Last year France was in the thrall of “Basique,” by the rapper Orelsan, essentially Gaul’s answer to Eminem. “Basique” means pretty much the same thing in French as in English: “basic,” which isn’t exactly a compliment. Orelsan’s point here, or one of them (in addition to his solicitous intro: I’m gonna say some simple things / because you’re all so fucking dumb), is that there’s a difference between the simple and the basic. And between what’s useful insight (“100 people own half the world’s wealth”), and what’s trite (“Every generation says it’s the next generation’s fault”).
“Basique” is an earworm, and it’s been popping into my head each time I see a bottle of Sancerre, France’s most famous sauvignon blanc and one of its most popular white wines. It’s the one French white that pretty much sells itself—even in seen-it-all wine markets like New York and Los Angeles. For most U.S. importers, having a Sancerre, or several, in your portfolio remains a fact of life, and has since the 1980s. Even restaurants with pretty progressive wine lists still often believe they have to offer a Sancerre. Any why shouldn’t they? It’s the most utterly reliable of wines, almost always competently made and not at all challenging. It’s très sauvignon, as the French say, in that most modern versions taste utterly of the grape itself, in perhaps a less garish way than New Zealand versions. Customers recognize the name, and feel they can make a simple choice that allows them to feel confident. So Sancerre may be basique, but it’s a basic pleasure a lot of people seem to like.
The place it comes from, though, isn’t quite as basic as the wines might imply. Rather, Sancerre is a wine region whose complexity feels like it’s been scrubbed away by the basicness of its wines. In the course of most of a week puttering around in an underpowered Fiat 500, the result of some nifty bit of French rental-car revenge, I began to get a sense of how much more Sancerre has to offer, if only we stopped relegating it to basique status. The landscape and soils are both historic, with wine production dating at least to the dukes of Burgundy, and compelling, down to the towering spire of a hill, high above the Loire, on which the village of Sancerre sits. Even the Fiat was trying to give me this message, in its inability to climb even a small hill without major complaint from the engine. Whatever else I thought of a vineyard like Les Monts Damnés, the area’s most famous, my little car wanted me to understand: It is damned steep, a place to grow great wine.
Even on a map, Sancerre is an interesting place. Some of its best land is composed of the same Kimmeridgian limestone that’s found in Chablis. There’s also coarser limestone with small stones, and deposits of silex, or flint, found both throughout Sancerre and across the Loire river. There’s even a fault line running right beneath the village of Sancerre, marking a vein of flint that’s a source for some of the best wines.
These details obscure a more fundamental issue with Sancerre, which is that its lack of complexity isn’t so much a problem as a desired side effect of a very calculated sort of success.
Around the turn of the 1980s, along with Chablis, Sancerre was becoming a tour de force in French wine, especially as Americans embraced white wines and grew enamored of all things French. My father used to serve it enthusiastically to customers with fresh goat cheese, as is the custom in Sancerre itself, to make a point about local tastes. In that era, the area’s growers made a decision: Because people liked their wines, the easiest thing to do, as French vignerons tend to, was to make a lot more. And so what had been one of France’s thoroughly enjoyable white wines began its path to insipidness. “It was an industrial process on a small scale,” says Sébastien Riffault, an icon in the natural-wine world who makes a stridently different sort of Sancerre. “Finally, we were making New Zealand wine in France.”
The usual story ensues at this point: vineyard area expands, yields go up, winemaking becomes overly technical and slapdash. And this is essentially what I found in most cellars there: hasty pressing of the grapes, cultured yeasts to race through fermentation in big steel tanks, and rapid bottling by spring at the latest.
But it’s not that no one is trying. There’s Jean-Laurent Vacheron, who arguably makes the area’s most well-reputed wines. Vacheron and his cousin, Jean-Dominique, farm their land biodynamically—all but unheard of in the appellation—with a Burgundian level of attention to their winemaking. That is, picking manually in small boxes, aging their single-parcels like L’Enclos and Le Pavé in oak for a year and even their entry-level wine for nine months.
A handful of others are equally diligent, including Pascal Gitton and Vincent Gaudry. And there are good signs that Anne Vatan will bring a similar dynamism back to the property founded by her father, Edmond, one of Sancerre’s most reputable growers. Sancerre has also always had its handful of renegades—most recently Riffault, who gained a following for his orange-ish, often botrytized versions of sauvignon blanc. But also longtime dissidents like François Cotat, who has kept a “closed” sign for at least two decades in front of his tiny cellar on a back street in Chavignol, hoping to chase off tourists. There’s even good local beer from the local brewery, Brasserie Sancerroise, always a sign of a spot with discerning tastes.
But Sancerre can often feel even more hollowed out than most rural French towns. At one point, I consider whether David Lynch should bring a Twin Peaks road show here, after a diminutive man, dressed all in camouflage, keeps angrily cutting off my dinky Fiat with his mini-moto—the Man from Another Place, fueled on sauvignon blanc. And yet, even with this garmonbozia beneath the surface, there’s cause for hope.
