On Tour - Sancerre - Feb 2017

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 Les coteaux de Sancerre!

Sancerre is undoubtedly one of France's most famous wine regions. This is excellent news for local vignerons, but less good for the uninformed consumer who has a strong predilection for snapping up bottle after bottle of their (too often) overpriced and underwhelming herbaceous white wine. It was therefore with a fairly generous dollop of (ultimately unfounded) cynicism that I headed for a day's tasting in the Loire's most famous winelands.

 Hôtel de Ville, Sancerre

The appellation (AOC) of Sancerre covers a fairly significant 2,800ha of vineyard on the western bank of the Upper Loire, around 2hrs south of Paris, based around the eponymous hilltop town of Sancerre itself. It's over twice the size of its sister appellation of Pouilly-Fumé, which sits just across from Sancerre on the Loire's eastern bank. The region has seen a huge resurgence since the mid 20th century, with the area under vine trebling over the past 30 years!

 Western vineyards, Chavignol

Perhaps surprisingly, only 85% of production is white Sancerre, with 10% of wines red and 5% rosé. Of course Sauvignon Blanc is the dominant grape variety, however Pinot Noir is also ripened with some success mainly on the lesser vineyards with often overly generous yields. As with many evolved wine regions, the best local producers show a healthy obsession for terroir. Soils are Jurassic limestone based, but vary significantly, with a correspondingly stark impact on the wines. Sancerre from the west is often more overtly fruity and the soils have the highest chalk and clay content, with outcrops of the famed "Terres Blanches" Kimmeridgian marl. To the east, the AOC's soils are known for their "Silex" or flint and the wine is typically more floral and mineral.

 A magical hill...

Of Sancerre's many producers, we had the pleasure of visiting two of the greats: Domaine Vacheron and Vincent Pinard. The two share a commitment to very precise terroir expression and subtle oak influence in their wines. Oak use in Sancerre's whites is fairly atypical, as traditionally producers have avoided it in an effort to preserve Sauvignon Blanc's distinct varietal characteristics. However, not personally being a fan of the overtly herbaceous side of Sauvignon, I found the subtle use of oak and creamy lees character in their wines to be thrilling. Helping to temper the most blatant aromatics, allowing for a more savoury, complex and mineral expression. These wines were a hugely welcome antidote to my preconceptions around Sancerre's white wines and I was particularly impressed with their potential to develop further nutty savouriness with age.

 Tasting @ Vacheron

Domaine Vacheron is a star producer of the Loire Valley, located bang in the centre of the town of Sancerre itself. Their vineyards are on predominantly Silex (flint) soils within striking distance of the town, and constitute 34 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc and 11 hectares of Pinot Noir. The domaine is impressively dedicated to high quality, with a focus on biodynamics, single vineyard wines and very low yields. As mentioned, oak use is restrained, with a mix of old oak vessels - from 225 litre barriques to larger foudres. We were shown around by Jean-Laurent Vacheron, one of two 4th generation Vacheron cousins running the estate. Whilst the reds were fair, their whites were certainly the highlight: notable for their pure mineral character (attributed to their flint soils), creamy textured palate and beguilingly smoky finish. Their white 'Guigne-Chèvres' 2015 was top of the set for its limey peach and grass aromas, with a hint of sweet oak on a creamy-smoky palate, topped off with a long wet-stone finish!

 Cave action @ Vacheron

*Sancerre Blanc 'Guigne-Chèvres' 2015 - Lime, peach, grass and some oak. Creamy palate with a smoky, mineral finish. Very good! 8.5/10
*Sancerre Blanc 'Chambrates' 2013
- Lime, peach, asparagus, ginger and white pepper with a hint of rubber from its 4 years of age. Creamy palate with some goat's cheese in there, long and savoury finish. 7.5/10
*Sancerre Blanc 2015 -
Citrus, chamomile, slight bitterness. 7.5/10
*Sancerre Blanc 'Paradis' 2015 - From lighter soils, grapefruit and lemon. 7.5/10
*Sancerre Rouge 'Belle Dame' 2013 - Cherry, raspberry. Elegant. 7.25/10
*Sancerre Blanc 'Les Romains' 2015
- More overt with passion fruit and blossom. Young. 7/10
*Sancerre Rouge 2014
- A bit green and underipe. 6.5/10

 Something a little different at lunch chez Au P'tit Goûter

Domaine Vincent Pinard is a small estate of 17 hectares (75% Sauvignon, 25% Pinot) based in the village of Bué and still run by the Pinards, who are 20th generation Sancerrois! Their vineyards are based on the hills around the village itself on mainly stoney calcareous soils known as "Caillottes" (Little Stones). In parallel to Vacheron, their philosophy is based around restricted yields to preserve quality, single plot fermations and delicate oak influence in the cellar. We were shown around by Vincent's youngest son, the charming rugby-playing Clément Pinard. Who treated us to the highlight of our trip, a comprehensive sampling of his back vintages. Pinard is known as something of a Pinot specialist, and whilst his were superiour to Vacheron's, the awesomely mature whites still stole the show, bravo!

 Perched atop of Sancerre...

*Sancerre Blanc 'Petit Chemarin' 2008 - Citrus peel, creamy palate with honey and almond. Wonderful balance, just about pips the 2010! 8.5/10
*Sancerre Blanc 'Petit Chemarin' 2010
- Epicly creamy citrus peel, lime juice and smokey almond skin. Aging like a French model. 8.25/10
*Sancerre Blanc 'Grand Chemarin' 2015
- Sherbet lemon, creamy, with lovely spice and ginger. 8/10
*Sancerre Blanc 'Harmonie' 2014 -
Aged in 500L casks. Creamy peach, grass, goat cheese and lime. Good. 7.75/10
*Sancerre Rouge 'Charlouise' 2014 -
Older vines up 50yrs, 2/3 new oak. Spicy and concentrated red fruit with clove. 7.5/10
*Sancerre Blanc 'Petit Chemarin' 2015 - Rich but balanced with zesty acidity. Creamy lemon & lime, some greeness. Smokey. 7.5/10
*Sancerre Blanc 'Chene Marchand' 2015 - Green apple, citrus, honey, spice. 7.5/10
*Sancerre Blanc 'Grand Chemarin' 2011 - Almond, goat cheese, nice evolution (rubber on the nose!). 7.5/10
*Sancerre Blanc 'Nuance' 2015
- Some new oak, creamy lees. 7/10
*Sancerre Rouge 'Charlouise' 2000 - Fully mature Pinot with mushroom, fig, prune and clove. Dry tannins on the finish. 6.5/10
*Sancerre Rouge 2014
- Fresh and juicy, bit simple. 6/10
*Sancerre Blanc 'Flores' 2015 - Unoaked, basic cuvee. Fruity, simple compared to its cousins. Grapefruit & peach. 6/10

Jonny Orton