Bill’s Best Bets – September 2016
The other Sauvignon Blanc?
by Bill Zacharkiw
So where exactly is the home of sauvignon blanc? I bet most wine lovers would point to New Zealand, and specifically the Marlborough region, when asked. It’s understandable. Kiwi sauvignon took the world by storm over a decade ago and hasn’t looked back. They have created a unique style – lean, green and often with a touch of residual sugar on the finish.
Label me a classicist, but when I imagine the archetypical sauvignon blanc, I think Centre-Loire. While it is referred to as “Centre,” that’s because this region in France’s Loire Valley is geographically in the center of France. In the context of the Loire wine growing area, it is on the eastern edge. The best known appellations are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. But there are other appellations: Menetou-Salon. Reuilly and Quincy.
But even if I, and perhaps a few others, consider it sauvignon blanc’s grandest expression, it migrated its way into the region via Bordeaux, and gradually gained the upper hand until becoming its only white grape. In fact, at the turn of the 20th Century, there were more red vines than white in the region.
So what’s so special about the sauvignon blanc here? Like in any region, the answer is found in the terroir, that mix of climate and soils. Centre-Loire’s continental climate is ideal for sauvignon blanc as the vine reacts well to a short but intense growing season.
But the real secret is in the soil. The majority of the area has three soil types: chalky soils called “Caillottes,” Kimmeridgean soils which are a mix of limestone and clay and similar to Chablis, and a flinty soil called silex. Each soil offers up a variation on the theme.
The furthest west are the appellations of Quincy and Reuilly. Here you find chalkier soil with lots of sand and gravel. These wines tend toward the classic Loire sauvignon expression, quite aromatic with citrus notes, and can have a grassy herbaceous note, as opposed to the more asparagus-like green-ness of New Zealand. They often show less weight as well.
There are many great examples available and they tend to be less expensive than Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Try the 2015 Reuilly from Domaine Claude Lafond or the superb 2013 Pierres Plates from Domaine de Reuilly to taste one with a bit of age. To contract and compare with a Quincy, the 2015 Domaine des Ballandors is well worth investigation.
Just east of Quincy is Mentou-Salon. Here you begin to move into almost Chablis like soils, with a mix of Kimmeridgean, Portlandian and some more pebbly soils. While less weighty and mineral than Sancerre, they can be very aromatic and have a spicy, musky quality. The 2014 Morogues from Henry Pellé shows some sweeter fruit, with kiwi notes but shows vibrant acidity and those powerful aromatics. Equally good though with a touch more minerality though less aromatic punch is the 2014 Cuvée Le Charnay from Jean Max Roger.
Moving into the two best known appellations, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, the first question I asked when I visited the region was: “What is the difference between the two?” The answer is very little in fact. They are right next to one another and share the same mosaic of soils: Kimmeridgean (limestome fossilized oyster shells), Caillotte (large pebbles), and the rarest of the bunch, silex.
After tasting so many wines from the two appellations, I would be hard pressed to really tell the difference between Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in a blind tasting. The biggest difference is that some winemakers, like Alphonse Mellot, make their wines in oak barrels, which aside from adding some extra spice, the wines tend to be less overtly acidic. The other difference is that Pouilly-Fumé only makes white, while Sancerre produces some very good pinot noir.
So how do they differ from most other sauvignon blancs in the world? I would say that they tend to be less aromatic, weightier, more mineral, and most importantly, they can age brilliantly. Depending on where they grow, the wines will show more or less minerality and weight. Around the village of Chavignol, the soils produce wines of greater power and opulence with a distinct minerality. And for the rarest soil type, silex, Jean-Laurent Vacheron of Domaine Vacheron told me that “You get it all – citrus and white fruits, floral notes and a lot of structure.”
I have tasted a number of Sancerre’s recently that are all worthy. If you are a fan of the more aromatic style, then the 2014 MD from Henri Bourgeois will do the trick. For a more classic expression, try the 2015 Tuileries from Michel Redde & Fils, with its subdued aromatics and chalky finish. Equally classic is the 2015 from Paul Prieure.
Alphonse Mellot rarely disappoints and if you are looking for a more textured Sancerre, try the Alphonse Mellot Le Manoir Sancerre 2014. And if you want sheer power as well as exceptional ageability, then Domaine Vacheron’s 2015 Sancerre is simply spectacular.
“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial
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