Is it possible for wine drinkers to loathe Sauvignon Blanc and love Sancerre? Wine geeks may smirk, regarding this as a solecism akin to Basil Fawlty’s “Most of the people we get in here don’t know a Bordeaux from a claret.” The smirkers, though, accord too much importance to the role of grape variety in the creation of a wine’s sensual identity.

Yes, Sancerre is made from Sauvignon Blanc alone (though labels rarely proclaim as much), but the wine has nothing in common with the luridly scented, evanescent and frequently mawkish white wines often sold under this grape-variety badge. The classic triggers for Sauvignon Blanc are asparagus, gooseberries, cut grass and passion fruit, at best — and onions, human sweat and cat’s urine at worst. None is prominent in good Sancerre.

The wine may not, indeed, be very aromatic at all, and the sensual metaphors at play in its scents might include apples, violets, citrus fruits, crushed stones, damp moss, seaweed or plant sap. If you haven’t seen the wine’s label, you might even think it was Chablis (which is made from Chardonnay alone, and not Sauvignon Blanc). This is exactly as it should be. Sancerre and Chablis are barely more than 100km from each other, so what you are tasting is white wine made from slowly ripened white grapes on low hills in France’s cool heart. The fact that both regions share a type of limestone-based soil derived from sediments laid down between 157 and 152 million years ago (and named after the Dorset village of Kimmeridge) may further accentuate similarities.

The tightrope-like balance of these wines, with their cascade of fresh, flavourful acidity offset by taut structure and a sinewy core, lies at the heart of their global appeal. And it’s huge: three out of every five bottles of Sancerre are exported (as are seven in every 10 bottles of Chablis). The easy-to-pronounce names help, but it is the food-friendly subtlety and restraint of the wines’ aromas and flavour which seal customers’ loyalty, especially in restaurants.

Chablis dominates its sub-region, the Auxerrois. Sancerre, too, is a dominant force in its own Central Loire fief. Best known among its sister appellations is the smaller Pouilly-Fumé, lying east across the languid, braided Loire from Sancerre. The hills here are less abrupt and the soils less uniformly limey: Pouilly-Fumé vines often grow in cold, dark, damp clays studded with flints, the vineyard chill intensified by brooding woodlands. The wines of this smaller zone show still more delicious reserve than Sancerre in terms of flavour and weight. The pungent, almost smoky aromas ascribed to Pouilly-Fumé, and said to be a result of the flints in the soils, are in fact relatively uncommon today, at least in young wines, which tend to be clean and chiselled.

Menetou-Salon occupies Sancerre’s western hinterland: gentler hills with plumper whites. Reuilly and Quincy lie further west still, to the far side of Bourges. Quincy, with its sandy soils, makes calmer, sometimes floral whites; while those of Reuilly strike a sour-sappy note. Many Sancerre growers looking for less expensive land in which to expand, though, are now heading north to the elongated Coteaux du Giennois, whose whites combine freshness and delicacy. Pouilly-Fumé and Quincy are for white wines only, but all of the other appellations produce rapier-like red (and pink) wines based on Burgundy’s Pinot Noir.

You might consider this plethora of names challenging enough to digest but recently a mass of other vineyard and geological names has emerged on Central Loire labels, particularly those from Sancerre. Once again, the comparison with Chablis is telling.

Chablis, in common with other classic parts of Burgundy, has long divided up its vineyards into grands crus, premiers crus, plain “village” Chablis and Petit Chablis: four separate appellations, with the two cru levels (this means “growth” and is often used for distinguished vineyards) bearing vineyard names. Distinctions of this sort are uncommon in the Loire Valley and have never officially existed in Sancerre. That doesn’t mean that Sancerre vineyards are qualitatively uniform. Growers with vines in hilly sites such as Monts Damnés, Coteaux du Chavignol, La Grande Côte and Chêne Marchand include these cru names on labels. You’ll also see Caillottes (soil characterised by limestone pebbles), Terres Blanches (limey marl) and Silex (clay soils containing flints).

These terms are unregulated, and there has been much discussion in the Centre Loire about whether such a system should be instituted. A system of grands and premiers crus in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé would help these appellations win the “fine wine” recognition they merit, putting them on a par with their Chablis neighbours, and aid Sauvignon Blanc growers in intimating that their grape can aspire to the grandeur of the finest Chardonnay, Riesling or Pinot Noir.

For all that, it seems unlikely. Such a system would be controversial: every drafted boundary would be tussled over. Establishing parity between Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, too, would be complicated. When I asked the Sancerre grower Alphonse Mellot Junior where the grands and premiers crus of the Central Loire might lie, he told me bluntly: “Pouilly is premier cru; Sancerre is grand cru.” This view is unlikely to be shared across the river.

Master of Wine Catherine Petrie showed in recent research that there was more financial advantage in using vineyard names outside a formal system than within it, taking the recently instituted Alsace system as comparison. “We all work very well together in the region,” added Mellot. “If you introduce a cru system that will no longer be true.”

In any case, Central Loire growers have something more pressing on their minds. “It’s crazy,” Pouilly-Fumé grower Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau told me. “The era of old vines is drawing to an end. It’s the next phylloxera.” (This was the vine pest that almost wiped out wine-growing in Europe in the late 19th century.) The new threat is called grapevine trunk disease; Sauvignon Blanc is particularly susceptible. I will report on this global wine catastrophe next week.

Leading Central Loire wines

  • Domaine de Villargeau, Coteaux du Giennois 2017 £9.50 The Wine Society; 2016 £12.99 Majestic
  • Henry Pellé, Menetou-Salon Les Bornes £14.50 Oddbins
  • Joseph Mellot, Menetou-Salon Le Clos du Pressoir £18.50 Corney & Barrow
  • Sancerre, Domaine du Nozay 2017 £19.25 Corney & Barrow; 2016 £17.95 Corney & Barrow
  • Pouilly-Fumé, Ch de Tracy 2016 half bottle £12.95 Lea & Sandeman; bottle £22 Tanners
  • François Cotat, Sancerre Les Monts Damnés 2013 Berry Bros £54; 2014 Berry Bros £56; 2015 Berry Bros £54 2016 £46 Roberson; £49-£52 available from brokers such as Lay & Wheeler, Fine & Rare Wines and BBX
  • Didier Dagueneau, Pouilly-Fumé Silex 2014 £121 Roberson; 2016 £140 Handford Wines

Other leading Central Loire producers

  • Henri Bourgeois/Famille Bourgeois
  • Isabelle et Pierre Clément (Menetou-Salon)
  • Pascal Cotat (Sancerre)
  • François Crochet (Sancerre)
  • Lucien Crochet (Sancerre)
  • Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau (Sancerre)
  • Domaine Mardon (Quincy, Reuilly)
  • Vincent Pinard (Sancerre)
  • Paul Prieur et Fils (Sancerre)

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