“My father was part of the generation that really grew the size of the vineyards,” Nicolas Millérioux tells me, as we plod through a muddy but grass-covered spot named Paradis, adjacent to vines planted in soil that looks like the end of nuclear winter. “They turned to herbicides and the like in order to be less work in the vineyards, versus my grandfather, who worked with a horse. That was the fashion in that era.”
Millérioux is of that contingent of young French vignerons who have traveled enough to see how the world’s top appellations are going retrograde—returning to the best lo-fi practices of the past. About a decade ago, he stopped using herbicides on his family’s land at Domaine Georges Millérioux, and replanted some vines in mass selection, which almost never happens with sauvignon blanc.
His goal is to define how Sancerre might have tasted earlier in the 20th century, before modern vine-clone monotony. No horses here (Riffault is pretty much alone in using them) but Millérioux diligently tills his soil and performs extended lees-aging to enrich the wine and, crucially, relies on indigenous yeasts, so that his Les Chasseignes bottle tastes like Les Chasseignes (ripe and darkly brooding) and his Romains tastes like Romains (bright and fresh).
“Otherwise you have a great parcel on a slope, and it’ll taste just like a Touraine sauvignon blanc,” a more generic wine from farther west down the Loire. I assume he doesn’t mean this as a compliment.
He also makes a minuscule amount of red gamay, La Cornille, from a parcel his grandfather planted in the 1950s—to drink at home while he sold his fancier Sancerre red. And that brings us, in addition to making the whites sing again, to the other thing that might revive serious interest in the area: Sancerre’s reds and rosés, which in fact reflect the area’s red-wine history dominance prior to phylloxera. These wines have actually been longtime staples—and the pinot noir-based reds, once considered thin, have become a good alternative to Burgundy. The rosés, when made with serious intent, can be savory and complex. This side of Sancerre is why Vacheron—who also makes one of the area’s best rosés—is constructing a separate winery to improve the quality of his reds.
It’s rosé, actually, that brings me to Cotat’s door, which finally opens after several phone calls to his wife. I’ve loved Cotat’s work for a while—the wines are big, sometimes boozy and surely not for everyone. In other words, they are a far cry from the refreshing wines of the early 1980s when, as he notes, Sancerre began to become a victim of its own success. (His cousin, Pascal, makes somewhat less outré wines.) Cotat’s rosé, aged in barrels, is one of the region’s best: savory and dramatically flavored. And even when his white Sancerres are challenging, they show the utter possibility of this place. His 2015 Monts Damnés, for instance, has retained a good amount of sugar and a lot of alcohol, and when I taste it about 18 months after harvest, a sweetness remains. But there’s also a slightly astringent fruit-skin side, and an intense wall of minerality. The wine reminds me how a great terroir like Les Monts Damnés can, even in baroque form, produce wines that improve with time—which, Cotat points out, is a rarity: “Nearly everything here is meant to be drunk young.”
Ironically, I find one of the best arguments for why Sancerre might seek a path beyond basicness across the river, in Pouilly-sur-Loire. This is where Pouilly-Fumé, another of France’s important white wines, comes from. (If you’ve ever had a fumé blanc, the name was borrowed from here.) The soils are a slight geological mirror of Sancerre, with alternating patches of limestone and flint and some young Pliocene sandy clay. They’re responsible for the smoky (fumé) aspects for which the wines literally are named—but they’re also as barren and lifeless as their neighbors across the river.
Yet there’s a lacuna between these two towns—Sancerre is thriving, at least economically, while Pouilly feels like it exists more in the past tense. While Sancerre is making bank on those basique qualities, Pouilly struggles. The wines aren’t notably different, but they’re mostly ignored by the same people who lay out $25 for a bottle of Sancerre. Even wines from the Dagueneau family, Pouilly’s most famous producer, have lost some of the buzz that made them among the hottest wines of the late 1990s. (Didier Dagueneau, arguably the Loire’s first celebrity winemaker, died in a 2008 ultralight accident. But his children, Charlotte and Louis-Benjamin, are surpassing their father’s work—and the wines should frankly be getting more attention.) Perhaps most surprisingly, this doesn’t particularly seem to be of concern to most Pouillyssois. “What bugs me,” Jonathan Didier Pabiot, one of the area’s few young, ambitious vignerons, tells me, “is that even today there’s so little curiosity; no one in the village who’s curious at all.”
One late afternoon on the road back to Sancerre, I stop my little Fiat on the roadside. A line of plane trees is fading in the distance into the blush of winter dusk. Vines line one side of the road, grain the other. Frankly, I’m confused. Here I am, where the world consummated its love affair with sauvignon blanc. And I feel nothing—shallow commercialism on one side of the river, a tumble into obscurity on the other.
It could be better than this, although it requires determination to do the hard work—giving up easy money in the belief that people will want more. That was a hard sell to the previous generation of French vignerons. But with people like Millérioux? Maybe not so hard. Because the thing about being basique is that you give into the lowest common denominator of fashion. And fashion is fickle.