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March 23, 2017

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The dry white that divides the wine world

ISACS is the founder and CEO of EnjoyGourmet, a leading gourmet digital ( and print media company in China. He has authored over a dozen wine and food books including the awarded ISACS Guides and other gourmet books and is a wine consultant to governments, wine regions and organizations. He also hosts wine events for leading organizations and companies throughout China. Contact John via

I was taught during my formative years that one may dislike something but never hate it. Years ago, polite society frowned upon using the word “hate” or other terms denoting extreme negative emotions. Notwithstanding my upbringing, I’m now immersed in the passionate world of wine where there’s no shortage of both love and hate. Here are some prime examples.

Rose wines in China tend to be loved by some and scorned by others. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve served a perfectly lovely and delicate rose wine at events only to have one or more gentlemen exclaim that the wine is far too light. I respectfully explain that it’s a rose wine with less skin contact during the winemaking process and is supposed to be that way. But with their ingrained misconception that the darker a red wine the better, they persist in disparaging the light wine only to have young females sitting near them with their more discerning palates thoroughly enjoying it.

Other styles of wines that elicit polarizing emotions include Pinot Grigio, loved by the masses and dismissed by wine snobs; Merlot, slammed in the movie “Sideways” but still the world’s best-selling red, and Lambrusco, the hot-selling Italian sparkling red wine that’s almost always an abhorrent wine. Another example is dry Sherries that are deeply fancied by wine experts and mystifying to beginners.

Even wine glasses aren’t spared the emotive and fickle ways of wine aficionados. Just take a look at sparkling wine glasses. The saucer glass that was supposedly modeled after a part of Josephine’s anatomy was once all the rage until it was replaced by the flute. For decades, fashionable drinkers scorned the saucer glass while coveting the elegant flute that highlighted the elegant small bubbles. Now sparkling wine lovers and producers are dumpling the flute glasses and opting for wider bowled glasses that emphasize aromas. In other words, big booty glasses are in.

It’s hard to image that in the not too distant past Sauvignon Blanc wines were also good examples of the wine world’s love and hate relationships. New Zealand, and in particular the Marlborough region, changed the way we think about Sauvignon Blanc wines. These overtly extroverted, lovable wines with abundant fruitiness and intensity are almost impossible to dislike. But this Sauvignon Blanc love affair that now also includes the charming Sauvignon Blancs from Chile is a relatively new phenomenon. Before these New World whites burst upon the scene, single variety Sauvignon Blancs were almost exclusively associated with the Loire Valley, notably the towns and hillside vineyards of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. Excellent white wines have been made in these regions for over a century, but they’re not loved by all. Typically, the wines are bone dry with good minerality and a signature scent of cat piss. I’m not joking. Wine students are asked to distinguish scents of cat piss while learning about Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume wines. I adore these sophisticated Old World Sauvignon Blanc wines, but not all drinkers agree.

Purity and elegance

The scenic Loire River meanders through the heart of France often surrounded by vineyards. Many of the best wines of the Loire Valley come from the hillside vineyards around the village of Sancerre have the ability to seduce palates that desire white wines of purity and elegance. Sancerre white wines are leaner and more elegant than New World Sauvignon Blancs with more delicate aromatics. Oak is used judiciously, if at all. Because of the quality of these wines, the region is sometimes referred to as the king of the hill in the Loire Valley.

Since AD 1 when the Romans first planted vines on the south-facing hillsides overlooking the majestic Loire River, the wines of this region were mostly red wine made from the Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes. Historically linked to the Duchy of Burgundy, it’s no accident that the red grapes of Burgundy were favored, however, the red wines of Sancerre were never as highly regarded as those from Burgundy. The phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th century devastated the Pinot Noir and Gamay vines of Sancerre and most the growers replanted with the white variety Sauvignon Blanc because it took better to the disease resistant American rootstock. Today Sauvignon Blanc accounts for about 80 percent of Sancerre wines while Pinot Noir comprises 20 percent.

Since the Sancerre AOC was established in 1936, it has grown in size fourfold with the most recent expansion in 1998.

In the world of wines bigger seldom means better wines, and in fact, the rapid expansion of the Sancerre region resulted in wines of varying quality. Knowing the sub-appellations and vineyards within the Sancerre AOC is one method to select the best wines, but the easiest way is to pick a reputable producer.

Unfortunately, Sancerre producers and their wines are vastly underrepresented in Shanghai and the rest of China so finding these wines isn’t easy. Some good producers with wines available here include Henri Bourgeois, Laporte and Joseph Mellot.

Quite fittingly, Sancerre wines also happen to make good partners to several of the love-hate dishes featured in today’s iDeal feature story. I’ve successfully served them with bitter melon as well as garlic, coriander and Chinese chive intensive dishes. They’re also perfect wines with many seafood dishes including raw seafood but I’d avoid raw drunken shrimp and crabs as the alcohol used for marinating the seafood can overpower the wines. Instead try another love-hate style of wine, dry Fino or Manzanilla Sherries.

Where to buy in Shanghai (website)

Domaine Laporte Sancerre Le Rochoy


Pudao Wines, 376 Wukang Rd, 6090-7075

Jospeh Mellot La Graveliere Sancerre

Jospeh Mellot La Chantellenie Sancerre

Jospeh Mellot 500 Ans Sancerre

Varieties: The most important variety in Sancerre is Sauvignon Blanc, but a limited amount of eminently drinkable Pinot Noir red wine is also made.

Key term: Bone dry is a term used to describe the driest of dry wines.


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