Acid, Smoke and Fruit: The wines of Sancerre

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | april 2018

When I was just beginning to learn about wine, I met a man at Gold Coast Wines on the snooty upper east side of Chicago near the Drake Hotel on Delaware Street. Celal Ince, a Turkish wine expert, became a friend and mentor to me for many years. It was from Celal that I first heard the French phrase pierre à fusil “gunflint or gun smoke" applied to a wine's aroma. This characteristic is the epitome of certain Sancerre and Pouilly Fumes from the Loire Valley. The phrase was also the precursor to the widely misused term “minerality." But before getting to why these wines have this quality, it would be helpful to understand the history and geology of the beautiful Loire Valley.

As is usually the case in Europe, it all started with the Romans who recognized the Loire's agricultural potential and introduced wine grapes to the area in 52 B.C. following Julius Caesar's conquest. The Loire valley was a valuable economic resource that was fought over for the next 1,100 years by the Huns, Saracens, the Frankish King Clovis and the Plantagenet Kings of England (through marriage) during the 11th century. The city of Tours was originally larger than Paris and this beautiful valley was the source of the first kings of France. The grand old chateaux and castles there today speak to this place as the birthing area of future French kings.

The 15th century brought the Hundred Years' War and the Thirty Years' War of the mid-16th century, followed by the plague that froze progress until the Industrial Revolution brought revitalization through the introduction of textile mills. By that time, the Loire Valley had become the vegetable supplier to the now dominant and larger city of Paris. Known for the quality of its asparagus and artichokes, the Loire's wines were being exported to Paris as well, but the wines of that time didn't in any way resemble modern Loire wines.

For more than 200 years after the opening of the Loire-Seine canal in 1642, Sancerre had been producing cheap red wine for shipment in casks or on pallets by barge to Paris. It wasn't until the early 1900s that Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir replaced the acres of low-grade, high-yielding Gamay. But most growers left the selling and often the making of the “new" Sancerre to others and continued to blend out the individuality for the mistaken idea of “consistency." What they blended out was the “terroir" or earthiness and some would call “minerality." What was not known until the late 19th century was the fact that beneath the ground of the Loire Valley was a mineral-rich outcropping that was going to make the wines of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume famous.

To understand Sancerre and Pouilly Fume you must understand the soil. There are two types of soil in the valley: terres blanche and caillottes. Terres blanche is a bed of Cretaceous clay thick with tiny marine fossils (the locals call it marne de crètacèe) that runs from Chablis, 75 miles northeast down through Pouilly and Sancerre. Callottes is a shattered limestone (crumbly chalk) that is present in streaks. Wines from soils with terres blanche are similar to Chablis in that it takes a few years for the wines to come around, whereas the wines from grapes grown in caillottes soil are enticing the spring after vinification.

But what about that gunflint? The slope between the town of Sancerre and the Loire River where vineyards were cultivated as early as the fifth century is rich in silex or flint. There's more flint on the opposite (east) side of the river near Saint Andelain. Wines from these two isolated sites are taut (bracing, high acidity) and minerally. The most famous of these vintners was Didier Dagueneau the flamboyant grower who named one of his iconic wines, Silex, after the gunflint mineral that gives the wine its characteristic smell of sparks as flint strikes steel. Didier might have been a little too flamboyant as he died in an ultralight plane crash in 2008, but his legacy was to renew interest in the wines of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume.

The 1970s were the real turning point for Sancerre wines. The impetus was the growth of the world wide wine movement as California, Chile, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa flooded the market with cheap but high quality Sauvignon Blanc. The new generation (my generation) was well traveled and understood the threat that these wines presented to Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. As Alain Cailbourdin, a prominent grower in the Loire bluntly put it, “We aren't here simply to make Sauvignon Blanc. We are here to express our terroir and Sauvignon Blanc is the means to do it." The soil and environment are what makes the Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre taste so different.

Lucien Crochet, one of the best Sancerrois producers, credits the 1976 vintage for the wine's next leap forward.

“It was a terrific warm year, and it produced the first modern vintage of any size to escape from the curse of excess acidity." When a series of frosts sent the prices of Chablis soaring a few years later, many Parisian bistros took refuge in the crisp whites of Sancerre.

The success of Sancerre in Paris was followed by an even more dramatic performance abroad. The now famous vintner Robert Haas, who owns Tablas Creek Vineyard, started importing Sancerre in the 1960s and today 40 percent of Sancerre production is exported to the US.

The driver that propelled Sancerre to its dominance was the stylistic change from a racy, relatively acidic wine often said to taste of grass and fresh cut hay — or less pastorally, of cat pee, to more domesticated grapes redolent of acacia, jasmine and sweet foliage with hints of citrus and pear but with that characteristic “gunflint" odor when the bottle is first opened, there but subdued. Now the acids are in perfect balance. The balance is between tartaric acid and malic acid. Tartaric acid sits on the middle of the tongue. Malic acid, usually a sign of unripe fruit, clings to the gums and lips. A good comparison would be to taste a pungent New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc along with a good Sancerre — same grape but two different worlds.

The first wine is the 2015 Chotard Sancerre, $25 at Sendiks in Mequon. The Chotard family has been making wine for several centuries. The grapes come from vines planted by Daniel Chotard's great grandfather. The fermentation takes place in barrels made of acacia where the wine ages for eight months on its lees. This is a complex wine with deep notes and a long finish. Try it with roasted salmon.

The Sancerre La Chatellenie 2015 by Joseph Mellot, $19 at Woodman's, was my favorite. Joe Mellot's family has been making wine in the Loire Valley for 500 years. The soil in the vineyard is composed of saltwater fossilized shellfish from the Cretaceous period 90 million BC. The flint-rich clay and silica soils give the Sauvignon Blanc grapes the characteristic taste of gunflint. The wine is pale gold with a green hue with aromas of citrus and box elder. The taste is soft and supple with a long mineral finish reminiscent of gunflint. I like this wine with broiled whitefish almandine and with goat cheese.

The Chateau de Sancerre 2016, was $20 at Costco and is intense with fresh mineral flavors and an aroma of grapefruit. (This wine is more reminiscent of New Zealand than of France) There are juicy citrus flavors and a floral finish. This was not my cup of tea but good for folks who like the aroma of cat piss and green bell pepper.

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