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June 6, 2021

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A summery sip from Sancerre

In step with the changing seasons my good friends at this paper are introducing the summertime delights of cucumbers, luffa and bitter gourds. All these related plants have the ability to help soothe and appease the oppression of summer’s heat. Technically they are all part of the Cucurbitaceae family that comprises cucumbers, melons, squash and pumpkins as well as a host of inedible gourds.

One popular wine variety not only pairs wonderfully with many members of the Cucurbitaceae family, but is also a charming companion to many of our favorite summer dishes. Sauvignon Blanc is one of the wine world’s most popular and food-friendly wines.

Sauvignon Blanc originated in the Gironde area of southwest France in the 17th century and is possibly a descendant of the more ancient variety Savagnin.

The most popular modern manifestation of this grape are the New World Sauvignon Blanc wines of Marlborough but the spiritual home of single variety Sauvignon Blanc wines is in the geographic heart of France.

Sancerre

The Loire River runs through the heart of France, and wines from this region have captured the hearts of wine lovers all around the world. In particular, the wines from the hillside vineyards around the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume have the ability to produce aromatic white wines of purity and elegance. Sancerre white wines are some of the most elegantly perfumed wines in the world that are meant to be enjoyed as much with the nose as with the mouth.

Long before the Romans arrived in the first century AD, the Celtic tribe Brituriges planted vines on the hillsides along the Loire River near what is now Sancerre.

The Romans advanced cultivation and winemaking techniques and the area built a reputation for fine wines throughout the empire. As elsewhere in Europe, with the fall of the Roman Empire it was monks who kept the science and art of winemaking alive. 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 wines of Sancerre were not as highly regarded as those from Champagne and Burgundy. Tragedy hit in the late 1860s when the Phylloxera epidemic devastated the vines of Sancerre, as well as vines in many other regions of France.

In Sancerre, most the growers replanted with the white variety Sauvignon Blanc because it took better to the American rootstock that was resistant to the disease and performed better in the cool climate. Today Sauvignon Blanc accounts for about 85 percent of Sancerre AOC wines with Pinot Noir rose and red wines comprising the rest.

As is often the case in history, in Sancerre it wasn’t the daring sagacity of the winemakers and owners that created one of the great white wines of the world. It was desperation.

Since the Sancerre AOC was established in 1936, the region has grown in size fourfold with the most recent expansion of the appellation in 1998. There are currently nearly 3,000 hectares under vine, mostly planted in sloping vineyards among the low-lying hills and valleys that surround the historic and picturesque village of Sancerre.

The climate is predominantly continental with extreme seasonal temperature differences that help bequeath freshness to the wines.

The region has three main soil types: clay, limestone and flint, with many vineyards having a mix of soils. In general, top Sancerre wines tend to be floral and elegant with razor-sharp acidity and pronounced minerality. The fresh nature of Sancerre wines is also due to a judicious use of oak or total lack of oak in the winemaking process, though I must also admit to tasting some wonderful barrel-fermented and aged wines.

When I see the increasing number of excellent wines available in China, I’m still dumbfounded about the relative underrepresentation of Sancerre.

Perhaps that’s due to the popularity of the more overly exuberant and less-costly New World Sauvignon Blancs, or perhaps the more reserved and lean style of Sancerre wines needs more time to be accepted in China.

One of my favorite wines is made by the multi-generation Sancerre producers Vincent Pinard. The family hand-picks grapes from their 17 hectares of land to make a line of single vineyard wines all with their own distinct yet thoroughly Sancerre characters.

The Vincent Pinard Sancerre Cuvee Flores is vinified with half aged on the lees in wooden vats and half in stainless steel tanks. The result is a refreshing wine with intense citrus and white peach flavors with pleasing notes of toast and cream and the trademark Sancerre flintlock.

Additional highly-regarded Sancerre producers with wines available in Shanghai include Mellot, Vincent Delaporte, Henri Bourgeois, Laporte, Pascal Jolivet and Jean-Max Roger. All Sancerre wines should be served well-chilled or about 8 to 10 degrees Celsius.

The northern continental climate of Sancerre experiences some weather extremes which results in pronounced vintage variations. The recent vintages from 2019 to 2015 have all been good to great but consumers should avoid the poor 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 vintages. Wines from the excellent 2010 and 2009 vintage showcase the age-worthiness of top Sancerre wines.




 

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