Making Up With Sancerre

SANCERRE is the word on the lips of nearly every young woman that strikes a pose in front of the wine fridges. Sancerre sells itself.

It’s easy to spell and retain. Even if it’s dead simple to pronounce and flows from the tongue like a short sibilant song, one feels a tiny sense of pride in pronouncing it, as if one knows it’s coming out properly.1.

Along with shitty industrial Pinot Grigio, boring inexpensive Malbec, and that last refuge of shaky-handed, broken souls that is vodka, Sauvignon Blanc is one of the major drivers of a wine and spirit shop’s sales that gradually evokes a deep hatred in salespersons. With each request, a stake is further driven into an angry heart that’s grown tired of ushering folks to a selection of beverages which evoke the opposite of excitement.

Having to taste through oceans of mediocre Sauvignon Blanc with sales reps proves the first breaking point.

Not unlike a smelly cat reappearing at one’s door, nearly every single day, a Sauvignon Blanc makes an appearance. And the telltale signature of feral pyrazines or perhaps thiols — let’s call it ‘Sauv Blanc stank’ — makes its indelible little mark. You can smell it from 5 feet away, and it’s going to cling to your palate as you try to move forward and taste other wines.

The smelly cat.
That smelly cat is back.

What I have always had a hard time grasping is just how Sauvignon Blanc conquered the world, particularly given this feral Sauv Blanc stank. How can a grape that renders wines which show so damned green prove so popular in world markets?

A popular explanation holds that the avalanche of inexpensive, fruity New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc arrived at the most opportune moment — just as consumers all over the world grew tired of oaked Chardonnay. Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc then ended up acting as a gateway drug, leading consumers to pricier iterations of Sauvignon Blanc such as Sancerre.

And now it has blossomed into the darling of restaurant wine lists; the moneymaker, driving what would seem to be so many obedient automatons.

I suppose that what’s frustrating is that there’s a Milky Way of wine out there, and yet somehow, only one contender — Sancerre — is in the viewfinder of so many female consumers. Just how did we end up here?

THE LADIES NEED TO EAT THEIR SALAD

A fair share of the young women striking a pose in front of the wine fridge are not unlike coy, slender brontosauruses: mighty eaters of greens, shamed via media representations into a penitent posture wherein they are ever-conscious of their waistlines. Or, at least they’re supposed to be: why, here’s a Tumblr dedicated to the surreal stock photo marketing trope of Women Laughing Alone With Salad.

tumblr_m8xprkp5cT1qg3rm7o1_400Honestly, it’s great that at least one demographic in America isn’t, with each fast food meal, soda, and crinkly bag of snacks, slowly trudging down a dark, spiral staircase into that basement of obesity from which so few rarely emerge.

Really, though, these ol’ gender roles are constricting and tiresome. I’m sick of waiters assuming my salad belongs to the only woman at the table. I’m sick of male = meat, and white wine = female. Even if data bears out the notion that women order salad far more often than men2, we need to move beyond such broad tropes (pun intended).

tumblr_leh5k4uPXd1qg3rm7o1_400It’s true that the greenness of Sauv Blanc stank will work in tandem with any of the aromas on display in a green salad. At this, we can agree Sauvignon Blanc excels. I can think of no better pairing on this earth for salad, even taking into account Muscadet (a close second!), Riesling, and Fié Gris (the practically extinct Sauvignon Blanc mutation that takes green to a whole next level and often tastes like jalapeño — I waited years for someone to walk into the shop and say they were looking for a wine to pair with chiles rellenos or stuffed green peppers, whereupon I would gingerly escort them to their ideal Bachelor of a wine, Eric Chevalier’s Fié Gris. Sadly, it never happened.)

Sauv Blanc stank and salad makes perfect sense. But what I don’t get is gooseberries.

GOOSEBERRIES? NO, FUCK OFF! CAT PEE

How did gooseberry become the dominant descriptor for Sauv Blanc stank? I want to slap all these people that are too damned timid to call a spade for a spade.

Who on earth has ever smelled gooseberries? No one3. Raise ‘em up who has smelled cat piss at least once in their life? Now we’re communicating. I would love to know which marketing person re-engineered Sauv Blanc stank’s key aromatic descriptor, cat pee, into some obscure berry, inaccessible to the modern consumer.

Here’s the rub: it’s okay that you like a wine that smells like cat piss, folks. Deal with it. Try a Scheurebe that’s spent a couple years in bottle, and you’ll have a similar thought. And that’s fine.

Embrace that smelly cat.

The smelly cat.
That smelly cat is back.

FINALLY, SOME EXCITEMENT

It took the wine below — a particularly well-crafted Sancerre — for me to actually start caring about Sancerre (and Sauvignon Blanc growing near Chavignol) once again.  And to accept why the grape counts among one of the 18 noble grapes4.

IMG_0490
Apologies for the ugly, wrinkly label. But we drank the crap out of it.

We couldn’t stop drinking Gérard Boulay’s 2010 Sancerre Clos de Beaujeu at a recent wine dinner. What really opened my eyes was how there were so very many other exciting, highly-pedigreed wines open and waiting like eager, smiling contestants to be chosen.

And yet we couldn’t stop pouring a bit more of the Clos de Beaujeu.

It just flawlessly accompanied nearly every food we had lingering on our palates. It was like it out-Riesling-ed Riesling. What was this parallel universe I’d been ushered into? Have I been a fool all along?

The irony is that while Sauv Blanc stank shakes hands with everything green on this earth, at the height of Sauvignon Blanc’s sales apogee, it was industrial Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc5 which transformed the wine into a less stanky, more fruity product. The green wasn’t exactly factored out, but a great deal of it was traded for a fruit aroma that could be so dense and aggressive it would scream of artificiality.

