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Sancerre: Pinot Too

“It is Sancerre’s reds that are providing the excitement.
Unfortunately this is somewhat of a French secret.”
Jim Budd, Decanter

Sancerre is known worldwide for Sauvignon Blanc, and deservedly so, for the Loire Valley region offers a pleasing, refreshing style that is almost universally enjoyed. However, as Lettie Teague pointed out in her article on Sancerre (“Wine’s Tom Hanks: Why Everyone Loves Sancerre,” The Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2013), the soils (both pebbly limestone and siliceous clay) are similar to the soils of Champagne and Burgundy, so it is not surprising that Pinot Noir performs admirably in Sancerre as well.

Jim Budd (“Sancerre’s Red Dawn,” Decanter, September 2009) notes that when the first French AOCs were created in 1936, the Sancerre appellation was for whites only. It wasn’t until 1959, that AOC accreditation was awarded to reds and rosés produced from Pinot Noir. Sancerre Pinot Noir was traditionally light and dilute, and the grape was often sold to Champagne houses. The modern era of Sancerre Pinot Noir did not began until the 1990s when a number of talented Sancerre vignerons began turning to more attentive viticulture of Pinot Noir and vinifying more serious, robust Pinot Noir wines.

Evidence of the existence of vines in Sancerre was recorded by Gregory of Tours in 582 in his Historiae Francorum. In the 12th century, cultivation of the vine was given added impetus through the combined efforts of the Augustine monks at St-Satur and the ruling counts of Sancerre. Sancerre was famous for its wines produced from Pinot Noir and exported from the region along the River Loire. The wine of Sancerre was, in the opinion of Duke Jean de Berry, the finest wine to be found in the entire kingdom. In more modern times, the original vineyards, which were predominantly planted to Pinot Noir, were destroyed by phylloxera at the end of the last century and Sauvignon Blanc was then widely planted.

Sancerre red is something of a rarity outside France. Budd reminds that only 22% of the acreage in Sancerre is planted to Pinot Noir, production only accounts for 11% of Sancerre wine, and less than 3% of Sancerre Pinot Noir is exported. I found that many large retailers in the United States carry only a few examples so it was a challenge to find a representative group to sample. Prices are generally quite modest, with many exemplary wines priced under $30. The top red from Alphonse Mellot, Génération XIX, is at the high end at about $90.

The vineyards of Sancerre are planted throughout the communes of Bannay, Bué, Crézancy, Menetou-Ratel, Méénetréol, Montigny, St-Satur, Ste-Gemme, Sancerre, Sury-en-vaux, Thauvenay, Veaugues, Verdigny and Vinon.

After tasting the following ten wines, I should point out that these wines will not offer the fruit intensity that Americans have come to expect from California and Oregon Pinot Noir. They do offer interesting drinking in a different style and flavor profile, but among the vast number of outstanding North American Pinot Noirs in the same price range, the Sancerre Pinot Noirs will be challenged to find an American audience. My best advice is that if you are curious, stick to a notable importer such as the Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant selections.

2009 Alphonse Mellot La Moussiére Sancerre

13.0% alc., $43.84. Imported by Domaine Select Imports, NY, NY. · Medium reddish-purple color in the glass. Earth-bound aromas of dark berries, briar, forest floor, geranium and vanilla lead to a mid weight core of tasty dark berry and plum flavors, veering to the savory, rustic side with a hint of grilled mushrooms in the background. Firm tannins and bright acidity frame the fruit nicely. Soft in the mouth and easy to like. Score: 86

2009 Matthias et Emile Roblin Enclos de Maimbray Sancerre

12.5% alc., $26. Imported by APS Wine & Spirits, Oakland, CA. · Moderately light red color in the glass. Strong reduction upon opening that doesn’t blow off. Aromas of straw, ash and geranium. The wine offers modest red fruit flavors with an underlying hint of ash. The tannins are suave, the acidity is bright, and the finish is of modest length. Score: 79

2009 Roger Neveu Le Colombier Sancerre

12.5% alc., $28. Imported by Robert Chadderdon Selections, NY, NY. · Moderately light red hue in the glass. The aromas and flavors of red cherries, balsam and oak are pleasant. Somewhat dilute in fruit intensity by American standards, but highly accessible with well-balanced tannins and acidity. Score: 87

2010 Francois Crochet La Réserve de Marcigoué Sancerre

13.0% alc., 250 cases, $27.69. Imported by Winebow Inc., NY, NY. 100% Pinot Noir, average vine age 35 years grown in chalky clay soil. Aged in French oak barrels for 14 months. Unfined and unfiltered. · Moderately dark red color in the glass. Very aromatic from the time the cork was pulled, featuring bright scents of black cherry, conifer and pie crust. Medium bodied flavors of slightly tart red cherries, red raspberries and citrus-infused cranberries with a hint of earthiness and oak in the background. A fruity wine with mild tannins and racy acidity. Score: 88

2010 Les Hospices Sancerre

12.5% alc., $17.49, screw cap. Imported by Vinum International, Napa, CA. · Light red color in the glass. Strong reduction (burnt match) upon opening that doesn’t blow off. Shy aromas of dried herbs and oak with little fruit. Light and crisp on the palate with an herbal-toned red cherry flavor, bright acidity and restrained tannins. Score: 81

2010 Domaine Reverdy Ducroux BeauRegard Sancerre

12.5% alc., $14.99. Imported by Winebow Inc, NY, NY. The Reverdy family has been in the Sancerre region since the 15th century. Vigneron is Alan Reverdy. 100% Pinot Noir. · Moderately light red color in the glass. Aromas of cherries, stem and olive. Middleweight core of darker, ripe cherries framed by muscular tannins. Pleasing concentration with bright acidity. Score: 85

2010 Daniel Chotard Sancerre

3.0% alc., $24. Imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, CA. · Moderately light red color in the glass. Nicely perfumed with aromas of fresh cherries, raspberries and dark chocolate. Lovely composure and very giving, with an enticing flavor of black cherry carrying through the mid palate to the intense and generous finish. Well-balanced finegrain tannins and lively acidity complete the wine. Score: 89

2010 Domaine Vacheron Sancerre

12.5% alc., $35. Imported by North Berkeley Wine, Berkeley, CA. · Medium red color in the glass. Opens slowly in the glass, revealing aromas of red cherries and berries. Light in weight with admirable finesse, offering the essence of fresh Morello cherries. Well-crafted with supportive oak, modest tannins and lively acidity. Score: 87

2010 Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre

13.0% alc., $23.74. Imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, CA. · Moderately light red color in the glass. The aromas rise from the glass with brightness and conviction, featuring black cherries and smoky oak. Middleweight flavors of dark cherries, raspberries and dark chocolate, with a good dose of oak. The firm tannins and underlying acidity round out the wine nicely. The finish is very silky and extended. Score: 88

2011 Domaine Franck Millet Sancerre

12.5% alc., $16.99. Imported by Premier Wine Company, Richmond,CA. · Light red color in the glass. Very “American” in style and character with pleasing aromas of cherries, strawberries and sandalwood. Light and delicate, but flavorful, offering cherry, strawberry and cranberry notes backed by supple tannins and a good cut of acidity. This wine aims to please and is easy to drink. Score: 88

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