Have you ever made the mistake of looking at a wine list and asking the waiter if they have a Sauvignon Blanc? He points to a Sancerre but you just don’t see it. Sancerre is one of the most famous Sauvignon Blancs in the world, but like many French wines, it happens to be named after the place it’s from rather than the grape used to make it.
Sancerre comes from the Loire River Valley in France and is 100% Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a dry white wine that’s complex, balanced, crisp and bright, with good length. Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre is known for its minerality and sharp citrus notes. This is as opposed to the tropical fruit and gooseberry driven style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.
Most Sancerre comes from small production family-owned wineries which are basically single estates. If you see the word “domaine” on the label, it’s just telling you the name of the estate that produced the wine, much like when you see “château” on wine bottles from Bordeaux. Producers often own land in different parts of the region and will have both a single estate wine made from grapes from a particular vineyard or domaine, and a Sancerre blend in their signature style, which uses grapes from different areas within Sancerre.
While it has always been a wine you can find in high-end French bistros, in the last few years Sancerre has experienced a burst in popularity. Now, in addition to being a famous white from France, it’s also a very trendy drink to order. Most restaurants have a bottle or two on their wine list and many serve Sancerre by the glass. Part of the attraction is it’s a tremendous expression of Sauvignon Blanc but also, dry and unoaked white wines are currently in vogue.
Sancerre is dry and crisp and goes exceptionally well with oysters and shellfish of any kind, both raw and cooked. It’s a nice white to accompany a roast chicken or pork and you can also just have it as a drinking wine with appetizers. And while a lot of people are ordering Sancerre these days, not everyone realizes it’s Sauvignon Blanc!
Why isn’t Sancerre called Sauvignon Blanc?
Not all wines are named for their grapes. Naming conventions often depend on the country and the region where the wines are produced. In France, they mostly use regional names (with the exception of Alsace). This is true for the Loire Valley where Sancerre is from, as well as Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Rhône Valley. One of the reasons the French do this is because each region has a particular terroir, meaning the soil type, climate and growing conditions that contribute a specific character to the vines and resulting wine. Therefore, it makes sense that the regional name is the best way to tell the wines apart.
Wines from Sancerre have a specific character based on the limestone soils where the vineyards are located. Right across the river they make Pouilly-Fumé which is also a dry white that’s 100% Sauvignon Blanc but has a different soil type that gives it slightly different flavors.
How much does Sancerre cost?
In addition to being famous, Sancerre is also expensive. This is due to increasing demand and the relatively small growing area coupled with a few years of bad weather which significantly affected yields. You can expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $45 for a bottle of Sancerre from your local wine-shop. At a restaurant, this will be more like $58 to $90 a bottle or around $16 a glass.
What does Sancerre taste like?
Sancerre is a clean, crisp dry white with good minerality and acidity. It’s medium-bodied and pale yellow in color and can have hints of green. For flavors, you’ll typically find green apple and citrus. You can also taste stone in certain Sancerres due to the flinty vineyards in which some of the grapes are grown. Most wines from Sancerre are unoaked and made in stainless steel which means they are bright and fresh. If oak barrels are used, they’re older and more neutral so you won’t taste much of the wood.
The Sauvignon Blanc grape
While many people know Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, its origin is actually France where the grape is grown in two main areas. In Bordeaux it’s often part of a blend with Sémillon known as Bordeaux Blanc or Graves, and in the Loire region they use it to make Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Reuilly, and Menetou-Salon.
More on the Loire Valley
Sancerre is located in the Loire River Valley, in central France, a few hours from Paris. The Loire is one of the five great rivers of France and also the longest. The vineyards here have a chalky soil type, and in the Sancerre area, there are also high amounts of stone and limestone deposits. In fact, Sancerre’s vineyards have the same limestone and clay running under them that goes through much of Chablis, the Champagne regions of France, and even South East England.
The town itself sits on a steep hill surrounded by three main growing areas: 1) Terres Blanches or “white earth” which has a chalky soil type very similar to what you find in Chablis 2) Caillottes meaning “little stones” which can include quartz and helps contribute to the great minerality of these wines and 3) Silex which is known for its flint deposits. Sauvignon Blanc does well in a cooler climate and this part of the Loire Valley has both lower average temperatures and higher elevation. The vineyards in Sancerre can mostly be found on steep slopes which help to drain excess rainfall.
