If I had been asked what regions like Ribera del Duero, Champagne and Sancerre have in common, I suspect I would have answered that they are all wine producing appellations with their own laws, regulations and so on. A rather silly question I would have thought, particularly as their styles, locations, grape varieties and even their bottles are quite different. Champagne producing sparkling wine, Ribera mostly reds and Sancerre world- famous for their Sauvignon Blanc whites.
They do however share something important to their commercial success. Consumers, whether in bars or restaurants, will ask for these wines by their appellation or region without really caring about producer or vintage. How many times have we heard “I’ll have a glass of Ribera” or “I’ll have a glass of champagne” when we are out with friends? It would appear that for some lucky regional wines, customers feel confident enough to order them by their generic designation without going into further details presumably confident their expectation on style, quality or price will be met.
In Gibraltar we are familiar with both Ribera del Duero and Champagne, though things appear to be changing and I did have someone tell me recently their currently preferred wine was Sancerre, citing its crisp acidity and attractive, mouth-filling grassy notes. So, what is Sancerre, and why does it continue to be the most asked-for, generic white wine in countless bistros in Paris and beyond?
Consumers ask for these wines without really caring about producer or vintage.
Our journey had started some day before in Nantes where, having picked up a hire car, we planned to travel the length of the Loire Valley from east to west ending in Sancerre. It’s a magnificent journey traversing not only famous vineyards and wine regions but innumerable forests, castles and magnificent chateaus. Nantes is right next to Muscadet, an underrated region famous for its inexpensive, crisp white wines regularly paired with oysters or smoked salmon for very good reasons. Our memorable wine/dish in Nantes turned out to be Muscadet paired with a raw beetroot salad! The rest of the journey was like going through a wine enthusiast’s wine notes: Anjoue, Saumur, Chinon, Vouvray, Touraine eventually ending up in Sancerre.
Having seen so much beauty over the last few days, our expectations of Sancerre was muted. How wrong we were! Approaching the town from the east gave us a magnificent view of this pretty, hilltop town – a former fortress. Sloping vineyards reluctantly giving way to ancient stone buildings. Once there its winding streets, ancient houses and central square with cafes and restaurants jostling for position a joy to walk around. Needless to say, there were several shops were local wine producers let the passer-by taste their wines hoping for a sale or two.
Chavignol’s goats cheese – considered the best in France.
Sancerre is undoubtedly Loire’s most famous white wine. A global brand whose qualities can be easily appreciated even by novice drinkers. It can be can be ordered with confidence knowing it will very approachable and provide value for money at least when compared with the likes of white Burgundy. More importantly perhaps, in the mind of the consumer, Sancerre somehow confers a degree of sophistication to the drinker!
Sancerre’s commercial success started as far back as the eighties, becoming the darling of Parisienne bistros. Much later it became very fashionable in London and the rest of the UK where a chilled glass of this famous Sauvignon Blanc marked the beginning of the weekend to innumerable column writers in newspapers and magazines.
With commercial success came a wave of mediocre wines as everyone in the region wanted a piece of the action. Even Spain started making Sauvignon Blancs as did New Zealand, the latter with significant commercial success with its mouth busting, flavoursome wines.
Sancerre wines tend to be ready for drinking as soon as they are made and will rarely benefit form cellaring, though some producers intent on producing the highest quality possible have been experimenting using a degree of oak and longer cellaring. The climate in Sancerre is continental and can get rather cold, though the navigable river Loire does ameliorate the cold weather. Inevitably, as a result of the climate, Sancerre’s wines tend to be subtler and less exuberant than elsewhere.
When we visited the area, we chose to stay in nearby Chavingol. A mere 5 minutes away having pre-booked our stay at the La Cote Des Monts Damnés. A simple, inexpensive hotel but with a bistro on the ground floor with a very high reputation. Some of the dishes currently on the menu, can be viewed online. They also have a ‘gastronomique’ restaurant for fine dining. (The bistro offers amazing value for money.)
Here we tasted wonderfully crafted dishes, though perhaps what we best remember about dinner there was Chavignol’s goats cheese – considered the best in France. It was interesting to see French diners expertly choosing their cheeses as Chavignol ages each mini cheese differently so the same basic cheese ends up quite different from each other. Some with penicillium some younger ones without. It’s an extraordinary cheese which I urge you to try.
Back to wine. Top names here include Alphonse Mellot producing single vineyards wines (£15 and up depending on the cuvee) and similarly Henri Bourgeois (£20 and up depending on the cuvee). Locally Sancerres are not easy to find but they are available. Worthwhile tasting against New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs or Spanish such as Marques de Riscal.
Which will you prefer, I wonder?