Is Sancerre Getting Serious?
Too often dismissed as a middling or "safe" choice, sauvignon blanc from this Loire region has way more to offer than you think.
Sancerre is among the favorite wines of Christian Grey—the notorious main character of the steamy, erotic, sorta-BDSM romance novel, Fifty Shades of Grey—which he enjoys with his lover, Anastasia Steele. Perhaps you know this already. Perhaps you have read the original Fifty Shades trilogy, first published over a decade ago, selling more than 150 million copies in 52 languages. Perhaps you have seen the movie, or listened to the Fifty Shades classical music album, or bought the branded lingerie or handcuffs or riding crop.
Is Fifty Shades of Grey a relevant thing to bring into a conversation about Sancerre? Probably not. And yet. Maybe this is why you, or someone you know, first tasted a certain sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley.
How do people discover the wines they like anyway? Deep in the wine world, we pretend to believe that critics or sommeliers or columnists or wine educators are the ones who stimulate the drinking public’s desires to try something new. But we know that’s not true. Sancerre is a classic example of this. No one in the wine bubble ever evangelized for Sancerre. It’s not a darling of the natural wine movement, or collectors, or wine influencers. Nor, to be fair, has it become a caricature or gained a vaguely trashy reputation, like pinot grigio or prosecco. Sancerre just sort of exists. It’s generally crisp and refreshing and—as French words go—it’s relatively easy for Americans to pronounce. People just like it.
In 2013, Lettie Teague wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal that called Sancerre “wine’s Tom Hanks” because of its “familiarity and mass appeal.” In the article, Teague quotes a top New York sommelier who derisively calls it “the salmon of wines” and vows not to offer it by the glass, because “Sancerre would outsell everything else.” In the end, Teague decides that most people who enjoy Sancerre do so because of its “capacity to refresh.” And that’s pretty much been the word on Sancerre for about a decade. I confess, outside of professional tastings, I didn’t think very much about the wines.
Then, during an extravagant birthday dinner, I tasted a transcendant Sancerre, Didier Dagueneau Le Mont Damné (made by the legendary winemaker’s son, Benjamin, who has run the estate since Didier’s death in 2008). I could not get this particular Sancerre out of my mind. Since I was traveling in the Loire a couple months ago, I decided to pay the region a visit (it’s a little over two hours drive south from Paris; about 2-3 hours east from Touraine) and check out what was happening.
What I found is that it’s a critical time, an inflection point, in Sancerre. Like so many established regions, this is a matter of both climate change and the changing mindset of a new generation who wants to evolve the reigning, established style. This past summer, I wrote about a similar shift happening in La Rioja. In Sancerre, the shift is more subtle but no less profound.
A significant concern in Sancerre is climate. The last three vintages have been hot and tumultuous (frost, hail, humidity). In 2021, frost damage cost producers an estimated 60% of their crop. Alcohol levels are also rising, well above 14% in some cases. I’ve tasted some well hovering around 15% abv. (No one really wants a 15% abv Sancerre, trust me.)
In the village of Bué, I met with Florent Pinard, who (with his brother Clément) is the 20th generation to make wine at Domaine Vincent Pinard. Pinard told me that, in 2020, they harvested on August 28th. This was, by far, the earliest his father could remember in 55 harvests, unthinkable even two decades ago. By comparison, the 2021 harvest began on September 24th. For Pinard, like others of his generation, the answer is in changing winegrowing practices. The Pinards have been organic since 2004, and biodynamic for the past five years. “There’s really great terroir in Sancerre, old terroir, but too often there is poor soil.”
“Sancerre, in the U.S., is an easy sell. But that means we have an obligation, to set an example,” said Matthieu Delaporte, the 33-year-old winemaker at Domaine Delaporte, which he took over a decade ago, converting the family’s 33 hectares from conventional to organic farming. “The soil was dead, and we were still selling really well,” Delaporte said. “I felt we had to change the reputation. I want to inspire people around here so they can see I was not crazy. I hope this new generation will change the image of Sancerre.”
Unlike in other legacy regions, there’s no movement of producers in Sancerre to leave the official appellation. Delaporte actually laughed at that suggestion. “No, no,” he said, “we have a big fucking opportunity with this name Sancerre that everyone knows. We have to find the solution together.”