14 Famous Sancerres to look for
There’s no classification system in Sancerre like Premier or Grand Crus but there are vineyards that are known for producing more characteristic wines. For example, the most famous single vineyard Sancerre lieux-dit is probably Les Monts Damnés. A “lieu-dit” in French is a way of referring to a small geographical area with a unique terroir. Below are some Sancerre domaine names to look for. Just keep in mind, production is on such a small scale that many importers and distributors will actually run out of Sancerre by the end of the year and you won’t see the same selection as when the wines are first released (which is typically in the spring and early summer). If you’re looking to find a specific bottle, make sure to do it sooner rather than later. Also note, you may sometimes see these wines listed as Sancerre Blanc.
- Thomas LaBaille
- Henri Bourgeois
- Domaine Cotat
- Lucien Crochet
- Alphonse Mellot
- Domaine Michel Girard
- Domaine Cherrier
- Daniel Chotard
- Domaine Delaporte
- Domaine Blondeau
- Pascal Jolivet
- Domaine Foussier
- Domaine Neveu
- Domaine Reverdy
Sancerre food pairing ideas
Sancerre makes one of the best wine food pairings for raw oysters and shellfish in general. Oysters are salty and have a high mineral content and Sancerre complements them with its mineral flavors. It’s also a great wine to serve with scallops cooked in a white wine or lemon butter sauce, and it can really hold its own if you pair it with spicier dishes, in particular Asian food. The bright acidity cuts through the heat and the wine stands up to a variety of spices and strong flavors.
Because it has strong lemon and citrus notes, you can also pair Sancerre with roast or barbecued chicken and other white meats, like pork or veal (avoid red meats). Alternatively, have it with traditional green salads topped with fruit and nuts, or citrus based dressings with lemon lime and/or grapefruit. You can pair Sancerre with goat cheese as well. However, it’s best to avoid red sauces and dishes with sweet sauces.
French vs. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
With Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, you often get tropical fruit flavors, gooseberry, and more fruit forward intensity. The wines are generally bigger and more “in your face.” In contrast, Sancerre has greater balance and more minerality. Another way of thinking about it is New Zealand produces wines with opulent and generous aromas that can be fairly simple, whereas Sancerre has more elegance and complexity. France and New Zealand make completely different styles of Sauvignon Blanc partly because they have such different climates and soil types.
Sancerre makes red wine too!
Most people associate Sancerre with white wine but they do make some red wine. Pinot Noir is a red typically associated with Burgundy, France, but they also grow Pinot Noir in the Loire Valley. Traditionally only 15% of the grapes planted in Sancerre were Pinot Noir and they tended to make a lighter and leaner style red wine. However, climate change from global warming has affected the region and temperatures can often be warmer in the summer now. This is helping the vines fully ripen and leading to more fuller-bodied reds with fuller flavors. Note, they also make rosé wines in Sancerre from the Pinot Noir grape.
More on climate change
Climate change in the Loire has caused it to get warmer earlier, so vines are also budding earlier. However, this can happen when they’re still susceptible to frost. In some wine-growing regions like Chinon and Savennières, the vines have budded early and a frost has hit, causing them to lose 20-30% of their crop. In one year, Savennières almost lost an entire crop and the grapes that were left were taken out by hail. Hail clouds sometimes just affect one vineyard, leaving the next vineyard over untouched. They not only reduce yields but can damage the vines so they produce less the following season.
Other French Sauvignon Blanc
- Pouilly-Fumé. Another famous wine is Sancerre’s neighbor, Pouilly-Fumé. The two areas are opposite each other on different sides of the river and they both produce 100% Sauvignon Blanc wines. The difference is in Pouilly-Fumé the soil has more flint and limestone that gives the wine more flinty and smoky flavors. In fact the word “fumé” means smoke in French. Of note, before Sancerre became the famous wine it is today, it was Pouilly-Fumé that had everyone’s attention. It was one of the most popular French wines on restaurant wine lists in the 1980s.
- Reuilly. There’s also Reuilly which makes a leaner Sauvignon Blanc that has less ripe fruit to it but the same great acidity. Reuilly is not as big of a wine as Sancerre and is a bit more delicate and less intense than both Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. They grow Pinot Gris in Reuilly too and make some red wine (Pinot Noir).
- Menetou-Salon. Menetou-Salon is a much smaller region that borders Sancerre to the south-west. This area is flatter and the soil type here is different and characterized by limestone mixed with iron deposits and sandstone. It gives you a more austere type of Sauvignon Blanc that some might describe as “less exciting.” Nonetheless, these wines are excellent everyday drinking wines.
Wine Trivia: When they first started making Sauvignon Blanc in California, Robert Mondavi named his 100% Sauvignon Blanc “Fumé Blanc” because of the association with Pouilly-Fumé. For a while, a lot of winemakers in California followed suit, though it’s not as commonly seen anymore.