The classic Sancerre wine is white, bracingly acidic, and has pungent aromas of gooseberries, grass, nettles, and a hint of stony minerality. Richer, riper examples – particularly those from warmer, west-facing sites with chalky soils – often show fruitier notes of passion fruit and lemon peel. Sancerre is typically less "obvious" than the most famous New World styles of Sauvignon Blanc; less grassy than those from Marlborough and less overtly citrussy than those from Casablanca.
It is only since the mid-20th century, and the creation of a protected Sancerre appellation, that the town's name has been so strongly associated with white wines. Prior to this, the district was better known for its light-bodied reds. Today, red Sancerre Rouge – made exclusively from Pinot Noir – accounts for less than 20% of the district's annual production.
Until phylloxera wiped out vast tracts of vineyard in the 1860s, the vineyards here were planted mostly with red-wine varieties such as Gamay and Pinot Noir. White wines were in the minority, and were made not from Sauvignon Blanc but from Chasselas. When the solution to the phylloxera epidemic was identified (grafting European vines onto American rootstocks) Sauvignon Blanc vines proved more responsive than these other varieties. Thus Sauvignon Blanc came to be Sancerre's most widely planted variety - a development without which the district and its wines would probably not be as famous as they are today. Small quantities of Chasselas are still grown in the area, mostly on the opposite side of the Loire, around Pouilly-sur-Loire.
Sancerre is located at the very eastern edge of Loire Valley's main vineyard area, hundreds of miles from the region's westernmost vineyards. It is in fact closer to the Côte d'Or in Burgundy than to the Loire's other key wine districts, Anjou and Touraine. Just 50 miles away lies Burgundy's northernmost district, Chablis, whose famous Kimmeridgian soils are also a feature of the terroir here in Sancerre.
Soil types are a point of pride for Sancerre's winegrowers. They are divided clearly into three main types: chalk, limestone-gravel and silex (flint). The latter is often given credit for the distinctive, smoky pierre à fusil (gunflint) aroma found in some Sauvignon Blanc from this part of the Loire Valley. The aroma is clear in some Sancerre wines - most obviously those from the eastern vineyards closer to the Loire. It is the reason behind Sauvignon's traditional pseudonym Blanc Fumé - which survives in the name of Sancerre's neighbour and rival, Pouilly-Fumé.
The Sancerre viticultural area covers a 15 mile stretch of rolling hills on the west bank of the Loire. Roughly 7,000 acres (2,800ha) of vines are now devoted to producing the appellation's wines, almost double the acreage when the Sancerre appellation was created in November 1936. The Loire Valley wine industry has endured significant economic hardship in the past decade (due to a combination of poor vintages and the increasingly competitive international wine market), but Sancerre has felt this pressure less keenly than other districts. Its strong historical reputation - coupled with the appeal of its wine style to modern wine consumers - has allowed Sancerre to retain its status as the Loire Valley's king of the hill.
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