Sincere about Sancerre

by Jim Clarke
June 2008

I never thought there was much to say about Sancerre – white Sancerre, at least. Red Sancerre, I suppose, is still a bit under-the-radar, so it could use some attention, but the white variety, made from Sauvignon Blanc, has been pretty ubiquitous. It’s been held up as being more minerally and subtle than its New World competitors in New Zealand and (dare I add?) South Africa, but it could be that virtue has become a weakness; too many Sancerre’s are appearing that surpass subtlety so completely they fade into the woodwork entirely. New Zealand at its worst can be overwhelming, but Sancerre is in danger of inducing boredom.

Not all Sancerre, of course, and in fact, the exceptions make the other look like laggards. Aside from this qualitative difference, there is also a terroir-driven stylistic split. The eastern section is largely dominated by a soil called silex, a mix of clay and flint that seems to lend a gunsmoke touch to the wines. It’s the same flint that puts the “fumé” in Pouilly-Fumé, on the other side of the Loire. As you move west, away from the river, the soils become more gravelly and the flint gives way to limestone and chalk; fruit expression becomes more dominant in the wines. Producers may blend wines from different vineyards to meld these characteristics, or let one terroir shine on its own. Traditionally producers have relied on old casks (called “foudre”) or stainless steel tanks for fermentation, allowing the grapes to do the talking; however, today not a few are using newer oak barrels for their richer, more powerful wines.

Henry Natter
Henry and Cécile Natter dove into winegrowing immediately after their marriage in the early 70s; their first vineyard property - a little over an acre – has since grown to about twenty acres in size, all grown organically. The winery is the only one in Montigny (one of Sancerre’s 15 villages) in the southwest of the region, and their wines capture the Chablis-like, chalky minerality of the region. The 2006 is delicious in its elegant mix of fruit – pear, lemon, and a touch of fig – and mineral notes. It’s light-bodied, but still substantial, and very focused from the nose to the finish.

Michel Thomas
The Michel Thomas domaine dates farther back, but is still a 20th century creation; the current owner Michel took over from his father in 1970. They own 40 individual vineyard parcels, divided amongst four different villages lying on both sides of the limestone-flint divide. Their two white Sancerres demonstrate the differences engendered by the soils. The “La Chaume” is a made with a blend of grapes from both soil types, but favors the limestone side. In the 2006 that means great peach, citrus, and grapefruit scents as well as a note of fresh cut grass and an alluring (and somewhat unusual) spicy touch. It’s intense and fresh, with a mouthwatering finish. The “Silex” is all about flint soils, old vines (60 years or more), and old-fashioned winemaking; Michel created it in honor of his grandfather, and lets the wine rest on its lees for a year before bottling it without filtering. The 2006 is flinty, even slatey, with gooseberry, lime, and green apple notes. Medium-bodied and elegant, the acidity and finish is quite smooth.

Lucien Crochet
The Crochet family has been making wine in Sancerre since the 1930s; today their vineyard holdings are extensive – about 75 acres – and divided among four villages. Unlike many producers, they offer wines that not only capture the broad distinctions between the area’s soils, but even produce a few single-vineyard wines of individual character.

Le Chene, from the Clos du Chene Marchand vineyard, is the lightest and most aromatic of these wines. The 2005 shows melon, pear, floral, and honeyed notes, with an underlying minerality. The vineyard is in the village of Bué, in the south of the Sancerre region. The Clos du Roy yields Crochet a wine they call Croix du Roy, which consistently exemplifies the virtues of Sancerre. The medium-bodied 2005, for example, balances a similar mineral touch against grass, herb, pear, and citrus notes, and stays refreshing without being overly tart. In special vintages Crochet also makes a more powerful wine, the Cuvée L.C.” which offers a more powerful take on the region’s character, with some “modern” signs of oak to it.

Recommended Wines

Henry Natter Sancerre 2006 ($25)
Michel Thomas ‘La Chaume’ Sancerre 2006 ($22)
Michel Thomas ‘Silex’ Sancerre 2006 ($29)
Lucien Crochet ‘Le Chene’ Sancerre 2005 ($25)
Lucien Crochet ‘Croix du Roy’ Sancerre 2005 ($25)