This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by J Vineyards & Winery in California’s Russian River Valley. Fun fact, grapes have no GPS, so you can relocate them nearly anywhere. The cool climate around J Winery is similar to their native France, helping the grapes thrive. J makes highly acclaimed Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and a variety of sparkling wines with very happy grapes. To experience wine from J Vineyards & Winery, follow the link in the episode description to TheBarrelRoom.com.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers dives into Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, two villages in France’s Loire Valley. Home to the purest expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are two little villages that do a number for the wine varietal. Beavers shares their history as well as what makes their wines so special. Tune in for more.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and my parents recently found a demo of my old band from the ’90s that I was in back in the day. Gave a good listen to it, came to conclusions, and we were awesome.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. And what is happening with you? Today, we are going to get deep into the purest expression of Sauvignon Blanc. There are two little villages that do so much for this variety. Let’s talk about it.
OK, so you’ve heard me say things before like “This is the purest expression of this variety,” or it’s thought, or it’s said to be that. Well, today we are going to talk about the town, and the wine region, of Sancerre. Which is often considered, and I’ve said this before, one of the purest expressions of Sauvignon Blanc on the planet. And I say that because it’s very, I don’t want to say ubiquitous, but we see a lot of it on the American market. But the thing is, as pure and wonderful as the wines of Sancerre are, we cannot talk about Sancerre unless we also talk about its neighboring region — literally neighboring, right over the Loire River; there’s a bridge you can walk over into it — of a little town called Pouilly. And that area has a wine region called Pouilly-Fumé.
So we have Sancerre and we have Pouilly-Fumé, and in these two towns and this area, this is really truly what’s known, or thought to be, some of the truest expressions of the variety Sauvignon Blanc. But it wasn’t always that way. OK. Before we get to that, let’s talk about where Sancerre and Pouilly are. Remember last episode, we talked about the Loire River and how it flowed, how it started at a high elevation in the Central Massif near where Burgundy is and it started flowing north. And then eventually, it curves west going towards the Atlantic. Well, that curve right there, that’s an area called the Upper Loire. And this is where the city, or town, of Sancerre and Pouilly are. And they are on either side of the Loire River. So on the left bank, you have the town of Sancerre and on the right bank, you have the town of Pouilly. Now it’s really well known, just like everywhere in Europe, almost everywhere in Europe, the Romans were here.
There is documentation to say that even the Romans back in the day saw this area called the Upper Loire as a suitable place to grow vines. Then the monks, right, wine lovers? The monks are always around. They start hanging out in the Middle Ages and they actually start planting vineyards, focusing, documenting, and all that. And up until the mid- to late-19th century, around 1860 or so, this area had a lot of, I guess you could say Burgundian varieties because of its proximity. I mean, Pouilly is, I think, about 50 miles from Chablis. So you had Gamay here, you had Chardonnay, you had Pinot Noir and then you had Sauvignon Blanc. And you had another grape called Chasselas, which is a variety from Switzerland, which also makes sense because Burgundy is close to the Swiss border. Then phylloxera hits.
And the story happens all over the place with phylloxera. It destroys everything. People have to replant, but when they replant they’ve been devastated economically, so they want to make sure what they plant will survive, and Chasselas was planted, of course, but more than that, it was thought that Sauvignon Blanc was the most suitable variety in this area. So the town of Pouilly decides to focus primarily on Sauvignon Blanc, but here they call Sauvignon Blanc “Blanc Fumé.” Blanc meaning white. Fumé meaning smoke. White smoke. It’s a pretty amazing name for a grape. It kind of sounds like a horse’s name. But the reason they call it that is because of the soil and the climate of that area, the wines would take on a sort of, well, they would have an aroma of gunflint or sometimes smoky aroma. It’s a compound called benzyl mercaptan, but of course, they didn’t know that back in the day.