I met Delaporte at his winery in Chavignol, a village of around 80 full-time residents, sitting a few kilometers from the hilltop village of Sancere (a vertitable metropolis with 1,400 residents). Chavignol is famous for two things, some of Sancerre’s most coveted vineyards (including Les Monts Damnés) and goat cheese. Crottin de Chavignol is the famed local cheese.
“The match of Sancerre and goat cheese is one of the most perfect pairings you can find,” Delaporte said. This is 1000% true. Sauvignon blanc from Sancerre may be one of the more easily-paired wines in the world, but it reaches its apogee when paired with pungent, earthy goat cheese.
I stayed in an Airbnb above an art gallery, next to Chavignol’s only hotel, and across the tiny square, past the fountain from cheesemaker Romain Dubois. Behind the counter was an array of Crottin de Chavignol, from a few days to five weeks old. When it’s young, it’s soft and white. As it ages, the rind gets harder and darker, and the taste stronger. I tried not to think too much of the cheese’s etymology—it had been originally named in Sancerrois dialect for a small clay oil lamp, but since crottin in French means “dung” and because its resemblance to…well anyway, the name stuck.
The older man behind the counter took an aged cheese in his hand and said, “When the cheese is a little blue like this, you must eat it all, including the rind. It is very healthy for you.” I have no idea whether this advice is medically or nutritionally sound.
Besides my cheese, he also sold me a saucission (also in the crottin shape) and a cheese knife. With a stop at a boulangerie for a baguette, plastic cups from the Airbnb, and wine in tow, it was all perfect for a picnic in the town of Sancerre (recently named France’s favorite village by a French television network). In a hilltop park near Chateau Sancerre, I unwrapped the Crottin de Chavignol, the sausage, tore hunks of bread, uncorked the wine and watched the Loire drift lazily along in the valley below. I could not imagine a better lunch.
Likewise, much of the Sancerre I tasted during my days there left me shook. Honestly, having my perceptions scrambled is one of the primary joys of traveling to wine regions. Sancerre delivered.
For instance, consider the standard descriptors of sauvignon blanc: gooseberry (or is it cat pee?), grapefruit, herbal, pepper, and of course…grassy. When I mentioned the ubiquitous “grassy” note to Florent Pinard, he laughed. “Well there are two kinds of grassy,” he said. “There’s grass when the maturing is bad. And then there is a grassy that’s vital and ripe.” That vital, ripe grassiness, with great acidity, a bit of salinity, and a thrilling, underlying energy—sign me up.
The sweet spot seems to be a touch over $30 for something incredible, but there are plenty of terrific Sancerre for $20-25. I have been regularly seeking them out for weeks—one of the great advantages of Sancerre is that there are literally dozens of them imported. These are not hard wines to find.
“Ten years ago, it was different,” Pinard said. “Now, you find Sancerre in all the best restaurants in the world. Now it’s not just popular, it’s serious. When you see Burgundy, the prices are crazy. But Sancerre is still affordable. Everyone can buy Sancerre.”
Serious Sancerre To Change Your Mind
Fresh, great balance, and a lot of complexity for this price point. Subtle at first, but at midpalate, there’s an explosion warm citrus and a smoky, chalky finish. Great example of new-wave Sancerre.
Also, if you can find it: Domaine Delaporte Les Monts Damnés, $60.
One of the best-value wines I tasted in 2021, lithe, wispy, energetic, full of lime, zest, ripe pear, framed by fresh, salinity throughout. This is a Sancerre with aging potential: I also had a chance to taste a 2008 Flores, and the deep, earthy notes of honeycomb, white truffle, and an opulence that feels like we’ve drifted into Burgundy or Mosel territory.
This may be a splurge, but it's also a fantastic, transcendent wine. Long, linear, precise, textural, full of spice, yuzu, Asian pear, salted lemon, sliding into a long saline finish. I also had a chance to taste the 2009 and wow: a swirling spice rack of cumin, cinnamon, Szechaun peppercorn, clove, balanced by honeysuckle, pear, and an incredible freshness.
Also, if you can find it: Domaine Vincent Pinard Grande Chemarin 2019, $55
Lovely aromas of blossoms and tarragon, warm juicy tangerine throughout, open-knit, fleshy, generous but balanced by precise acidity. Great value.
Pretty nose of lime blossom and zest, fascinating palate of tomato water, clementine, good acidity and a core of chalky minerality. Great value.
Bright and cheery, with an underlying seriousness. Aromas of lime, mint, talc and flavors of white grapefruit and salted lemon, with flinty notes. Good value (I have previously found this around $22)