Sancerre from another angle

“This wine is perfect for sipping in a wine bar,” says Clément Pinard, pointing at a glass of his Sancerre Rouge. “Perhaps while you are waiting for your girlfriend,” he adds. “With a small light hanging down from above.”

It’s an attractive mental picture but I think Mr. Pinard, who runs Sancerre’s Domaine Pinard with his brother, Florent, may be getting a little carried away, so I look at my glass and take a sniff. The red wine is slightly pale—if I hold it up to the light I can see through it—and on this serving, it is slightly chilled. The first thing that strikes me is its perfume; there is an obvious whiff of blackcurrant and raspberry. I take a sip. What a gloriously light texture, a thrilling acidity that refreshes but doesn’t overwhelm the palate. I look at Mr. Pinard and think: You know, the wine bar analogy works. I could see myself nursing a glass, waiting for someone special to arrive.

We’re drinking Pinot Noir. Not from Burgundy or California but from the Loire Valley, from the fertile hills of Sancerre, a cluster of villages best known for producing Sauvignon Blanc with a fresh, grassy style. But the region also produces red wine and at this time of year, these juicy, fresh, medium-light-bodied wines make for sensational drinking.

These are wines that taste of the soil. As Mr. Pinard says, they almost act like a sponge, translating the flavors from the soil into the glass. What I find is a sort of chalky aftertaste in the mouth, which is what makes them so attractive when paired with food, particularly local dishes such as pork, paté and the huge array of seafood dishes favored in the region. If ever there was a red wine made to go with fish, this is it.

But they are also wines that the connoisseurs drink—those with the inside track who know that while Pinot Noir may be more famous in Burgundy, it’s been planted in the Loire Valley since the Middle Ages. As Mark Walford, director of British wine merchant Richards Walford, told me: “They are the wines I buy for myself and jolly good they are, too.”

In fact, the wine trade has been active in the Loire since the Middle Ages when the Plantagenet kings of England had their wines shipped from the port of Nantes.

When we think of the Loire, our imaginations naturally conjure up images of Renaissance châteaux, medieval fortresses and crisp, white wine. Pinot Noir isn’t necessarily the first grape variety that springs to mind. But the Loire shares the same soil as Burgundy; where it differs is in the weather. In Sancerre they have colder nights and warmer days, which makes a big difference in the flavor of the wine. Grown in the Loire, Pinot Noir takes on a spicy edge and possesses more of a black pepper character than it does in Burgundy.”

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