The argument has raged for decades and no doubt, will continue for decades more. What is the greatest white varietal, and what is the world’s greatest white wine? The answer depends on who you talk to.
Naturally, Chardonnay is the response from many wine critics and lovers. It’s planted seemingly everywhere there are wine regions, and when you taste a complex Chardonnay from an artisan producer in California or a sublime white Bugundy, it’s hard not to favor this grape as the world’s finest.
Riesling has a lot of die-hard fans who claim that this varietal makes the best white wines. When you taste an example that is 10-20 years old (or older), you can certainly understand their opinion. Given the natural acidity of Riesling, these wines not only age beautifully, but display a wide variety of characteristics as they age.
I love Gewürztraminer, whether from Alto Adige or Alsace (where is it spelled Gewurztraminer, without the umlaut), for its remarkable perfumes of lanolin, yellow roses and grapefruit. I do realize that given these aromas as well as its spiciness, Gewürztraminer is somewhat limited in its ability to pair with many foods, so that is a strike against it being the greatest of all white grapes. But I love the wine nonetheless.
So I’ll nominate Sauvignon Blanc as arguably the world’s greatest white grape, for its richness, herbal notes, complexity, minerality and aging potential. And while there are notable examples of Sauvignon Blanc produced in New Zealand, northern Italy, California and Chile (as well as a few other nations), my pick for the greatest example of Sauvignon Blanc is Sancerre.
MORE FOR YOU
Sancerre is a district in the Loire Valley wine territory in north-central France, named for the Loire River. Sancerre itself is a medieval town in the Upper Loire where Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are planted; Pinot Noir is used here to produce Sancerre Rouge and Sancerre Rosé.
But it is the white Sancerre, made entirely from Sauvignon Blanc, that is the most famous wine of in this district. Style vary according to producer, but a typical Sancerre features aromas and flavors of stone fruit (apricot), white flowers and especially notes of freshly cut hay or a light herbaceous quality, such as yellow pepper or even asparagus. The wine is medium-full to full-bodied with many examples made without the influence of wood, although there are numerous oak-aged versions that are dazzling. The finish is often one with distinct mineral notes, as well as the same herbal character found in the aromas; the wines produced from flinty soils known as silex are especially singular in their flavor profiles. These are wines to be paired with rich seafood, game birds (pheasant) or goat cheese.
Recent vintages of Sancerre have been notable, especially 2018 and 2019. Pascal Cotat of the eponymous estate in Sancerre, remarks that “2018 and 2019 vintages are very similar, as both have high alcohol and low acidity.” For Jean-Laurent Vacheron of Domaine Vacheron, “2019 is a super year, very healthy, very ripe grapes. It is a precocious vintage, the acidity is not high and the alcohol is rather high. However the wines are very balanced and juicy.”
Continuing Vacheron comments, “2018 and 2019 are very similar in the way they are constructed even if the alcohol is slightly higher in 2018. The two vintages tend to show that it is possible to make wines that have good freshness despite low acidities (the minerality superseded the acidity). 2018 is without a doubt a vintage that will mark people’s memories, and will remain a reference in Sancerre. It’s the kind of vintage that helps grow a heighten a generation of wine makers and their appellations.”
How would Vacheron describe the characteristics of a well made Sancerre? “Sancerre has evolved towards more complex wines with stronger identification from the terroirs,” he remarks. “The freshness is still being sought, but it comes more from its minerality than from its acidity. Sancerres are now riper, deeper and are becoming more than ever very nice wines to age.”
What are these producers looking for in their wines? “I am looking for authenticity and ageability in my wines,” says Cotat. For Vacheron, “at Domaine Vacheron, beyond freshness and complexity, today we are looking for beautiful textures in the mouth for augmented pleasure. “Our Lieux Dits (single vineyards) illustrate this desire to get as close as possible to the truth that is the terroir.”
Domaine Vacheron Sancerre 2019 – Brilliant straw/light yellow; textbook aromas of stone fruit (apricot), lemon zest and basil. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Rich texture, lively, lip-smacking acidity, lengthy, extremely appealing finish. This is a quintessential introduction to Sancerre. Enjoy now and for the next 5-7 years. Outstanding
Domaine Vacheron Sancerre “Les Paradis” 2018 – Light yellow; aromas of stone fruit, orange blossom and elderflowers. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Lovely ripeness with slightly juicy fruit, lively acidity and distinct notes of minerality in the finish. Beautiful varietal purity and elegance. Very appealing now, this will drink well over the next 5-8 years. Outstanding
Domaine Vacheron Sancerre “Les Romains” 2018 –Brilliant light yellow; aromas of grapefruit, flint and acacia. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Rich mid-palate, very good acidity, rich finish with distinct minerality and smokiness. Excellent complexity. The soils at this vineyard are pure flint, making this a more intense style of Sancerre, as compared to the winery’s “Les Paradis” offering. Enjoy over the next 5-8 years. Superb
Pascal Cotat Sancerre “Les Grands Damnés” 2019 –Les Grands Damnés (“the damned mountains,” named because of the steepness of this hill) is one of the most famous vineyards in the Sancerre production zone. Straw; aromas of pear, light flintiess, chervil. Medium-full, very rich on palate, great varietal purity. Very good acidity, lenghty finish, distinct flint and mineral notes in the finish. Excellent complexity and persistence. Enjoy over the next 5-7 years. Superb
Pascal Cotat Sancerre La Grande Côte 2019 – Straw/light yellow; aromas of green pea, Anjou pear and basil. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Rich mid-palate, very ripe, amost sweet fruit. Excellent complexity, lengthy finish, notable intensity. Quite intense, the vines here are more than 50 years old. Enjoy over the next 5-7 years. Outstanding