One grape from two growing areas is a simple formula that draws endless comparisons. It’s not difficult for many enthusiasts to distinguish between Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and an expression from France. But what about within France, specifically in the Loire Valley, where Sauvignon Blanc makes both Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé?
The Central Loire Valley, which sits about 250 miles (400 km) inland from the Atlantic Ocean in central France, is thought to be where Sauvignon Blanc originates. Sancerre sits on the left bank of the Loire River, while Pouilly-Fumé is on the right bank. With only 10 miles between their closest points, they have enough distinctions to obtain differing AOCs — white Sancerre in 1936 and Pouilly-Fumé in 1937.
Here, we look at the benchmarks separating Sancerre from Pouilly-Fumé.
Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are both dry white wines with nuances of minerality. Sancerre typically has a lean body and vibrant acidity, with refreshing and crisp citrusy flavors alongside notes of green grass.
Pouilly-Fumé, on the other hand, boasts a medium body, with flavors leaning towards more stone fruits and apples, sometimes with floral or smoky notes.
Their differing flavor profiles derive from several factors, including the type of soil and winemaking decisions.
Soil is one of the main factors contributing to the differences in flavor between Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Both regions are home to either limestone (stoney caillottes or marly terre blanches) or flint (silex). Sancerre is home to more limestone soils, while Pouilly-Fumé has more flint.
Caillottes is a very shallow soil that produces lots of aromatics in a wine. Wines from vineyards with caillottes are often the first wines ready to drink and have less potential for bottle aging.
Terre blanches is the same limestone as in Chablis and produces wines with increased structure. Wines made from grapes that grow on these soils often need more maturation before they are ready to drink.
The flinty character of silex soil allows for an accumulation of heat, leading to early ripening. Fruit that grows on silex results in wines with somewhat of a smoky character, hence the use of the word fumé (smoky in French) in Pouilly-Fumé.
Winemaking Techniques and Aging Potential
Winemaking techniques vary from producer to producer and are generally not dependent on which side of the river the grapes grow. Most Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé go through fermentation in stainless steel tanks resulting in fresh and fruity wines not meant for aging.
However, some producers ferment and/or age their wines in oak vessels, imparting subtle oak flavors, or keep them on the lees, delivering a broader texture. Both techniques allow the wine to evolve slightly in the bottle, developing more complex flavors and aromas.
Additional winemaking choices that can also affect the result include using wild or natural yeast or allowing the wine to go through malolactic fermentation (MLF). MLF is likely to be encouraged in cooler vintages to lower the acidity of the wine.
Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé do not have the same cru designation system as other French wine regions, such as Burgundy or Bordeaux. Instead, Central Loire Valley producers use a system of appellations that indicate the geographic origin of the wine and the specific vineyards where the grapes were grown. These sites, or “lieux-dits“, refer to a part of a vineyard or region recognized for its topographic or historical specificities.
Famous high-quality vineyard sites in Sancerre include Les Montes Damnés in the Chavignol villages and Les Belles Dames. Some of the most famous lieux-dits in Pouilly-Fumé include Les Loges and Les Charmes.
When choosing between Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, it is important to consider budget and personal preferences. Both wines typically fall in the $30-$50 range. The price of the wine can depend on the producer, vintage, and location of the vineyard and does not necessarily indicate its quality. Ultimately, the best way to determine which wine you prefer is to taste them and decide based on your palate.