Grape expectations: Sancerre steadily earning its place

Ernie Whalley

I'd be fond of Sancerre. I cut my teeth as a wine judge on the produce of this French region, 120 samples in a morning, sniff, slurp, spit and on to the next.

The grape is sauvignon blanc, that "here today, gone tomorrow" phenomenon, racy and pungent almost to the extent of being savage.

There won't be many Irish wine drinkers who remember the 1970s, but in those days Sancerre really was the big kahuna. It got supplanted a decade later by the rise-and-rise of chardonnay, initially via Chablis then worldwide.

The town from which the appellation gets its name has a dramatic location, perched up on a hilltop overlooking the river Loire on the left bank. Originally, it made its name with red and white wines from a single and now largely overlooked grape variety, chasselas.

A switch to sauvignon produced a wine with a shock factor, majoring on aromas of nettles, herbs and flavours of gooseberry. Introduced into Paris restaurants as a kind of white equivalent of Beaujolais, approachable but strictly non-serious, Sancerre gained huge popularity.

Latterly, Sancerre has undergone a quality hike. At the same time, it isn't exactly food-friendly except for fish with sparse saucing, when it really comes into its own.

In the same breath you have to consider Pouilly Fume, the appellation that takes its name from the small town of Pouilly-sur-Loire. The 'fume' business is a reference to the sauvignon grapes, grown on a predominantly limestone soil, which evince a smoky flavour, with 'gunflint' minerality.

The wines are said to be longer lived than those of Sancerre, the best examples, from good producers like Didier Dagueneau and de Ladoucette deemed worthy of laying down. I like the immediacy of both Sancerre and Pouilly Fume and I don't think either are improved by putting away.

In a week when a six-litre bottle of the renowned Bordeaux Cheval Blanc 1947 was sold by Christie's for a record-breaking $304,375, I've been drinking mainly supermarket wines. A Sancerre, 2009 Domaine Millet Francois (€11.99), stood up particularly well in a recent tasting of Lidl whites.

Others that impressed were the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and, particularly, the Italian Gavi, good wines for well under a tenner. The premier cru Chablis, greatly reduced in price, was the subject of a split decision -- some thought it drank a bit thin for the money, whereas I liked its clean austerity. The German Pfalz dry riesling, re-tasted, was pronounced better as the evening wore on.

On a recent trip to Languedoc I talked to a winery manager who was formerly a buyer with Aldi or Lidl, I forget which. His advice, regarding both firms, was to pick your way with care through their regular range but grab their hands off if they presented a special offer in the upper echelons of their price bracket.