Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé: Wonderful Summer Sauvignon Blancs

On the eastern end of the Loire Valley in France sit the two communes of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé where arguably the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world is produced.  For many, this is the true home for this grape.  While new world producers in California, New Zealand and elsewhere are creating excellent fruit laden Sauvignon Blanc’s, the producers in the Loire Valley excel in complex mineral driven versions of Sauvignon Blanc.  Among all of the regions of the Loire utilizing this grape, the reputations of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé are the best. 

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The village of Sancerre sits atop a rocky hillside overlooking the Loire River.  The wine producing area of Sancerre, which encompasses the village, lies on the left bank of the Loire River at the eastern end of the Loire Valley.  It is here that the river changes direction and heads sharply to the south.  Wine has been produced near the town of Sancerre for hundreds of years.  Its wines were served on the royal tables in the 13th century, but they were not the wonderful white wine Sancerre is famous for today.  They were red wines, most likely Pinot Noir and Gamay.  The first successfully produced white wines were sweet whites made in the 1800’s.  It wasn’t until phyloxera arrived at the end of the 19th century that Sauvignon Blanc was planted in quantity as these vines performed well when grafted onto American rootstock.  This was fortuitous match as the resulting wines were crisp with wonderful aromatics. 

With the introduction of the French AOC system (which defined grapes that were grown in specific areas) in 1936, Sancerre began cementing its reputation for Sauvignon Blanc.  The original AOC area has been increased many times over the years.  Now sixteen villages (Sancerre, Buè, and Chavignol being the most famous) are included in the appellation and almost 500 wineries.  The result is that there are now many different styles of Sancerre depending not only on producer but where the vineyards are located.  In my opinion, the very best wines come from Chavignol, which will often appear on the label. 

The geology of Sancerre is actually quite diverse.  The eastern end of the appellation has flinty soil which gives a very mineral driven almost steely wine.  Toward the center and southwest, the soils are more chalky which gives the wines lovely aromatics.  Toward the west and north, the soil has more gravel and marl which makes for a more fruit driven wine.  Many of the best vineyards are quite steep and scattered with rocks. 

In my opinion three producers stand above the rest in Sancerre:  Francois Cotat, Pascal Cotat, Gerard Boulay.  The Cotat familial relationships can be confusing.  From 1947 thru 1990 two brothers, Paul and Francis Cotat, made wine together but then labeled it separately under each of their names.  When they retired, their sons took over.  The French authorities were uncomfortable with the same wine being sold using two different labels.  At that point, the two sons (and cousins of each other) split apart.  They both however, continue to make excellent and traditional terroir driven wines. 

Paul’s son, Francois, makes his own wine under his name.  The vineyards are on prime land in Chavignol.  These wines can be so piercing and mineral laden, they are some of the best wines made anywhere.  The wines are made filtering in a traditional method without fining or.  Very old neutral barrels are used for fermenting the wine.  Interestingly, there have been times when these wines, as good as they are have been so atypical, that they have been denied the use of AOC status.  In those vintages, François, simply labels them as VdT (table wine).  His reputation is so renowned that he is able to sell his wines in spite of that.  My favorite is from the Mont Damnes vineyard.  This is a wine that will age well for ten years.  It sells for around $45, expensive, but worth it.  The Grand Cote is more expensive at about $55, and in some vintages can be even better.  These bottlings may be the pinnacle of Sauvignon Blanc!

When the two original brothers split their holdings, Francis got the original cellar, but Pascal got many of the older vines.  Pascal set up his own new winery just down the road a bit from his cousin.  Initially Pascal’s love for automobiles vied for his attention; he also ran an auto mechanics shop.  I am told that Pascal is now dedicating himself full time to the winery.  At their best, I find these wines equal to his cousin’s.  If perhaps, they have been a bit more inconsistent in the past, Pascal seems to have figured it out now.  He has been on a roll since the 02 vintage.  Both Pascal’s Monts Dames (Damned Mountains) and Grand Cote vineyard wines are excellent.  They run about $45 and $55 respectively. 

Gerard Boulay’s wines deserve to be considered in the same category as the Cotat’s.  The Boulay family can trace its roots in Chavignol back to the 1300’s.  Gerard recently took over many of the vines that used to be cultivated by his cousin Pierre in addition to his own holdings.  Gerard makes wines from very old vines, the youngest of which he planted in 1972.  The average age of the vines is 45 years old.  He makes four Sancerre’s (plus a Rose) that are all very good.  The basic Chavignol runs around $25, the Clos de Beaujeu and Mont Damnes are around $30 and his Comtesse costs around $50.  All of these are great examples of Sancerre. 

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.