Sancerre: Taking the Temperature
BY REBECCA GIBB MW | AUGUST 31, 2021
Sancerre producers should have been celebrating. The fame of their wines as well as their picture-perfect hilltop home had earned Sancerre the title of France’s favorite village in late June 2021; following a poll of more than half a million people, the Sancerrois partied in the street when the news was announced on the television channel France 3. But the festivities didn’t do much to lift the spirits of local vignerons. “C’est de l’enfer [It’s hell],” remarked François Crochet, a producer in the Sancerre-producing village of Bué. It was only July, with a long way to go to the harvest finish line, but a combination of frost, hail and humidity –leading to a protracted battle with fungal disease – had already made it one of the most difficult seasons in living memory. Coupled with the challenges of selling wine and finding casual labor to work the vines during a global pandemic, as well as accommodate the influx of visitors that the best-in-France title had attracted, this was indeed hell in paradise.
Looking back toward the hilltop town of Sancerre, voted France’s favorite village in 2021.
However, the fame of this medieval town, counting just 1,371 residents, goes far beyond a national television show prize, and it has wine to thank for its global recognition. Whether you’re in a wine shop in New York or New Zealand, the village name emblazoned on labels is Sancerre’s greatest global brand ambassador. While the rest of the Loire Valley relies on the domestic market for its success, with exports accounting for around 15% of total sales, almost seven in ten bottles of Sancerre sold are uncorked overseas; not far behind, around 50% of Pouilly-Fumé is drunk beyond France’s borders and consumers are willing to pay a premium to have it in their glass.
But the climate has no respect for high-flying appellations or award-winning towns. It does not care if yields are halved, nor if Sauvignon Blanc tops 14.5% or even 15% alcohol, and that’s been all too common lately. The last three seasons, 2018, 2019 and 2020, suggest an unpredictable new normal for what has long been considered a cool-climate region. While similarly oppressive years, such as 2009 and 2003, have come and gone, this triple whammy is a warning sign. This trio of seasons has presented a steep learning curve, and some producers have caught on more quickly than others. Those who picked earlier in 2019 and 2020, whether it’s the Pinards in the village of Bué, Jonathan Pabiot in Pouilly-Fumé or Jean-Philippe Agisson in Sury-en-Vaux, seem to have hit a sweet spot, finding ripeness while maintaining freshness. Harvesting in August would have been inconceivable even 30 years ago, but on August 28, 2020, the team at Domaine Vincent Pinard were out picking, and even that date should have been brought forward, as Florent Pinard suggested: “If I’m honest, if we had started two or three days earlier, the wines would have been even better.”
Jean-Philippe Agisson, the winemaker for Didier Dagueneau, has launched his own label with his wife Stephanie, and the early releases are spectacular.
2020: The Season
The Pinard pickers weren’t the only ones to head into the vines brandishing secateurs at the end of August, although they were in the minority. An early harvest was always in the cards for the region, with an early kickoff to the season on April 5, one of the earliest budbursts on record. The momentum was maintained throughout the growing cycle, and according to the 10-year average, vine growth was 15 days ahead of where it ought to have been.
For many producers, there was comparatively low pressure from fungal diseases like oidium, although there were periodic hailstorms, with one hitting the villages of Bué and neighboring Crézancy on August 9, causing significant damage. There were more challenges to come: in the weeks leading up to harvest, two intense periods of heat caused sunburn and shriveling.
The heat of the summer did not abate as August turned to September. On September 3 and 4, temperatures exceeded 30˚C, leading to evaporation and rapidly rising sugar levels in the berries. It was a case of getting in the grapes as quickly as possible, whether that meant machine harvesting or picking very early in the morning. For larger producers, the race to harvest was more intense than for those with just a few hectares, particularly as the mercury continued to soar between September 11 and 19: temperatures were unusually high again, exceeding 30˚C on all but two days. Most of the grapes were in the winery by the 19th, and the regional wine association’s technical body, SICAVAC, reported that “stuck (and slow) fermentations were very frequent” due to the high sugar levels in the must.
Matthieu Delaporte is the new generation at the helm of Domaine Delaporte, which is based in the goats-cheese and Sauvignon capital of Chavignol. Behind him lie the famed hillside sites of Les Culs de Beaujeu and Les Monts Damnés.
2019: The Season
The 2019 season was defined by drought and heatwaves. The ground was already parched after a dry winter, recording a 30% water deficit before a bud had even burst. Despite mild temperatures in winter and early spring, followed by low overnight temperatures between April 11 and 15, there was remarkably little frost damage due to the dry soil and lack of humidity. It took a while for the vines to get into their stride, as an unusually cold May, which seeped into a frigid start to June, slowed growth. On the plus side, with no rain and little humidity, there was hardly any disease pressure. Things started to heat up in late June with the first of three summer heatwaves. Schools shut their doors as temperatures exceeded 40˚C, and the effects on the grapes were clearly visible: stems were scorched, and coulure and millerandage developed, contributing to the lower yields in 2019. What’s more, due to the lack of water throughout the season, those grapes that did successfully negotiate flowering and fruit set were around 20% smaller than the 10-year average.
