Sancerre – restoring my faith in Sauvignon Blanc (Henri Bourgeois tasting)
I may have been a bit mean to Sauvignon Blanc over the past six months. I got very bored of cheap Kiwi Sauvignons and recommended anything but, preferring to suggest Chenin Blanc, Riesling or Chardonnay… almost anything except Sauvignon Blanc. My mind was beginning to change following a recent deep dive into Kiwi wine and this trip to the home of this noble grape has restored my faith and demonstrated how versatile Sauvignon can be, as well as its ageing potential.
Sancerre is a delightful little town, situated on top of a hill overlooking the magnificent vineyards of the most easterly section of the Loire region. Sancerre itself is on the left bank of the Loire, with the other famous Sauvignon town of Pouilly sur Loire, home of smoky Pouilly Fume, over the water. The region is often referred to as the “central vineyards” as it is situated halfway between the Atlantic coast and the German border. Most of the vineyards are planted out south-facing slopes on three different soil types. At the eastern section of the region around Menetou-Salon, we find “white soils” of clay and limestone, in Chavignol the soil also includes Kimmeridgian marl, leading to more body and power. Finally, around the town of Sancerre, we find the famous flint, known as silex that adds the distinctive mineral notes we have come to associate with the region. Sancerre now has 2,600 hectares under vine and has become a brand in itself – the downside of this is there are a number of winemakers making very average wine which sell for less than average prices. However, it’s definitely worth finding a few domains you like in order to enjoy the real thing.
One of the bottles that marked the change of wine from an interest to an obsession for me was the Henri Bourgeois Sancerre Cuvee Jadis 2008. It was unlike any Sauvignon Blanc I had ever experienced, so heading to Domaine Henri Bourgeois in Chavignol was a must for me on this trip. When I booked the tour and tasting I was informed that the minimum number for a private tour was 8 people at a cost of €80 – as we were joined in Sancerre by my Mum (who just adores Sancerre!) and Peter I decided that €20 a head didn’t sound too bad so I booked a tour for the 4 of us… and I’m so glad we did.
We were shown around by a cool young guy who moved here a few years ago from La Rochelle to learn about Sauvignon Blanc – he was interesting, funny and extremely passionate about the wines of Sancerre and particularly those of Henri Bourgeois. The tour started with an explanation of the three different soils of the region and the background to the 72 hectare estate of the domaine, as we looked up at the magnificent south facing vineyards of La Cote des Monts Damnes. We were then taken on a tour of the modern, gravity-fed 3 story wine making facility, which is a feat of engineering designed to keep as much freshness and purity in the delicate fruit of the region. Then it was off to the old cellars and finally onto the purpose built tasting room, where you can just pop in for a tasting without an appointment.
Our tasting extended to a total of 16 wines, starting with the rose and reds, all made with Pinot Noir, before moving onto the main event; Sauvignon Blanc. The tasting demonstrated how the different soil types produce different flavours and aromas and also how these wines evolve beautifully over time.
