Sancerrely yours

Drink - Victoria Moore on the new Parisian chic

Red Sancerre is tres a la mode in Paris just now. To be truly fashionable, one also has to eat crumble (pronounced "crooombul"), a refined version of the stodgy English dessert, which the French make with all manner of fruits, from mango to rhubarb. The other dessert du moment is molineaux. On the plate, this looks like a tiny chocolate pudding, prettily dusted with icing sugar. When sliced, gooey chocolate mixture oozes out in such a manner that men who have drunk too much red Sancerre begin to betray the workings of their minds by using the word "smearing". Anyway, all of these things taste very good, but what an achievement it is for a wine that suffers a double disadvantage to have become so very chic.

Sancerre is not, after all, in the same league as Bordeaux. (A Parisian wine list - red half only - typically consists of between 15 and 20 wines from this region, plus four or five others shrugged in, not quite as an afterthought, more as a just-in-case.) Then, Sancerre is principally known for its dry white wines made from Sauvignon Blanc, and Parisians don't seem to have much truck with white wine, tending to assume that everyone's default wine setting is "red". Perhaps, on reflection, this is how Sancerre rouge, as they have it, came to be so hot. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson: "Sancerre's dramatically simple, piercing Sauvignon flavours of gooseberry and nettle were initially introduced into the bistros of Paris as a sort of white wine equivalent to Beaujolais."

Now everyone has begun to demand the red version which, because it is best served young (I drank several bottles of the 1999 vintage last weekend) and very slightly chilled, has become something of a Beaujolais usurper.

Incidentally, if you're sticking with Beaujolais, don't expect that particular word to appear on the wine list. That would be far too coarse for the French, who prefer to list by commune - or district, if you're lucky. At the moment, Brouilly, the largest of the Beaujolais Crus, seems to be most in favour.

Hundreds of years ago, Sancerre was, in fact, known for its red wines. Today, red Sancerre is not made in any great quantities: about 90 per cent of Sancerre production is white, the rest being a mixture of red and rose. Perhaps this adds to its cachet, because it is priced at the same level as its white sister wine, despite being, in my view, nowhere near as good. Some white Sancerres are so delicious that, like the French expert Pierre Brejoux, I should like to have "a throat as long as a swan's neck so as to taste them better". The red version can never hope to stir such desires.

Not that it is unpleasant to drink - far from it, as my weekend's consumption testified. If you are looking for a light red wine, on those occasions when white and even rose seem either too acidic or too flagrantly summery, it makes a very good alternative to Beaujolais, whose bubblegum-banana flavour can be a little sickly. Sancerre is much more grown up. Made from Pinot Noir, it has plum and raspberry flavours and the lightest of light tannins.

However, in his book Wines of the Loire, Roger Voss talks seductively of tasting older red Sancerre with "the developed, mature, earthy rotting flavour that is so typical of mature red Burgundy" (Pinot Noir is a staple of red Burgundies). More tantalising still is one that he describes as "full of cigar-box flavours and smells, dry but with spicy fruit", thus giving the lie to the notion that red Sancerre does not age. Had I known about this when I was in Paris, I would have sought out some older wine. The hunt is now on.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Mandelson