The effects of two further heat spikes on July 20–26 and August 22–31 included roasted leaves and sunburned bunches, particularly those facing the hot afternoon sun. Many growers admitted that their vines suffered some water stress as they negotiated the finishing straight, which slowed veraison and maturity. Some producers picked as early as the first week of September, but most started in the teens as another heat spike (September 13–16) propelled them into action. In the goat-cheese mecca of Chavignol, a few minutes’ drive from Sancerre, François Cotat waited it out for a little rain to refresh the vines and lower the sugars in the berries, starting his harvest as late as September 23.
François Cotat and his tasting room are remarkably modest considering the almost cult status of his idiosyncratic Sancerres.
So What Do the Wines Taste Like?
Let’s cut to the chase: you want to know if you should be buying and cellaring these wines, right?
It will come as no surprise that the wines of both 2019 and 2020 from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are riper than average, offering midpalate richness as well as elevated alcohol levels. The hot conditions leading up to both vintages resulted in relatively low malic acidity compared with the 10-year average, although tartaric acidity remained higher in 2020. The heat has muted some of the buoyant fragrance of Sauvignon Blanc, although I’m sure a lot of the producers in the region won’t be too bothered, as they tend to be remarkably dismissive of the variety, and particularly its thiol-derived passionfruit, boxwood and greener characters. The earlier-picked wines seem to be the most balanced and the most successful; those with 14.5% alcohol or more, while often impressive in terms of volume and texture, finish hot and cut like a guillotine landing on a neck.
That said, there are plenty of good and very good wines, but some potentially outstanding wines seem to have been picked a few days too late, in my opinion, and have lost their vitality and equilibrium. The learning curve continues. Are they classics? The answer is probably not, from the viewpoint of a long-standing Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé lover; but if the past three years are anything to go by, these richer styles could be the future face of the region. Will the wines go the long haul? I’ll personally be drinking them up in the medium term, taking into consideration the vintage and my preference; although to be fair to some of the better 2003s and 2009s, they’ve held up well, when they were initially handed a short drinking window.
2019 or 2020?
Good question. It’s a close-run thing: some vintages are poles apart in both quality and style, but there’s more commonality than divergence in 2019 and 2020. The release of the 2020s marks a trio of vintages that have all revealed the riper side of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. While many of the finest 2020 cuvées are still in barrel, they may just have the edge over the 2019s due to greater freshness, perhaps because of the higher levels of tartaric acidity in 2020, and better balance when it comes to alcohol levels. Each growing season has its own distinctive rhythm, but the wines of these recent vintages reflect the prevailing dry, warm conditions. The vineyard soils, aspect, and vine age, along with the approach the producers have taken to navigating these uncharted waters, and in particular their willingness to adapt their practices, including expediting picking dates, all seem to be evident in the wines.
Yet-to-be released bottles of 2020 Domaine Vacheron tasted in the cellar with Jean-Laurent Vacheron.
Facing a New Normal
Producers realize that they need to adapt if the past three years are a sign of things to come. For example, in a bid to retain moisture in the soils during these hot, dry summers, Sébastien Redde, who, along with his brother Romain, represents the new generation at Michel Redde in Pouilly-Fumé, has been working hard between the vines. While older vines and those on the moisture-retaining sponge of limestone are better able to deal with hydric stress, they have an even better chance at producing balanced fruit if cover crops are grown between the vines before turning the soil in late May and leaving the uprooted plants to dry, creating a layer of straw on the ground. This prevents evaporation and retains humidity in the soil, hopefully leading to less stress and better balance in the wines. Michel Redde is not alone in taking this approach.
It's not only the summer heat that has producers worried. One of the major concerns is the increasingly mild winters. Having experienced summer-like temperatures over several days in February or March in recent years, encouraging locals to ditch scarves in favor of shorts, the vines took the hint that it was time to get growing, raising the risk of frost damage. For example, in the last few days of March 2021, summery days prompted the vines to come out of hibernation before being slammed with sub-freezing temperatures and snow a week later. Pruning late to delay budburst is an option for smaller domaines, but for larger-scale producers, that’s impractical. There are many other small changes that can be made, whether it’s curbing their enthusiasm for leaf removal to retain greater shade from the sun, or picking in the cool of the dawn. The most famous terroirs of the region are typically variations on a theme of south-facing orientation, but you must wonder if cooler, north-facing sites might be worth exploring further. There’s also work going on at the local laboratory, investigating new strains of Sauvignon Blanc that produce lower sugar at full ripeness and thus wines with more moderate alcohol levels. Experimental plantings of varieties that might be better suited to a changing climate include Petit Meslier and Chenin Blanc, which were once a feature of the local landscape before Sauvignon Blanc became omnipotent. Additionally, the present generation is adopting organic production en masse and reintroducing traditional plowing, looking to the past to future-proof their current place as one of France’s finest.
The wines were tasted in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé with additional samples sent to my home in the north of England following my trip in early July 2021.
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