Les Baronnes Sancerre Rose 2010
100% Pinot Noir from chalky-clay soils, aged for 8 months in steel tanks and 4 months on its fine lees. The rosé has a fuller body than I’m used to and is mood a light red even though its only had 48 hours of maceration. Bright red fruit, slightly lacking in acid but a graceful, long finish. 87 points
Le Baronnes Sancerre Rouge 2010
100% Pinot Noir from chalky-clay soil, matured for 6 months in oak barrels, 30% new. Sweet red fruit, morello cherries. Very nice freshness and quite big but round tannins. Silky texture, just needs a couple more years. 88 points
La Bourgeois Sancerre Rouge 2010
100% Pinot Noir, flint terroir, aged for 12 months in barrel then left to age in bottle before release. More body and concentration than Le Baronnes. Plenty of ripe red fruit and lots of flinty minerality, with good tannic structure and just a hint of vanilla. Still young but will be lovely in 5 years time. 90 points
La Bourgeois Sancerre Rouge 2003 (magnum)
Our host opened this for us to show how the wine will develop and it was enough for Mum to purchase one for Xmas dinner! Beautifully evolved aromas of flinty smokiness and truffle and still ripe cherries. The freshness is delightful and there is a long, sweet finish. Like a Premier Cru from Beaune. 92 points
The Sauvignon Blancs…
Les Baronnes Sancerre Blanc 2012
100% Sauvignon Blanc, grown on clay and limestone chalk. Almost clear in appearance, you are hit with a big blast of tropical fruit. The mango fruit and delicious citrus acidity is delightful – a lovely entry level wine. 89 points
Le MD de Bourgeois Sancerre Blanc 2011
100% Sauvignon Blanc, grown on the Kimmeridgen marl (fossilised oysters) of Monts Damnes. Tropical fruity aromas and a flinty backbone but still very closed with that fruit hiding – the freshness is there you just have to wait… 90+ points
Le MD de Bourgeois Sancerre Blanc 2008
This is what happens when Le MD grows up! Lashing of mango and passion fruit, with a grassy freshness and a subtle smokey finish with gently, subtle acidity. This is a powerful and complex wine. I like it a lot. 92 points
La Demoiselle de Bourgeois Pouilly Fume 2007
100% Sauvignon Blanc, from the Kimmeridgen soils of Saint-Laurent l’Abbaye, where the first vines of the AOC were planted. This wine isn’t “showy” at all; It’s gentle and it’s classy. The tropical fruit is subtle and allows the smoky and floral nature of the terroir to shine through. We didn’t try a young version but this certainly demonstrated how 5 years can allow plenty of complex development in Sauvignon Blanc. 93 points
Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Marlborough NZ
I was waiting for this one and it was instantly recognisable. Henri Bourgeois has been making wines in New Zealand since 2003 and this is a decent example but lacks the subtlety of the Loire wines. Plenty of tropical fruit but the green pepper and asparagus, that plenty of people seem to like, are sticking out. It’s more of a bludgeon than the other wines we tried. 89 points
Cuvée Jancis Sancerre 2011
100% Sauvignon Blanc, from 40 year old vines grown in Kimmeridgen soil. This is complex and concentrated with a touch of the tropics but lots of citrus and even a hint orange blossom. It’s delicious now but given time it will fill out and become hugely enjoyable. 91 points
La Chapelle des Augustins Sancerre Blanc 2011
100% Sauvignon Blanc from vineyards of flint and soft chalk. This is all about the balance of the pure tropical fruit and the chalky gun flint minerality. It’s pure and drinkable now, but another one that will only improve with patience. 90 points
La Bourgeois Sancerre Blanc 2010
100% Sauvignon Blanc made from vines growing on the flinty slopes first worked by the monks of Saint Satur. A bigger wine with lots of body and plenty of complexity from 8 months oak ageing. Subtle ICUs fruit comes first then some soft mango but its the smoky and floral back notes that really differentiate this one. 92+ points
Cuvée D’Antan Sancerre 2011
100% Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard first planted in 1936, where the soil is pro innately flint. Needs more time but there lots of tropical fruit and a delicious spicy back note. Highly concentrated and fuller bodied – this is a serious wine. 92+ points
Cuvée D’Antan Sancerre 2007
Absolutely glorious balance of subtle citrus, mango and passion fruit, whispering acidity and slatey mineral. It’s delicate, charming and oh so complex. This is the kind of wine that puts Sauvignon Blanc in the same league as the best white Burgundies. 94 points
Cuvee Etienne Henri 2010
100% Sauvignon Blanc from the oldest vines on flinty slopes and matured for 12 months in 100% new oak barrels. The fruit just creeps up on you slowly and the wood is beautifully integrated and accentuates the citrus and tropics. This is a wine to savour, think about and discuss all evening. Wow. 94 points
Vendange De La St-Luc 2007
100% Sauvignin Blanc, grown on Kemmeridgen clay solid and picked several weeks after the main harvest to concentrate the grapes and produce this delicious sweet wine. The wine demonstrates the diversity of the Sauvignon Blanc grape and is absolutely delicious. It’s certainly not over sweet and its oh so fresh with a wonderful spine of acid. Golden in colour and highly concentrated tropical fruits – either enjoy as an aperitif, serve with foie gras or match with a fruity dessert. Mmmm! 93 points