Last but not least, we end our tour of the Loire Valley in the Central Vineyards—where the region’s overall cool, continental climate is the main contributing factor to the racey acidity in its claim-to-fame grape. If you’ve not yet taken a stop in Pays Nantais, Anjou-Saumur, or Touraine, be sure to read about those as well to learn what makes this region, the home of the famed Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, so special.
Note: For a simplified look at the Loire Valley, please see Loire Valley Regional Round-Up and Wine Review and Pop Quiz(es): Loire Valley. (More appropriate for those studying for their Level 3 exams.)
As mentioned, the Central Vineyards have a cool continental climate, experiencing cold winters and warm summers. The growing season days are long, while light and heat intensity from the sun is low, contributing to restrained flavors in resulting wines. Interestingly, rainfall is relatively high for a continental region, which fortunately mitigates drought, but unfortunately does increase the threat of fungal diseases.
As with much of the Loire, spring frosts are a threat, but here in the Central Vineyards, so are summer hailstorms. Protection practices against frost include wind machines, particularly in the Pouilly-Frume AOC.
GRAPES TO KNOW
Sauvignon Blanc is a late budding, early ripening variety and thus suitable to the cool climate region that tends to experience early autumn rains. Sauvignon blanc is also a vigorous variety, which The Oxford Companion to Wine notes is a particular problem in the Loire Valley. “The resulting wine can be aggressively herbaceous, almost intrusively rank,” it says. Low vigor rootstocks as well as canopy management can help avoid this. My text notes that growers in the Central Vineyard have learned to plant their Sauvignon Blanc vines on poorer soils and implement canopy management that avoid shading—removing vegetation and allowing exposure of the grape to the heat and light of the sun.
When done so, the resulting wines of the Loire are “in its purest, most unadulterated form. In the often limestone vineyards of Sancerre, Poully-Fumé and their eastern satellites, Quincy, Reuilly, and Menetou-Salon, it can demonstrate one of the most eloquent arguments for marrying variety with suitable terroir.” (the Oxford) These wines will have pronounced aromatic and flavor intensity, with the warmer vineyard sites lending a profile of riper fruit flavors, medium body, medium alcohol, and the ability to age in bottle.
You’ll know the wines from the lesser vineyard sites, those with less sun exposure, as the wines will stay on the “green” side of the spectrum: grass, bell pepper, gooseberry, grapefruit, wet stone, and an unavoidable high acidity.
An additional vineyard management note: Sauvignon Blanc is known to be prone to fungal diseases: powdery mildew, botrytis bunch rot and trunk disease (specifically Esca and, if cordon trained, eutypa dieback).
Pinot Noir plantings make up just about 20% of the Loire Valley’s vineyard acreage. As such, I’m not going to go into dedicated detail about the grape itself. Suffice it to say that in the Loire AOCs that produce Pinot Noir, the wines tend to be medium ruby in color, light to medium in flavor and aromatic intensity, with high acidity, and medium alcohol.
NOTE: There is currently no cru system in the appellations of the Central Vineyards.
Sancerre AOC is nearly synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc, though the region does produce red and rosé wine from Pinot Noir. In fact, FUN FACT: from as far back as the Romans to about the mid-20th century, vineyard plantings and wine production in Sancerre were red wine dominant. The vineyards transitioned after the phylloxera flare-up and today, Sancerre is Sauvignon Blanc dominant.
The best vineyard sites are those south-facing slopes facing the Loire River, which provides both a moderating influence on temperature as well as protects against those spring frosts. Among those slopes are 14 communes, which can be split up into three sections with varying soil types:
- Caillottes: a very shallow soil over limestone; fruit from these vineyards are said to produce the most aromatic wines in Sancerre and are considered ‘early drinkers,’ not intended for long-term bottle aging.
- Terre Blances: this is said to be the same soil mixture of limestone and marl found in Chablis; it tends to promote slow ripening and my text notes that it is on these soils where we can find some of Sancerre’s most famous vineyards (Cote des Monts Damnes, Cul de Beaujeau). Resulting wines are said to be more structured and, thus, require longer maturation before being approachable and are intended for long-term aging.
- Silex: is described as flinty soils that accumulate heat and promote early ripening. Resulting wines are said to have a specific TASTING NOTE of mineral and smoke.
VARIETAL FACT: Though the max yields for Sauvignon Blanc are fairly high (65 hL/ha), the grape is known to produce wines with sufficient flavor intensity at these levels. BUT reduced yields (59 for reds; 63 for rosé) are needed to produce any kind of intensity in the Pinot Noirs of Sancerre.
