Can You Taste Dirt? Soils & Sancerre

Identical grapes, location, winemaking, why the difference?

Identical grapes, location, winemaking, why the difference?

Tasting the Dirt
There’s lots of discussion in print and online these days about terroir, soils and location vs. winemaker and who or what is more important. Do flinty, seashell filled soils produce mineral wines? I can assure you there are no actual stones in your wine. Here’s the important question:

  • Can a regular person taste the difference between wines whose grapes come from different soil types?

As I was doing my research for our French Winophiles group exploration of the central Loire, I found that there are several different soil types in the communities of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.  They are close together (similar climate).  Their white wines are 100% Sauvignon Blanc (same grape).  The wines are produced with little or no oak influence (little variation in the aging regimen).  This seems like a great opportunity to answer the question I posed above!

Does the soil matter? Yes.

Does the soil matter? Yes.

Audience Participation Time!
Are you just a little curious about how these wines would taste?  Why not join in the fun and do as we did.  Go in search of 3 bottles of Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé that describe which soil type the grapes were grown in.  This is where a good wine shop may be able to help you.  The costs are reasonable, between $18-25 per bottle. Open all three at one sitting and carefully compare them. Voilà! You are now a terroir expert!

Julie's favorite part - tasting!

Julie’s favorite part – tasting!

The Soils
The three soil types in the region are as follows:

  • Silex is a soil rich in flint. This soil runs in narrow threads through the area.
  • Terres Blanches (a.k.a. Kimmeridgian Marl) is a calcareous clay with Kimmeridgian limestone.  In the dry summer sun, the soil turns white, hence the name “Terres Blanches”. You might see either Terres Blanches or Kimmeridgian Marl on the label.
  • Caillottes are Oxfordian limestone from the Jurassic period, which has a more gravelly texture.

If you’re joining our little experiment, you’ll want to look for the soil types listed above. Don’t just grab 3 different bottles of Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, as most are blends of wine from multiple soil types. We’ll explore that thought more later on.

Soil Type Wine Descriptions Found Online
Jeff & Julie’s Tasting
Terre Blanches “powerful, full-bodied wines”

“The Kimmeridgian soil yields fruitier, much more direct, pointed wines, aggressive in acidity and extremely age-worthy. Some of the top wines from a great year like 2010 can be laid down for 30 years.”

Very high quality, rich, full more herbal wines (like fresh thyme or tarragon) that still taste a little like drinking from a waterfall.

Matthias et Emile Roblin Origine Sancerre 2014

Eye: Palest yellow, barely any color.

Nose: Almost soapy clean, a bit grassy

Mouth: High acidity, tart, just a bit of stoniness. Light body, ethereal.


“Oxfordian soils give wines that are very broad, but they are delicate and perfumed”

“lemony, apple-like wine”

“delicate and fruity well-balanced whites”

Emile Balland “Croc Caillottes” Sancerre 2013

Eye: medium lemon yellow

Nose: All lemons, lemon zest

Mouth: Medium body with richer mouthfeel (for SB). Strong lemon fruit, high acidity w/ lemon peel finish.

Silex “Silex soils yield brooding, flinty tasting wines that almost challenge us to tease out the inner core of fruit”

Rich in flint, this third soil of Sancerre produces wines that are perfumed and longer living than the other two

Gunflint flavors noted by many authors

“Flint, which allows wines to taste like chewing on rocks”

“Perfumed with notes of minerality and gunflint, … wines that are perfumed and longer living than the other two”

Francis Blanchet Pouilly-Fumé Cuveé Silices 2014
Eye: pale yellow (between TB and C)Nose: Flint, stones, flint. Julie describes it as “fruitless”.Mouth: medium minus body with a flinty finish. If there ever was a “mineral” tasting wine, this is it. Severe taste.

Wow, what a great comparison! The effect of the soil on the flavor of the wine came through so clearly. You wouldn’t need a highly refined palette to be able to see, smell and taste the difference between these wines. If you haven’t yet, you should go perform this experiment yourself.

In addition, we learned firsthand why blending can produce a better wine. Each of the wines had strong characteristics, but each one also seemed to be lacking something.  The Silex wine lacked fruit, the Terres Blanches wine needed more body, and the Caillottes wine was too fruity.  Blending these wines would allow a more harmonious final product, and that in fact, is what most Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé winegrowers practice.

Pulled pork sandwiches just prior to the application of the coleslaw. Spicy vinegar sauce and slaw were perfect with acidic French Sauvignon Blanc. Who knew?

Pulled pork sandwiches just prior to the application of the coleslaw. Spicy vinegar sauce and slaw were perfect with acidic French Sauvignon Blanc. Who knew?

By the way, we enjoyed these wines with pulled-pork sandwiches.  Maybe not your first thought for pairing, but it worked nicely.  The sauce on the pork and the slaw were both vinegar based, so they were pretty acidic.  The high acid Sauvignon Blancs paired beautifully.

Local Sources
If you live in the Minneapolis area and want to try this experiment, stop in at Zipps Liquors and find Erica, the wine buyer.  She’s a Loire fan and can help you pull three soil based bottles for your “research”.

Washington Post article on importance of Sancerre soils

Wine for Normal People blog post.

T. Edward New York Wine Blog post.

18 Responses to “Can You Taste Dirt? Soils & Sancerre”
  1. orna2013 says:

    Very interesting blog Jeff!

  2. Vino Travels says:

    I love when folks do these types of explorations because there is no better way to truly understand something like this without tasting the examples of each. Bravo!

  3. Fun! Love the geek stuff!

  4. A fascinating experiment Jeff! For me tasting wines back to back is the best way to make comparisons and decide what one likes. Speaking of like, which of the three did you prefer? And you’re right about the pulled pork, SB not top of mind. Glad it worked!

  5. Kathy Bassininski says:

    I love your evaluations and the food pairings! I find the recommendations thoroughly researched and so helpful in deciding what to try!

  6. Great looking website, Jeff!

  7. Mary P says:

    – “Can You Taste Dirt? I do like testing things out for myself.

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  6. […] soils found in the area. As most of France, the wines are named for the village they are from with Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé the most well […]

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