What is Sancerre’s secret?

Sancerre and its crisp whites seem to steal the spotlight, even though there’s a lot to love about wine from the places in the Loire that surround it – as well as savings to be made. David Kermode ponders why Sancerre still rules the roost

Words by David Kermode

sancerre misty sky
Once more famous for its red and rosé wines, Sauvignon Blanc became Sancerre’s signature

What’s in a simple name? Well, more than you might imagine when it comes to wine. Take Sancerre: a bucolic town, perched atop a steep hill, boasting commanding views of, well, not very much actually. A place where the only noise comes from the distant hum of a tractor and you feel obliged to whisper after dark for fear of a curtain twitching. A place that has given its name to one of the most famous wines in the world.

I spent a couple of nights there recently on a whistle-stop tour of the ‘Centre-Loire’ region and it set me thinking about the power of a particular place name and what an enormous difference it makes. Sancerre has a certain, dare I say, je ne sais quoi.

sancerre road sign

Just as some drinkers will declare that they detest Chardonnay but love Chablis – a perfectly reasonable observation if they are making a statement about a style, without thinking about a variety – so those same people might also turn their noses up at Sauvignon Blanc, but profess to enjoy a glass of Sancerre.

Sancerre’s fellow appellations in the Centre-Loire produce very similar wines, from (mostly) the same grape varieties, without enjoying anything remotely like the same level of fame. To them, it must seem unfair and it is unfair. So what is the secret of Sancerre?

Once more famous for its red and rosé wines, made from Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc became Sancerre’s signature in the middle of the 20th century, starting in the bistros of Paris and then taking the UK by storm in the 1970s. Sancerre’s fresh, racy, mineral-driven style remains a thumping export success, with the USA now vying with the UK as its most important export market. This suggests, for those of us with English as a first language, that the name must have a lot to do with it because its neighbours share much in common.

silex terroir
Flint - or silex - is one of the terroir types that dominates in the Centre-Loire (Photo: Nicole Gevrey)

Of those appellations: Pouilly-Fumé enjoys a decent profile for its smoky, flinty Sauvignon, but is prone to being confused with Burgundy’s Pouilly-Fuissé; Menetou-Salon is arguably the closest to Sancerre in style, offers better value, but the name might sound a little too ‘boudoir’ to a newcomer; Reuilly makes deliciously crisp, chalky wines but might have too many vowels for an English tongue; Quincy, an appellation entirely focused on its tangy citrus-driven whites, sadly pales when anglicised (the charming ‘can-cy’ becomes a clumsy ‘kwin-cy’); then there’s Côteaux de Giennois, a real mouthful, though its wines are a revelation, offering amazing prices compared to Sancerre just across the river.


Perhaps Sancerre’s golden glow can somehow be harnessed to illuminate its near neighbours

To a dedicated lover of wine, a Club O reader, these arguments sound absurd because they are based on perception. However, if you take a bottle of Sancerre to a dinner party, it’s like bringing a bottle of Champagne: there’s an instant recognition of what it is, a perceived price for it, and nothing to explain. To most of us, perception is reality and, sometimes at least, ignorance can be bliss. And we know how to say the name.

For those making wine in Sancerre, it would seem hugely tempting to rest on the appellation’s laurels, for name recognition alone does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to sales. Some would say that has happened in the past, but I saw no sign of it on my visit. Perhaps it is because its borders are so strictly defined and cannot be expanded any further, or maybe it is thanks to the work of a new generation of Sancerre producers who have invested heavily in technology to improve quality, in the face of some challenging vintages. The price is premium, for sure, but so is the wine.

Menetou-Salon_Mérat (credit BIVC)
Menetou-Salon is arguably the closest to Sancerre in style and offers better value. (Photo: BIVC)

Its neighbours might be tempted to make more of their proximity to Sancerre (though the wine laws would make it difficult) to drive their international profile. I have never really bought into the ‘if you like that, you’ll enjoy this from next door’ argument because it rarely rings true, however, there’s a lot to love from the places that surround Sancerre, as well as savings to be made.

The challenge for the ‘Centre-Loire’ is to bring those appellations to the fore while being careful not to neglect the main attraction. Sancerre is a world-class wine, with a global profile to match, so perhaps its golden glow can somehow be harnessed to illuminate its near neighbours, who truly deserve their place in the limelight.

What David has been drinking…

  • Domaine Serge Laloue, Sancerre, Cuvée Silex, 2021 (£21, The Wine Society) From the troublesome but ultimately thrilling 2021 vintage, with enticing aromas of pink grapefruit, the passion fruit and guava hint at the subtle tropical fruit profile that’s corralled by a rapier thrust of citrus acidity. There’s the freshness of a smooth pebble pulled from a bubbling mountain stream, the layers of mineral richness are revealed in the mid-palate and continue through the long finish. Pair it with some grilled Chavignol goat’s cheese for one night in heaven.
  • G H Mumm, Millésime 2015 (£60, Plus des Bulles) Fresh, with baskets of orchard fruit character, ripe and generous, it is approachable and well poised (despite some fears for acidity in the hot summer of 2015) with a real sense of fruit depth melded with crumbly shortcrust pastry. Impressive at launch, it is drinking well now but has the structure to go some distance.
  • Tenuta delle Terre Nerre, Etna Rosso 2021 (£25 Justerini & Brooks) Mount Etna’s stature grows by the vintage and this comes from one of the region’s pioneer producers. Perfumed, beguiling notes of rose, alpine strawberry and hibiscus lead into a feast of red fruit, balanced by a faintly tart raspberry acidity, balsamic notes, pink peppercorn and a saline streak that leaves a lasting imprint. A benchmark Etna Rosso.
David Kermode 2021
By David Kermode

David Kermode is a journalist and broadcaster, with two decades of experience across TV, radio and print media, and a lifelong love of wine and spirits. Don’t miss his weekly podcast, The Drinking Hour.