Sauvignon Blanc for summer

John H. Isacs
Over the ensuing few weeks, I'll feature perfect wines to pleasurably transition to summer. My first summer beauty is one of the world's most popular white wines.
John H. Isacs

However you may measure it, summertime is here. In this particularly challenging year we're all craving the special experiences the new season offers us, including minimalist clothing, walks in the sun, dining alfresco, light summer fare and fresh vibrant wines. Over the ensuing few weeks, I'll feature perfect wines to pleasurably transition to summer.

My first summer beauty is one of the world's most popular white wines. If one were to come up will all the criteria for an ideal sunshine wine, Sauvignon Blanc would be one of the few wines to meet them all.

Sauvignon Blanc was first officially recognized as a distinct variety in the Gironde area of southwest France in the early 1600s but many ampelographers speculate that the grape existed centuries earlier. Most likely, the grape is a descendant of the more ancient variety Savagnin and one or more other varieties.

In the late 19th century, phylloxera pests decimated Sauvignon Blanc vines throughout southwest France. Fortunately the variety found new homes in central France and northern Italy where cooler weather proved ideal for making high-quality Sauvignon Blanc wines. By the 20th century, the grape successfully migrated to the New World where it thrived and became along with Chardonnay one of the world's most loved white wines.

Sauvignon Blanc for summer
Ti Gong

Sloping hillside vineyard in Sancerre

Today, the best Sauvignon Blanc wines come from cool climate regions that have pronounced diurnal temperature differences and long growing seasons. In these conditions, the grapes can reach optimal ripeness while still retaining good acidity. Comparatively, Sauvignon Blanc wines from warmer climates are often over ripe, vegetal and flabby.

In general, all well-made Sauvignon Blanc wines are fresh and fragrant but within these wide parameters there exists a diversity of styles. The two most famous are the fantastically popular Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand and in particular Marlborough and their progenitors from France. I've recently written about Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs so this week I'll feature one of the most aristocratic manifestations of the grape that hails from the Loire Valley.

Sancerre AOC

While Bordeaux still makes some of the best Sauvignon centric blends and a number of excellent single variety wines, a plurality of the best expressions of single variety French Sauvignon Blanc wines come from the Loire Valley in central France. My personal favorites come from the village of Sancerre but I must admit that the nearby village of Pouilly-Fume makes comparably distinguished wines.

The Sancerre appellation was first officially recognized in 1936. Over the ensuing eight plus decades the region has doubled in size to approximately 7,000 acres (28.33sqkm).

Today the AOC comprises Sancerre Village and 13 other small villages in the central-north region of the Loire Valley. The most prized Sancerre wines are from the villages of Bue, Chavigno, Menetreol and Verdigny and not from Sancerre Village itself. Sauvignon Blanc accounts for slightly over 80 percent of plantings in Sancerre with Pinot Noir comprising most of the rest.

The prized hilltop perched vineyards of Sancerre run along the western bank of the Loire River for 24 kilometers. The elevated status of this viticultural area has given the region the moniker of king of the hill. Soil types include limestone, gravel, chalk and flint. The latter can also be found in the bouquets of many Sancerre wines.

Representative Sancerre white wines tend to feature bracing acidity and pungent aromas of grass, gooseberries and stony minerality. Stylistically, they are less extroverted and exuberant than their Kiwi counterparts and less citrusy than Chilean examples, instead offering a subtler and some would say more refined drinking experience.

The limited amount of Sancerre Pinot Noir wines produced are often charming light red wines that are quite suitable for summer luncheons but lack the substance, finesse and elegance of their Sauvignon Blanc counterparts. Nonetheless, both wines offer a quintessentially cooling and pleasing summer drinking experience.

One of the most prestigious names in Sancerre is Henri Bourgeois. The Bourgeois family has been making wines for 10 generations but until recently their production quantity was tiny. In 1950, the family owned a mere 2 hectares of vineyards, while today they boast over 65 hectares of vineyards that provide grapes for half their wines. The other half is bought from local growers.

The quality of the wines is remarkable, from the entry level Petit Bourgeois Sauvignon Blanc that's not even a Sancerre AOC wine because some fruit is sourced outside the AOC, to the majestic Sancerre Blanc La Bourgeoise, an elegant and complex white wine. I've served Henri Bourgeois Sancerre wines at numerous events I've arranged over the years and they have always been among the most popular wines tasted. They also make some less serious, but still noteworthy red wines from outside the Sancerre AOC.

Other recommended producers of Sancerre wines include Domain Fouassier, Pascal Jolivet and J. de Villbois. Since 2015, all recent Sancerre vintages have been very good to great but avoid the subpar 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 vintages. For a special drinking experience I recommend trying more mature Sancerre wines from the excellent 2010, 2009 and 2005 vintages.

Serve Sancerre white wines well-chilled or about 8-10 degrees Celsius and be sure to use a generously-sized Sauvignon Blanc glass so you can fully experience the expressive bouquet.

Sauvignon Blanc for summer

Where to buy (website)

Henri Bourgeois Sancerre La Bourgeoise AOC

Henri Bourgeois Sancerre Les Baronnes AOC

Henri Bourgeois Petit Bourgeois Sauvignon Blanc (website)

J. de Villbois Sancerre Les Silex AOC

J. de Villbois Sancerre Les Mont Damnes AOC

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