Clive Platman samples wines that have their roots just a few miles apart, yet taste worlds apart.
Henri Bourgeois have been making wine in Sancerre for 10 generations and, with around 70 hectares of vines under their control, they must be regarded as one of the most important producers in the Loire Valley region.
Yet their story is bound up with the appellation and 60 years ago their holdings comprised a mere two hectares.
The vines of the pretty hill-top village flourished in the 19th century until they were devastated by the vine louse, phylloxera. By the end of the Second World War, the region was on its knees and the producers began an astute marketing campaign targeting Parisian bistros. By the 1960s, its popularity had spread across the Channel and today the UK remains the leading export market.
Arguably, Sancerre is the definitive expression of sauvignon blanc. It is minerally and angular, with classic expressions of nettles and elderflower. The fruit is subdued, taut and lean, particularly when compared to the more muscle-bound New World competitors, particularly from New Zealand.
Geologically, the wines benefit from three soil types, resulting in different characters. The first is Caillettes, a pebbly limestone that gives a lighter, fresher style; the second is Terres Blanches, a Kimmeridgean limestone-clay that produces a richer, fuller and more long-lived wine; and the third is Silex, whereby the flint gives notes of gunflint and smoke. The genius of the winemaker is therefore to combine or separate these individual characters to produce his blend of choice.
Sancerre and its sister AOC, Pouilly-Fume, are confusingly located in the central Loire region, misleading because they lie two hours due south of Paris, contiguous with Chablis, which lies to the north of Burgundy. At this juncture, the river runs north to south, with Sancerre on the left bank and Pouilly-Fume on the right.
Here, the Loire River and geography are critical in distinguishing the two AOCs, where both use the sauvignon Blanc grape. Climatically, Sancerre, a little further to the west, has a more maritime influence, whereas Pouilly-Fume is more continental, where the summers are hotter. Moreover, the vineyards of Sancerre are planted on hillsides, whereas in Pouilly-Fume they are on the plain. The result is that Sancerre has perhaps more finesse and Pouilly-Fume more concentration.
Connolly’s of Birmingham has been listing Henri Bougeois wines for more than 25 years and it recently invited export director Frederic Sureau to present a selection of their range. It was a fascinating exercise contrasting the richer gunflint and smoky Pouilly-Fume with the more expressive blackcurrant-leaf Sancerre (both £13.99).
This expression of terroir is taken still further in the premium range. La Bourgeoisie 2006 (£20.49) is complex and minerally in style. More elegant and flinty, though, is Jadis 2007 (£28.99) made from 65-year-old vines planted on the Mont Damne in the heart of the region.
For those on a tighter budget, the Petit Bourgeois 2009, a simple vin de pays, is well worth recommending at £8.49. While not a Sancerre, it does give a true expression of Loire sauvignon.
Not all Sancerre, though is white. About 20 per cent of production is from pinot noir, split equally between rosé and red.
Les Baronnes Rosé (£13.99) has mouthwatering raspberry fruit while Les Baronnes Rouge (£15.35) is a delicious lightweight red, a refreshing change to the glut of new-wave blockbusters currently available.
Henri Bourgeois have other Loire interests, and of particular note is their Chinon Les Clos 2008 (£12.25). From oak-fermented and matured cabernet franc, this has ripe, sweet raspberry flavours infused with smoke and spice, and is an attractive example of a modern Loire red.
* For more details, visit Connolly’s, Arch 13, 220 Livery Street, B3 1EU (Tel: 0121 236 9269), or visit www.connollyswines.co.uk