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Despite eye rolls, good Sancerres rise above the sniping
A SMALL group of ubiquitous wines occupies the paradoxical territory of being well-known, highly popular and often reviled.
Mostly, these are wines in which the name of the grape or the appellation have become so pervasive as to essentially become brand names. You know them well: pinot grigio, chardonnay, prosecco, Sancerre, just to name the white grapes.
People enjoy these wines, of course, but more than that, they know them in a way that does not require thinking or consideration. For many, an awareness of these wines defuses the hideous, anxiety-soaked ritual of pondering a wine list and making a decision.
Rather than hazard the unknown by selecting a wine from an unfamiliar place, a consumer can choose a name that is safe. "I'll just have the pinot grigio, please," one says, while breathing, "thank you" in silent relief.
Who can argue with this logic? Nobody should be made to feel anxious about wine.
The comfort that comes from spotting a pinot grigio or Sancerre on the list is exactly why these wines are so despised in some quarters, namely by the sommeliers who have worked so hard to put together exquisite bottles that will both flatter the food on the menu and reflect the ethos of the restaurant. Regardless, they know that Sancerre by the glass or bottle will become the most-ordered wine on the list.
That's an understandable reaction, too. More than anything, hospitable sommeliers want their guests to enjoy themselves, and to come back again and again. Sommeliers can achieve this goal by giving guests what they want. Maybe they can do even better, they think, by helping guests achieve an unexpected, heightened experience.
Whatever contempt wine professionals may feel toward the wines is partly deserved. I have searched high and wide for decent, reasonably priced pinot grigios, with scant results. Similarly, the sommelier class' antipathy toward prosecco is matched only by the cynicism of the producers who make this often-insipid wine.
Chardonnay occupies a middle ground. While mass-produced chardonnays richly earn the eye rolls they receive, we are still talking about the grape of white Burgundy, which makes the sort of coveted, cherished bottles that might saturate a sommelier's dream Instagram account.
That leaves Sancerre, a special case because the wines cannot be so easily dismissed, even though they are rarely objects of desire.
On the one hand, Sancerre is everywhere. The name rolls off the tongue with a sort of romantic ease that earns adoration in a way that, say, grüner veltliner will never achieve.
The best bottles
Sancerre, a Loire Valley expression of sauvignon blanc, has become so popular that it's easy for producers to coast. Poorly farmed and overcropped grapes, subjected to formulaic winemaking, result in simple, generic wines. Yet no matter how one-dimensional, they sell, a lot, to the exasperation of sommeliers.
Still, sauvignon blanc as expressed in Sancerre can be a wonderful wine. It can be versatile, delicious and refreshing, while also highly sensitive and transparent to the distinctive nuances of the local terroirs.
The best bottles from the most serious growers and producers can offer beautiful expressions of the major soils of the region: limestone, marl (a blend of limestone and clay) and silex.
They can vary from the more familiar bright, lively wines, which exude citrus and minerality, to more contemplative, powerful, expensive wines, which need a decade or more of aging. I rarely see these expensive wines on restaurant lists.
To examine the sort of Sancerres one might casually encounter, the wine panel recently tried 20 bottles from the very good 2017 vintage. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests, Annie Shi, wine director and a partner at King, in SoHo, and Michael Madrigale, a partner at Grande Cuvée, a new app that is intended to help people find good bottles in their local stores.
Almost all the wines in our tasting, which our tasting coordinator, Bernard Kirsch, bought retail, were US$20 to US$40, a lot more than they cost 20 years ago when they were a typical bistro white of Paris.
We certainly had our share of dull wines, simple and pungent in the way of sauvignon blanc around the world, with few characteristics that spoke of Sancerre. Our favourites were energetic and deep with enticing textures and resonant savory, mineral flavours - wines that transcended the variety and showed a sense of place.
Annie was especially attuned to the textures of the wines she liked best, which she attributed to the terroir rather than to the various winemaking methods.
Michael felt the wines that rose above the others were distinctly in the minority, but I was encouraged by the number of wines I liked, and happy to discover some producers who were new to me, like Paul Cherrier and Karine Lauverjat, our second and third favourites.
The Cherrier seemed the epitome of a superb, straightforward Sancerre, resounding with stony mineral and herbal flavours. It has much still in reserve, to emerge over the next few years. At US$20, it was also our best value.
The Lauverjat was also just US$20. It was quite different from the Cherrier, with a richer texture and fruitier flavours, albeit focused and refreshing. Possibly, the grapes came from soils with more clay, which contributes to fleshiness and fruit.
Our top bottle was something of a surprise. It was the Sancerre Comte Lafond from Baron de Ladoucette, a big Loire producer better known for its Pouilly-Fumé, a neighbouring appellation of Sancerre, also made with the sauvignon blanc grape.
I have always known the Ladoucette wines as sound, although unexciting and expensive. This wine was expensive at US$40; however, it was pure, energetic and deep, with plenty going on to keep interest in the course of drinking a bottle. In our blind tasting, it was everybody's favourite. "A classic example of Sancerre done well," Annie said. Go figure.
Next came two of the great names in Sancerre. At No 4 was the entry-level bottle from Domaine Vacheron, a deeply minerally, ripe and rich wine that was well balanced. This wine mixes grapes from each of Sancerre's major terroirs. For those interested in further exploration, Vacheron also makes an exceptional series of wines that display Sancerre's terroirs individually.
Les Boucauds from Claude Riffault, another top Sancerre producer, was No 5, a richer, fruitier wine from limestone-clay marl. Riffault, too, makes a great series of more expensive, expressive Sancerres.
Other wines well worth noting were the fresh, saline La Moussière from Alphonse Mellot, always a reliable name; the harmonious herbal and floral La Garenne from Domaine Girard; the light-bodied, spicy Château du Nozay from Domaine du Nozay; the pungent, tangy Domaine de la Perrière; and the bright and lively Aujourd'hui Comme Autrefois.
The bottom line on Sancerre is that these wines can be among the world's greatest expressions of sauvignon blanc. Sure, it is popular sometimes for the wrong reasons. My advice to sommeliers: Don't put bad bottles on your list. Introduce guests to the best versions. You will be doing them a favour. NYTIMES