soils on the Cher river terraces rather than on limestone or clay hill sites, so the style of the wines is distinctively different: softer, calmer, less pungent still, with a little more palate width and sometimes some floral grace, too.

Nearby Reuilly (243 ha), by contrast, has both hill slopes and limestone, and is also available for red (and Pinot-Gris-based rosé) wines.  Growers from Quincy, Pouilly and Sancerre were using Reuilly to plant Pinot Noir to such an extent, though, that the appellation authorities issued a requirement that at least 30 per cent of any individual set of vineyard holdings must be planted with Sauvignon Blanc, to ensure that the appellation didn’t lose the Central Loire character of its sappy-sour whites.

Menetou-Salon (561 ha) is available for red and rosé wines as well as white, and is the obvious zone for Sancerrois to extend into since it is contiguous with the western end of Sancerre.  Rather like the Mâconnais, though, high-quality vineyards here are scattered, and can be hard to find; rather like the Mâconnais, too, the best whites here can have a plushness and an amplitude which some love, but which others feel softens the ‘nerve and sinew’ which is such a distinctive feature of Kimmeridgean Chain wines.  Some growers, therefore, prefer to hunt about in the limey clay soils of cool hill sites above the Loire in the elongated appellation of Coteaux du Giennois (204 ha), where fresh, light, delicate but classic Kimmeridgean-Chain whites are possible, as is experiment with Pinot-based reds and rosés.

Fans of the Chain’s wines, finally, should look out for the IGP of Côtes de la Charité (50 ha), grown south of Pouilly in limey clay soils on the banks of the Loire around the town of La Charité sur Loire.  You could see this as a kind of Loire valley echo of St Bris in the Auxerrois.  Why? St Bris is where the Auxerrois grows a little Sauvignon Blanc – and Côtes de la Charité is where the Central Loire grows a little Chardonnay (though other varieties, including Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, are also allowed).  The results can be impressive, like a slightly brittle version of Petit Chablis, and Alphonse Mellot and Serge Dagueneau et Filles are among the Sancerrois to have invested there.

More next year on the Vins du Centre – including some tasting notes; a look at the cru question; and an update on the catastrophe of trunk disease for all those struggling to grow Sauvignon Blanc.

Read more Andrew Jefford columns on Decanter.com