This aggressive, artificial fruit character brings to mind the manner in which humans mimic natural aromas via artificial ones; we identify one or two major chemical components of an aroma (say, one of the key constituents of green apple aroma, which figures in countless shampoos, perfumes, chewing gums, or bathroom purifiers) and we impregnate a massive number of products with absurd amounts of that chemical signal in hopes of fooling our noses into believing the preposterous notion that we are smelling fruit. But the average nose declares artificiality rather quickly, as a giant chunk of supporting chemical compounds are missing from the aromatic palate. Something is far too loud, and yet something rings hollow to the nose somehow.

This Clos de Beaujeau was the answer to everything wrong with industrial Sauvignon Blanc; dry, mineral, refreshing, and as far as can be from a world of overinflated, steroid-laden, chemical fruity domination. Noble; intriguing; unpretentious, yet gripping.

CRYSTALLINE GUN FLINT FIRST, BIT O’ STANK LATER

I want my Sauvignon Blanc to first taste like the terroir it grew up in — hopefully Kimmeridgian limestone, clay and flint (= silex), expressing itself through the famous ‘gun flint’ descriptor so often used to characterize historic Chavignol terroir — and then, maybe, a little bit of pyrazine/thiols alluded to on the finish through the veil of an alluring, lightweight, palate-caressing honeyed smoke. And I’ll pass on the weight-lifting fruit. Maybe I just need to come to terms with the idea I really only like Chavignol? I’m starting to feel giddy, and crave a salad, here.

Let’s give Sauvignon Blanc its due: one of the things it does well is acheive that bright, crystalline character. While I’m certain that through artificial yeast, enzyme additions, or any other number of Frankensteinian additives one might be able to ape this shimmering Chavignol character in the cellar, it must do so naturally through a balance of poor soils with prime-parcel minerality and exposure, low-vigor rootstocks and aggressive pruning, cold weather, a proper harvest date and thus sufficient resultant acidity to bring its virtues into relief.

This is doubtless one of the reasons for Sancerre’s success. Any high-toned, acid wine (Muscadet comes to mind) that will prove sufficiently dry, refreshing, and versatile should in theory win acolytes. Sadly, Muscadet hasn’t yet acheived the dizzying heights of Sauvignon Blanc sales, in spite of the fact it very clearly deserves it. And in spite of its paltry cost of entry (often in the neighborhood of $15), selling it still seems like asking consumers to try a weird organ meat appetizer; they squirm at the idea. MOOSE-cah-day?

I’ve tried a garbage truck full of Sauvignon Blanc (and Sancerre) in my wine career so far. This Sancerre deserves far more respect than I’d ever dreamed. Sure, saying Gérard Boulay makes a compelling Sancerre is anything but revelatory — he’s been a benchmark in the region for some time.

While I knew and respected that, and earnestly tried to orient boatloads of women to Boulay’s lovely Sancerre à Chavignol for a slight price premium over the cheaper Sancerre they wanted to buy, my own sales-floor induced prejudice against Sauvignon Blanc blinded me as to just how compelling well-made Sancerre could be.

This wine opened my eyes. I can think of no more versatile food partner to have lying in wait in your cellar. Plus, you can pair it with salad. And laugh.

A FINAL CREEPY THOUGHT

I leave you with a surreal epiphany which dawned upon me a couple nights ago while tasting a 2007 Dauvissat Chablis 1er cru La Forest (which, by the way, was lovely, if a bit more mature than expected).

On some level, a glass of Chablis (or Sancerre, or really any wine growing in Kimmeridgian limestone) is ultimately just a glass of really, really, really old seafood.

Expressed through grapes.

Something to think about while eating your salad alone.

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  1. Perhaps the average consumer glows a bit in trumping the foreign wine name pronunciation bugaboo that plagues, say, Gewurztraminer, or German and Austrian Riesling vineyard names, or Blaufrankish []
  2. GrubHub ordering data shows women ‘overwhelmingly order salad’;  “GrubHub’s survey results displayed different ordering times that men and women were likely to use, which meals were frequently ordered by which gender and which types of food had a gender connotation.

    tumblr_leh5i4B4qg1qg3rm7o1_250For instance, men were 55 percent more likely than women to order late-night food from their phones between the hours of 10 pm to 2 am. Women were much more likely to place breakfast orders between the hours of 8 am and 11 am.

    Meanwhile, specific products such as salads and sushi rolls were overwhelmingly ordered by women, while men typically ordered foods such as boneless wings and chicken parmesan. GrubHub was even able to pinpoint various food fads associated with gender, such as women being 73 percent more likely to order cupcakes and men being 35 percent more likely to order bacon.” http://www.mobilecommercedaily.com/restaurant-chains-can-enhance-mobile-ordering-with-gender-based-marketing?utm_referrer=direct%2Fnot%20provided.

    Wow, what does this mean about Cupcake wine sales? []

  3. Not even in the UK where they were native and most wine writing seems to evoke them: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/9451784/Where-have-all-our-gooseberries-gone.html []
  4. http://winefolly.com/update/the-18-noble-grapes-wine-challenge/ []
  5. That super-high yield, often inoculated with artificial yeast (cf. http://www.oysterbaywines.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/OBSB12-Tech-Spec.pdf) and contorted via any number of other Frankensteinian cellar manners []

2 comments

  1. Emily Harrington says:

    I only wish that we could say that Sancerre served as “cougar juice” in our wine shop! Great article, as always.

  2. Bjorn Anthony says:

    Could not agree more….another reason why I enjoy Riesling,Semillon and Marsanne rather than the sugared up Sauvignon Blanc,particularly from NZ,that have flooded the market.

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