A group of 10 Cincinnati women who are wine lovers have enthusiastically embraced the “wine school” challenge issued three months ago by Eric Asimov and The New York Times. The gatherings are so popular that husbands and friends have clamored to expand “Femmes du Vins” to “Femmes et Hommes du Vins.”
After a safe start with red Bordeaux, followed by a surprising theme of Cru Beaujolais, the third class featured a personal favorite: Sancerre. A beautiful hilltown capping the eastern edge of the Loire Valley, Sancerre is arguably the spiritual home of Sauvignon Blanc. The wines are aromatic, with recognizable yet distinctive chalky and mineral notes, typically light and refreshing, pleasing alone or with food, and an absolute point of passion for people who love wine with an acidic tinge.
Since all of us original “Femmes du Vins” like to color outside the lines, we couldn’t help but expand class boundaries. Our favorite wine of the evening was a white Bordeaux, which ties as #1 spiritual home for Sauvignon Blanc even though it is always blended with Semillon (and at times Muscadelle). But since Sauvignon Blanc is grown everywhere in the world, to varying degrees of success, we felt compelled to explore New World selections as well.
Sancerre is a compact, action-packed appellation, not even 10k wide and barely that long. Fourteen villages and three hamlets have the right to use the appellation name. Three key vineyard areas distinguished by type of soil surround the main village of Sancerre. Given the amount of global information one must remember for certifiable wine geekery, these three sub-areas of Sancerre are not necessarily memorable. But they are important, so here we go. Chene Marchand, in the village of Bue, produces a refined style of Sancerre owing to mineral-laden soil of limestone and pebbles. Montes Damnes, in the village of Chavignol, offers a broader, more full-bodied style of wine. “Terres blanches,” a white soil mixture of clay and limestone known as Kimmeridgian marl, is the distinctive influence here. The third region, Menetreol, is known for sturdy, steely age-worthy wines made from vines grown in silex (flint, clay) soil. A distinctive “gunflint” essence is known as pierre a fusil in French.
Tasting notes for four selections of Sancerre tasted in order from lowest (12.5%) to highest (13%) alcohol content:
Gerard Boulay (2012) produces wines in Chavignol. In the Times article “Listening to Sancerre Tell its Story,” it was Eric Asimov’s favorite. We liked it too, declaring it a nice, drinkable sipper of a rather indistinct international style. But we didn’t think it was classic Sancerre, and found it to be less food-friendly than other selections. Chalk, citrus and herbal notes were restrained; a bit of honey on the nose and melon on the palate; tertiary aromas of white flowers. 12.5% abv
Domaine Andre Neveu (“Le Manoir” 2011, not on the Times list) is also produced in Chavignol. It offered up distinct chalky aromas reminiscent of Savenniere and Chenin Blanc in the middle Loire Valley. One year older than our other selections, the Neveu wine had more body and less acidity, and perhaps a little residual sugar, with green notes of asparagus and gooseberry skin. With food, especially goat cheese but even with asparagus quiche, the wine’s acidity came into even greater balance. 12.5% abv
Robert Parker calls Franck & Jean-Francois Bailly one of Sancerre’s best producers. Making wines since early 20th century, the family owns vineyards in all three of Sancerre’s premier vineyard areas. The (2012) was all about big citrus, green dried herbs. It was very fresh (but not grassy), and relatively low acidity. In the ultimate test of goat cheese vs. asparagus, the Humboldt Fog cheese definitely won! 13% abv
Lucien Crochet La Croix du Roy (2012) was an interesting selection, very full-bodied, owing in part to terroir and in part to style (unfined and unfiltered). Sourced from several parcels, the cuvee is described by Rosenthal Wine Merchant as the most masculine of Lucien Crochet’s Sancerre selections. On the palate, the wine was rich and round, a hint of spices (clove and jalapeno pepper). Although it decidedly failed the asparagus test, the wine was perfect with a lemony dish of shrimp and cannellini beans. 13% abv