Pouilly-Fume AOC is for Sauvignon Blanc only. Though it has the same range of soils as those found in Sancerre, the vineyard area is, in fact, notably flatter, thus the region is much more prone to frost damage (as mentioned above, growers typically use wind machines as protection). The Atlas cheekily notes that “It would be a brave taster who maintained he or she could always tell a Pouilly-Fume from a Sancerre. The best of each are on the same level.”
My text, however, notes that Pouilly-Fume Sauvignon Blanc tends to be rounder, less aromatic and often needs a little more time (6 months to a year) in bottle to start to show. The Atlas, states Sancerre can be described as fuller and “more obvious,” while the wine of Pouilly-Fume is more perfumed. And turning to the Oxford, it states that “the best Pouilly-Fume is denser, more ambitiously long-lived.”
Good thing I’m including both in my tasting case study.
Wine Case Study: Jean Claude Chatelain Selection Sancerre 2015
About the Wine:
This is a 100% Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre in the Loire Valley. According to the producer, the wine was fermented in 100% stainless steel at a fairly cool 60 to 65°F. The wine aged on the lees (amount of time unspecified).
Appearance: Pale lemon
Aroma: Medium (+) intensity: lemon/lime skins, green apple, blossom, pear, wet stone, flint, mineral, light smoke, and a very subtle hint of vanilla or vanilla flower.
Palate: Dry, high acid, medium alcohol, medium (-) body with a touch of texture (very slight) on the tongue. Flavor intensity is keeping at medium (+) and in addition to the notes mentioned above I do get a little bit of lemongrass, grass, a strong dose of that wet stone characteristic, and way in the back I do get just the slightest hint of just ripe pineapple. While I don’t get any bread or yeasty notes in the flavor, that phenolic grip and touch of bitterness makes me wonder if there wasn’t at least some gentle lees aging during the winemaking process.
The finish is medium (+).
Conclusion: This is a very good wine that presents restraint in its fruit flavors, instead leading the flavor profile with those more earthy notes of mineral, wet stone, flint, and smoke. The moderate alcohol does not overwhelm the subtlety of the fruits, instead lending toward the slight lift in body. The touch of texture on the palate lends structure to the wine and gives it a notable complexity, but again does not overwhelm the delicate expression of the primary aromas or flavors. The finish fell shy of long at a medium (+), thus it is not outstanding. But I will add that I enjoyed that about this wine—it maintains its subtlety from start to finish and that slight dryness and bitterness brought the tasting to a complete finish.
I do not think that this wine is suitable for bottle aging. As mentioned the aromatic and flavor profile are not lead by the fruit characteristics, more the earthy tones. As such, I cannot see how these flavors could develop further into anything more complex or even tasty. I think the joy in this wine is the refreshing quality of those minerally, wet stone, flinty notes that in and of themselves provide complexity to the wine. I’m not confident that the wine could hold on to these qualities as successfully with more time in bottle. And, as this is already a 2015 vintage, my recommendation would be to drink this wine now and not hold further.
Wine Case Study: Pascal Jolivet Pouilly Fume Les Terres Blanches 2014
About the Wine:
Flavor Profile: Unfortunately this wine was corked and I could not review it.
These next three appellations are what the Atlas refer to as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume’s “Aspiring neighborhoods.” I just wanted to share that because I thought it was funny.
Reuilly AOC produces white wines from Sauvignon Blanc, red wines from Pinot Noir, and POINT OF DIFFERENCE: rosé from Pinot Noir AND Pinot Gris. The Oxford also notes the region grows and produces Gamay, sold as IGT.
Quincy AOC produces white wines only from Sauvignon Blanc with 10% Sauvignon Gris allowed to party in the mix. According to the Oxford, “the wines tend to be a little more rustic, less delicate, than those made in Menetou-Salon (below) and Sancerre.”
Menetou-Salon AOC offers the same range of wines as Sancerre, which, as the Oxford notes, often come at a much better value. The vines are planted on gentle south facing slopes, thus they are more vulnerable to frost than in Sancerre where slopes are extremely steep.
A few notes on typical winemaking practices throughout the Central Vineyard
- Interestingly, producers of white wines in the Central Vineyard tend to ferment at higher temperatures than we’d encounter in the New World. This pulls back on the heightened fruit expression, creating a more restrained wine (than I’m probably used to, that’s for sure).
- As with most aromatic varieties, malolactic is usually avoided. However, my text notes that some producers may choose to see their wines through ML, depending on style desired and vintage. (Perhaps extremely cool vintages in which acid levels were not able to drop in the vineyard.)
- High quality wines may be aged in old oak to fill out the body of the wine. New oak is rare.
- Extensive lees aging with stirring is another technique used to give the wine body and lift.
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