And for Sancerre, up until the 20th century, sort of the early to mid-20th century, they were, I mean, Sauvignon Blanc was there, but they were primarily making wine from the white Chasselas of grapes from Switzerland and Pinot Noir and Gamay. But they would eventually focus on Sauvignon Blanc as well. And then in the 1930s, when France was developing its AOC system, in 1936, Sancerre becomes an AOC and it is focused, of course, on Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Gamay has just lost pretty much out of there. And then in 1937, the town of Pouilly gets its own wine region. And it’s called Pouilly-Fumé. “Pouilly” is the name of the town. “Fumé” is a characteristic of their wine, which differentiates them from the town across the river. And now we have these two appellations focusing on Sauvignon Blanc.
And now that these are two wine regions, by the late ’60s, they really came into themselves as wine regions, defining themselves and their style of wine from the Sauvignon Blanc grape. And in the ’70s and ’80s, these wines made their way to Paris and become extremely popular because of their uniqueness. Sancerre is racy and crisp and lean, and it’s different. And people really fell in love with it. And the Sauvignon Blancs from Pouilly-Fumé are almost like that, but a little more dense, a little more fuller body. But again, very, very cool. And in Sancerre, there’s a little area called Chavignol. And in that area, wines are coming out that have a little bit of earthiness to them. It’s becoming very popular. This is a time when Beaujolais Nouveau becomes a thing and that’s going to be in the next episode.
So Beaujolais and Sancerre, two wine regions all the way over in the eastern part of France, started becoming popular in Paris, and it blows up. It hits the American market and man, ’70s, ’80s, early ’90s, we went nuts for Sancerre. Yes, Pouilly-Fumé was around, but Sancerre is what caught. It was easier to say. And it was one of the most popular wines in America for a long time. It was different than Chardonnay, so that’s why it was so popular. Americans, we have, our palates get saturated with something, we look for something new. So at that time, we must have been oversaturated with Chardonnay. There was an acronym out there called “anything but Chardonnay” so it makes sense why this happened. Of course, demand was very high, then demand drops and we go through other phases. But the thing about Sancerre is it never really left us.
It’s always on the shelves. There’s always somebody coming into a wine shop asking for a Sancerre. So much that people may not even know that it’s the Sauvignon Blanc grape. People may not even know that it’s considered, maybe, with Pouilly-Fumé, the purest expression of that variety. But here we are today. And just like places like Beaujolais, which we’ll talk about next episode that are kind of going through a revival right now, the Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé appellations never went through a revival on the American market. They were just always there, and now they’re just kind of coming back. So let’s talk about Sancerre real quick and Pouilly-Fumé. Let’s talk about the wines there to wrap this whole thing up.
One thing that’s a little bit tough about Sancerre is that it’s spread out over about 14 communes. And there’s about 7,000 acres under vine. And from the western edge of the appellation all the way towards the town of Sancerre, the soil changes so that there are almost like a few areas with different results.
Now, the thing is, you’re not going to see this on the label, so you just have to kind of enjoy the wines and then kind of get a sense. Maybe look them up and see where the vines are from. There is one cru, of course, in Sancerre that will help define this. Vines are wines coming from the very western part of Sancerre. You’re going to get Sauvignon Blanc that have that racy character to them, but there’s going to be a density to them. They’re going to be a little bit fuller-bodied. A great way to experience this and to know what you’re getting is getting wine from the little cru called Chavignol, which is in this area of Sancerre. Not a lot is made there. It’s a smaller area. So the wines are kind of expensive, but you get a really good sense of how microclimate-y and soil-y these wines are and how they actually grab the terroir, if you will, the sense of place from that area.
As the vineyards move towards the east, towards the town of Sancerre, this area is known for, well, the vines that grow there produce wines that are a little more delicate. This is where we get the very racy, clean, crisp, grassy Sancerres. And as we get closer to Sancerre the town, which is actually closer to the river, which is actually closer to Pouilly-Fumé, we start getting Sancerre wines that are kind of flinty. Does that make sense? It’s getting closer to Pouilly, and wines here can actually age for a little bit. Also, all the way in the western part, but the thing about Sauvignon Blanc is it doesn’t really, Sauvignon Blanc does age, and here it definitely does for sometimes between two to six, four to six years, something like that.
But Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t develop like other varieties; it almost kind of maintains its character more than it does anything else. But of course, this is wine, so anything’s possible, right? Now, that’s the thing about Sancerre is that the wine can be a blend of all these areas, it just depends on what the winemaker owns or what they’re drawing from for their vintage. And what’s cool is that about 10 percent of the wine coming out of Sancerre is Pinot Noir, red Pinot Noir. I was in Sancerre talking to a winemaker once and they told me how hard Pinot Noir is to make there, and you don’t see a lot of it, but when you do, grab it. It is one of the more interesting expressions of Pinot Noir in the world. It doesn’t have the live sort of elegance of Burgundy. There’s an earthiness, there’s an unctuousness to it. It has some depth to it. It can be peppery, a little bit herbaceous. They’re very cool and they’re very different.
And also they do about 6 percent of rosé, which is from the Pinot Noir variety, and those are very cool as well. So if you see one, grab it and check it out. Very cool. As far as Pouilly-Fumé is concerned, what you should know is that the wines from Pouilly-Fumé have density to them. If Sauvignon Blanc can be elegant and powerful at the same time, this is where you’ll notice it. There’s an undeniable structure and density to these Sauvignon Blancs while still at the same time being extremely refreshing with high natural acidity. It’s one of those things where like, “Oh my gosh, nature did this? And humans and nature did this? This is amazing.” Also, something to know is, often Pouilly-Fumé is confused with a place in Burgundy called Pouilly-Fuissé. Two completely different places, two completely different wines. It’s Chardonnay and Burgundy, Sauvignon Blanc and Pouilly-Fumé. Just to kind of clear that up.
The thing is these wines, like I said, don’t really age for a long time, maybe six years. Again, I’m sure there’s somebody doing it in a way that can age longer. But in general, these wines are consumed in their youth. And that’s what’s kind of crazy is these wines are best consumed in their youth, but they can actually be pretty expensive. So if you’re used to spending a lot of money on aged wine — I mean, it’s not a lot of money, they start in the mid- to high $20s and they go up from there. Chavignol can be much more expensive and Pouilly-Fumé can get really expensive, but what you’re experiencing is what is considered in the wine world some of the purest expressions of this variety. So although they aren’t age-worthy wines and they can be a little bit pricey, it’s an absolute experience.
Not all Sancerre is expensive. So the more, less expensive ones may not have the kind of focus that I’m talking about now. And in Pouilly-Fumé, there is a larger part of the AOC, surrounding that AOC, called Pouilly-sur-Loire. And that, when you see that in a label, again, that’s a more general Sauvignon Blanc, not necessarily in the style that I’m talking about here, but they are available and you will see them around. But I thought it was important to put these two together, because I could have done something on just Sancerre, but you can’t just do Sancerre and not do Pouilly-Fumé. They’re neighboring regions. They’re very similar. They both are very special in their own right, for what they have to offer us.
And it’s also, I got to say, it’s not easy. If I were to be blinded on a Pouilly-Fumé or a Sancerre, I personally don’t know unless it’s like a Chavignol and really, really crazy. Even then, I don’t even know if I would be able to tell if the wine is from which side of the river. It’s not easy because we’re not talking about blends here. This is one variety in soils that are similar yet different with very similar climates. So it’s a little bit tough, but the fun of the enjoyment of this is just to go and start buying and trying because if you’re willing to spend in that upper $20 to $30 range, you are going to have some beautiful wines. And if you have a few of them, you might be able to get a sense of the subtleties of this variety, because not only does it change from village to village, but winemakers within these wine regions also have unique characteristics to them in the way they make their wine and the different vines they blend with.
So it’s a really fun and refreshing, beautiful place to try. So I hope this helped. Go out there. Don’t just enjoy Sancerre — also enjoy Pouilly-Fumé and let me know what you’re drinking. @VinePairKeith on Insta. Talk to you next week.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.
And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.