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It’s easy to claim that France’s finest dry white wines are its burgundies and Champagnes.
But when it comes to awarding third place I will take a stand: Sancerre, the enchanting sauvignon blanc-based glory of the Loire Valley deserves to take the bronze.
If that comes as a surprise to devotees of Alsatian rieslings and Rhone Valley viogniers, I will argue my point vigorously with you over a glass of each.
For me, good Sancerre (and there is a lot that isn’t) gives more sheer happiness than the rest of those fine white bottlings. Unlike them, it can be drunk with just about anything shy of charcoal-grilled steak or lamb.
Sancerre’s brisk, vegetal and mineral flavors marry impeccably with any seafood dish. With most appetizers, even foie gras, it is a worthy complement. When it comes to pairing with chicken, few wines can match it.
As an aperitif it perks up the appetite and may be carried to the dinner table with ease.
This is certainly not true of sauvignon blancs from most other parts of the world, especially in New Zealand, where the varietal is a major export. In California and Oregon, examples range so widely in style that it’s hard to say anything definitive at all.
Good Sancerre has the fruit most people love in a white wine, enough acid to keep it bright and fresh, minerals to give it complexity, and a price that’s affordable enough for just about any size gathering.
Sancerre is a very large appellation in France’s Loire Valley region, with considerable variation across vineyards and terroirs.
Those around the town of Sancerre have the flintiest soil, vineyards to the west produce more delicate wines, and those farthest west make the richest wines.
Traditionally, Sancerre was vinified bone dry, buoyed by its minerality and herbaceous flavors. However, thanks to global warming, the wines have taken on more fruitiness from increased sugars in the past decade.
Still, their alcohol by volume is rarely much above 13 percent.
I rounded up a passel of Sancerres and tasted them with everything from a Cobb salad to beer-battered shrimp. Here are my notes:
Domaine Fournier Sancerre “Cuvee Silex” 2008 ($40)
Claude Fournier is a 10th-generation winemaker, his wife Eliane a 13th and with 150 acres of vineyards, tradition and expertise show. Can Sancerre age well? This four-year old vintage proves it can. While its elements are subtle, they add up to a wine that is French sunshine in a glass, with beautiful color and nose, and long lasting on the palate.
Domaine Fournier Pere & Fils Grande Cuvee “Vielles Vignes” 2008 ($27)
This “old vines” Sancerre shares the Cuvee Silex’s richness and adds more. Fournier cools the must before fermentation and lets it sit on the lees for half a day to impart richness. It is in impeccable shape right now and makes for a fine wine with creamy cheeses like Camembert and Brie.
Domaine Fournier Sancerre “Les Belles Vignes” 2010 ($20-$23)
Fourier’s bargain Sancerre, made from 15 to 20-year-old vines, is a splendid mix of flinty minerals and lush fruit, ideal for chicken dishes and wild salmon.
Pascal Jolivet Sancerre 2010 ($16-22)
For a winery only founded in 1987, Pascal Jolivet makes enchanting, very versatile Sancerre from an ideal soil mixture of 50 percent limestone, 30 percent chalky clay, and 20 percent flint, all of which give it a fresh, spicy nose and green spring flavors like new grass. It’s always sold at a very decent price, too.
Jean-Paul Picard Sancerre 2010 ($20-$22)
Since the 17th century, the Picard family has made wines in the Loire Valley. It continues to produce a limited amount of wine of which the Sancerre is an elegant example, with light ginger notes.
Baron de Ladoucette Sancerre “Comte Lafond” 2010 ($28-$36)
Long a champion of the modern style in the Loire, the estate’s Sancerres are known for their well-knit spices and acids, along with flowery bouquet and long finish at the back of the palate. It is superb with shellfish.
Clos de la Poussie 2010 ($32)
If you like bone-dry wine of the old school, this is your Sancerre. The vineyards were until recently in terrible shape, when this vintage was produced, but now appear to be much healthier. The wine’s only virtue was its crisp, citrusy acids. Otherwise its dryness was merely bland.
Domaine Thomas et Fils Sancerre La Crele 2010 ($25)
The very pale color may fool you, yet this is a big, full- fruited wine, made from old vines, with 13.5 percent alcohol. It’s what they should be aiming for in New Zealand and California, and if you like that style, try this for a lot more finesse.
Foucher Lebrun Sancerre Le Mont 2010 ($15)
What a bargain for a bold, floral example of Sancerre from a small producer, with a perfect balance of fruit and acid and a refreshingly dry finish.
(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, Martin Gayford on art and Zinta Lundborg’s interviews.
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