Loire Valley: Sancerre, You Saucy Minx

Our second to last stop on the Loire Valley Wine Odyssey was Sancerre, home of THE finest Sauvignon Blanc in the world. (Or, at least the most well-known!)

Getting to Sancerre from Tours was a little more than we bargained for (theme of the entire trip). It was about a three-hour drive from Tours to Sancerre. We got lost several times, including when the sat nav sent us to a dead end down a dirt road in the middle of a forest/construction site. And on the way, we almost hit a horse that was carting around a bunch of children.

The episode kind of went like this:

Emma: Are we going the right way?

Rachel: I have no idea.

Emma: This is a dirt road, I think it’s telling us to take a left…

BOTH: HORSE!!! [banks hard right and swerves and nearly falls off the road]

[all the French children in horse cart stare haughtily; some laugh]

(After that, we regained our nerves, continued to drive down the dirt road, and ended up in a dead end. I started laughing hysterically while Emma contemplated crying.)

We finally made it to Sancerre after several more hours of tortured driving. Sancerre is, without question, one of loveliest spots in the Loire. The town itself is nestled on a little hill, surrounded by sprawling vineyards on gently rolling hills dotted with farmhouses. There are cobblestone streets, boulangeries, little cafés and all the French countryside ambience you could ask for.

(An aside about that ambience… After Emma and I arrived in Sancerre, we parked the car and immediately went in search of some food. We stopped at one of the cafés in the center of town with a big open-air dining room and ordered some sandwiches and wine. It was quiet, calm and relaxing. We were just starting to de-stress from the drive when the tranquil atmosphere was broken by loud shrieking from two waitresses/owners. They were berating an older woman at the bar, who was clearly enjoying the wine. Apparently she had recently returned from the restroom where she had clogged the toilet. And now the entire café was made aware of her transgression. So much for the ambience.)

Anyway, back on track.

Sancerre is famous for mainly one wine varietal – Sauvignon Blanc. The Sauvignon Blancs from Sancerre set the standard for classical wine education, in that Sancerre sauvs are what the grape varietal “should” taste like – crisp acidity, lemon/lime and grapefruit flavors, a zesty minerality and some of those grassy pyrazines (a phenomenon known among tasters as “green bell pepper” or, more artfully as “cat piss”).

It is the minerality that sets French Sauvignon Blanc apart from its more fruit forward New World counterparts. Sauvs from New Zealand, Australia, California and even South Africa give drinkers the same citrusy notes, but in a fresh fruit bouquet with rounder, softer, edges. Think orange blossom instead of lemon peel.

The acid and minerality of Sancerre sauv – borne from the limestone, flint and chalk in the Loire soil – is what gives the wine its appeal. The soil composition provides unparalleled complexity, and the high acidity of these wines give them strong balance on the palate and make them exceptional with food.

Everyone in Sancerre grows Sauvignon Blanc. Everyone. So, everything we tasted was….Sauvignon Blanc. (Some vineyards do make Sancerre Rouge, which is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.) It should be said that Sancerre makes a lot of wine for export – that is, some of the vignerons bulk produce their wines for the sole purpose of selling them on the international market, rather than at home. These vignerons make their money off of a product that allows consumers to say, “this is a Sancerre,” without having to shell out that much cash in the process. We did taste some of this wine. It was underwhelming.

Two of the domains we visited grow for both domestic distribution and for export – Domaine Henri Bourgeois and Domaine André Neveu. Both are bigger, somewhat corporate outfits, but both had some exceptional wines. My favorite was a 2009 Sancerre Jadis that we tasted at Henri Bourgeois. The grapes are grown on 60 year old vines, and made according to Grandfather Bourgeois’ recipe. The wine is aged for up to a year in oak, which is unusual for a Sauvignon Blanc, but manages to shed a whole new light on what Sauvignon Blanc can be. The oak softens the sharp, citrusy edges of the grape, and gives the wine a complex character that is beautifully balanced between acidity and fruit. There are hints of nutmeg, marmalade and honey with a light and lovely finish.

Domaine Henri Bourgeois is actually located in a town adjacent to Sancerre, called Chavignol. Chavignol is famous for its wines as well, but also for its goat cheese - chèvre. Sancerre and chèvre are a classic pairing combination, one that is supposed to bring out and highlight the complementary flavors of each component. We were able to try this pairing at a restaurant in Chavignol. And by “a restaurant” I really mean the only restaurant IN Chavignol, and by “restaurant” I actually mean a tiny one-room with a menu on a mobile chalkboard, and some dogs running in and out of the kitchen.

Oh, France.

Nevertheless, we persisted! We both ordered the Chavignol omelet and some house Sancerre. The Chavignol omelet was a standard omelet, creamy and well cooked, with layers of fresh goat cheese. So fresh, in fact, that there was actual goat hair in the chèvre. (!)

The Sancerre was unlabeled and made in-house. From the searingly high acid profile - my hair practically stood up when I took the first sip - I’m guessing it was a year old, if that.

Seperately, these two elements are a shocking and intense palate experience. The goat cheese is raw and rank and coats your tongue with its creamy, bitter, nose-crinkling, tanginess. Likewise, a young Sancerre will rip the skin off your mouth with a puckering sourness that makes your ears buzz and an acidity that goes right up your nose.

But together, both are far more enjoyable than they are apart! (thank goodness.) The acid in the Sancerre takes the sting out of the goat cheese and renders it somewhat sweet in your mouth. Likewise, the creaminess of the chèvre blunts the sharp elbows of the Sancerre and smoothes it out on your tongue (and your nose and ears!). There’s a reason that Sancerre and chèvre are among the “classical” pairings of the wine world!

The experience of Sancerre was indisputably French - lovely, fickle, frustrating, but with really good wine. A perfect wrap up to the Loire Valley, and a solid send off to our last wine stop in France - Champagne.