And now for the white Bordeaux and three New World selections in the order we decided to taste them, again based on stated alcohol content:
Geisen (2012) is a large producer of New Zealand wines. Although the winery is physically located in Canterbury, southwest of Christchurch, the grapes for this wine are from Marlborough which is broadly considered to be the best growing region for Sauvignon Blanc and perhaps the world’s second spiritual home for the grape. We thought this wine was typical for inexpensive New Zealand SB. It had a strong, pungent nose — over-the-top ripe grapefruit, green pepper and gooseberry skin. There was no real depth to the body or finish. 12.5% abv
Steenburg (2012) is one of the most important wineries in the Constantia region of South Africa just south of Cape Town. It was part of the original farm developed by South Africa’s first governor, Simon van der Stel, in 1865. This very special bottle was transported to Cincinnati in December 2013 by a dear friend who is South African. Unfortunately, the bottle was off, having experienced a bit of reduction, so we were not able to evaluate it. Having visited this winery myself in October 2013, however, I can attest that the winemaker blends several parcels from the estate to achieve an interesting and delicious mix of classic flavors ranging from flinty to gooseberry to tropical fruit. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find in the U.S.
Andre Lurton “Chateau La Louviere” (2010) was an exquisite wine, showing clearly the ways in which Semillon (10%) contributes to Sauvignon Blanc at its finest. From the Graves region of Bordeaux, this complex wine exhibited honeysuckle, acacia flowers, beeswax — crisp citrus, floral and mineral notes. 13.5% abv (This bottle was approximately $50, but Lurton also makes delicious lower priced wines from Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers including Chateau Bonnet, which also contains a component of Muscadelle for further flavor experimentation.)
David Coffaro (2012) started out growing grapes for Gallo, and in 1994 decided to start making wine himself. Vineyards are located in the Dry Creek area of Sonoma, CA. Coffaro is experimenting with Italian and obscure French grape varieties, generating a diverse array of wines. This SB offering was “flabby” — too much body, not enough acidity. It was a pleasant enough, varietally correct, wine with notes of grapefruit rind and a hint of candied ginger. abv 13.6%
A selection of goat cheeses will always be a hit with Sauvignon Blanc from anywhere in the world. Although we were not able to locate Chavignol for our class, the most famous goat cheese of the Loire Valley is one of several important French cheese appellations.
Quiche made with fresh asparagus and peas, diced tomatoes, Gruyere cheese and fresh thyme is a great pairing to offer lessons in what works (and doesn’t!). The egg base of the quiche worked well with the more acidic wines, not so well with the ones that were more full-bodied. The same was true of the asparagus and peas. The Gruyere cheese and thyme worked well across all selections.
Salmon and scallop cakes, colorfully dotted with yellow and red peppers, were excellent with all selections. A home-made green goddess style sauce was a true enhancement with the more full-bodied wines.
Shrimp and cannellini beans, tossed in a mixture of lemon, garlic, olive oil and thyme, also worked well with all of the wines. At least one ingredient of this dish found an accentuating flavor match with every wine.
Never underestimate the power of a host (or guest) to add an element of surprise that makes the wine and food experience even more memorable. Guenter Matthews, pictured below, is a talented organist who regaled our tasting group with a rousing concert on his own organ in his own home!!
With great affection for wine (and the readers of Vino Ventures), from the Femmes du Vins: Kathy Merchant, Amy Neyer, Laura Landoll, Mary Horn, Laura Ginn, Bethanie Butcher, Joanna Argus Kirkendall Susan Zaunbrecher, Jodi Geiser and Reeta Brendamour (plus Guenter Matthews and Don Zaunbrecher)
Photo credits: Sauvignon Blanc, Wine Folly; Map of Loire Valley, http://www.winetour-france.com; food images ifood.tv, tasteofhome.com, passionontheplate.blogspot.com, wellsphere.com