Even the Bad Times are Good: Mastering Sauvignon Blanc in Sancerre and Bordeaux

Visiting France in the Spring of 2013, it seemed likely it would be a difficult year: it was cold everywhere and bud break was substantially delayed. Things never really caught up during the growing season. Harvest was small and just about achieved ripeness.

The previous year had been difficult in many places: conditions in the Loire and in Bordeaux were somewhat similar overall, with rain in July, dry conditions in August and September, and then rain again. Harvested earlier, the whites may have come off better than the reds in Bordeaux. At the eastern edge of the Loire, Sancerre and Pouilly Fume produced quite rich 2012s, better than 2011 where there had been problems with rot.

At tastings of the 2012 and 2013 vintages in Sancerre and Pessac-Léognan, I was struck by the comparison between the regions and the vintages. The whites from Pessac offer a fascinating contrast with Sancerre. They range from 100% Sauvignon Blanc, which should be more or less directly comparable, to wines with up to 50% Sémillon. The more common use of oak in Bordeaux tends to soften the wines; and where new oak is used the flavor profile is quite distinct at this young age. Where Sémillon is high there is more of a nutty texture.

But Sancerre is no longer as distinct from Bordeaux as it used to be: the consequence of greater ripeness is that there are Sancerres where the fruits point more to peaches and apricots than citrus. Today, effectively Bordeaux and Sancerre each show a range of styles, with quite a bit of overlap. The old image of grassy herbaceousness has definitely gone.

Bordeaux tends to be citrus driven when there is 100% (or close to it) Sauvignon, with only occasional notes of grassiness. With Semillon the fruits become rounder and more stone-driven. But Sancerre is achieving a similar effect through greater ripeness. The richest Sancerre might be confused with Bordeaux; and some of the 100% Sauvignons in Bordeaux might be confused with Sancerre.

There seems, at this stage anyway, to be more of a distinct difference between 2012 and 2013 in Pessac than in Sancerre. In Pessac, acidity is noticeably more pressing in 2013, with fruits tending towards lemon and grapefruit, whereas 2012 gives more of a stone fruit impression.

In Sancerre, I noticed a great difference as to whether the current wine on offer was the 2013 or 2012 vintage. The difference was not so much in the intrinsic quality of the vintages (barrel samples show that 2013 was actually quite successful in Sancerre) or even the fact that the 2012 had had a year’s extra aging. The real point was that producers whose current vintage was 2013 had bottled it after no more than about four months on the lees; whereas producers who had not yet bottled 2013 and whose current vintage was 2012 had usually given the wine around eight months on the lees. The extra complexity from longer exposure to the lees was really evident. Is this the major difference between the artisanal and commercial approach?

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From Goats to Wine

When you visit Sancerre, the locals are quick to extol the match between the wine and the famous goats’ cheese, the Crottin de Chavignol. Staying just outside Sancerre in the village of Chavignol on a recent visit, I was struck by the fact that I could not actually see any goats. When I asked about this, the first answer was that the goats were on the tops of the hills. But when I went back and checked, the hills were covered with vines right up to the summits. Pressing the question further, my informants grinned and explained that vineyards have become so much more profitable that they have entirely displaced the goats. A striking demonstration of the change is the situation on the outskirts of Chavignol: the new Bourgeois winery stands where goats used to roam.

Goats1

Goats used to walk along the road leading out of Chavignol

Bourgeois1The Bourgeois winery is a splendid facility at the top of the hill

There’s more than one metaphor in this. The nearest goats are to be found in Cosne-sur-Loire, a few miles to the north – but the cheese hasn’t changed its name: it is still AOP Crottin de Chavignol. In fact, the AOP was granted in 1976, right around the time when the goats began to be displaced (they were pretty much gone by the eighties). That seems somehow indicative of the way INAO (the body in charge of the appellation system) operates.

A more significant point, perhaps is that the expansion of the vineyards has been matched by major change in the style of Sancerre. Sancerre used to be punishingly acid and positively herbaceous., Today it still usually has good acidity, but vegetal qualities go no further than grassiness. Fruits range from classic gooseberries to citrus, and even in many cases to stone fruits. Some wines are positively unctuous and exotic. This is partly because of the trend to later harvesting, aided by global warming, and partly due to the increase of concentration that has resulted from lower yields. Sancerre producers don’t admit to any direct influence from the success of New World Sauvignon Blanc, but they do concede that the modern consumer wants to see more upfront fruit in the wine.

When Sancerre was very acid and herbaceous, it was a perfect match for the sharp tang of the cheese. But is that still true: do wines where stone fruits are at least as evident as citrus really match the cheese? You can still get Sancerre in the classic idiom with enough of a grassy tang to match the cheese, but most have achieved a ripeness level that has substituted a new typicity. The perfect match has disappeared along with the goats.