While a weekend trip to the central Loire Valley promises chateaux, excellent wine and gastronomy, and gorgeous riverscapes, a jaunt to Sancerre, about two hours from Paris by train or car, has a different flavor—and not just that of everyone's favorite crisp, mineral Sauvignon Blanc. Though technically part of the Loire Valley, Sancerre looks different, with rolling hills rather than the austere limestone cliffs that characterize other parts of the region. Sancerre is a truly charming medieval town perched on a hillside—a very appealing place to call home for a few nights.
Since you'll want to get into village life, base yourself at the Hotel le Panoramic (from $90), which is within walking distance to the town square and whose windows (and outdoor swimming pool–a much talked-about feature among locals) face out over a breathtaking vista of hillsides patchworked with vineyards. Though the décor could use some updating, this is the best located of Sancerre's lodging options. Slightly grander is the Hotel de la Loire (from $102), located down the hill on the banks of the river.
While Sancerre itself is a small village and well-known appellation, the area is actually a region comprised of a number of neighboring towns and a handful of satellite appellations (these include Pouilly-Fumé, Quincy, Reuilly, Menetou-Salon, Coteaux de Giennois and Châteaumeillant). If you're looking for an overview of the wine region, hit up the excellent Maison des Sancerre, an interactive museum that highlights the area's unique topography and resulting soil types, and its history, in a fun and approachable way. (On a recent visit, a group of men were having a blast with the newest exhibit, a sort of virtual reality tractor that moves as you simulate driving it through the vineyards.)
A great first vino stop is at Joseph Mellot, a venerable, family-run estate that celebrated 500 years of winemaking in 2013. In the well-equipped tasting room, you can sample the different wines of the greater Centre Loire region–from the well-balanced, classically mineral and citrus of their Sancerité wine to higher-end Sancerres, including top-of-the-line La Chatellenie, grown on a sloped plot by the same name and displaying a refreshing, flinty acidity. The most similar to Sancerre is Pouilly-Fumé, a wine that also tends to nicely balance citrus fruit and mineral qualities, as in the 2012 vintage here. (The Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé appellations sit directly across the Loire from each other, resulting in similar taste profiles.) You can also try a Reuilly with a nice bouquet and lightly floral quality; neighboring Quincy produces floral and fruity whites as well. Be sure to sample Mellot's red and rosé varieties—the Sancerité label produces one of each made from Pinot Noir (the red grapes of the region, whose production is just a fraction of everything grown), and both display the appealing red-fruit and berry qualities you'd expect from that grape.
In the village of Verdigny, you'll find Domaine Pierre Prieur et Fils, a 10th-generation winery with a mom-and-pop appeal now run by brothers Bruno and Thierry Prieur. The Prieurs produce several excellent Sancerres from specific pieces of land, including Les Coinches, a steeply sloped, terraced plot of limestone soil that produces crisp, clean wines with pear and other fruit notes; there's also Les Monts Damnes, an extremely steep plot of chalky clay soil (at one time, nobody wanted to plant the land, hence the "damned hills" name), also characterized by minerality and yellow fruit; and in Maréchal Prieur Sancerre, 20 percent of the wine interestingly, is aged in oak barrels, imparting toasted spice flavors–this is a wine that can age a few years.
Goat cheese — specifically the AOC-protected Crottin de Chavignol — is the ideal Sancerre pairing and another fun thing to explore while you're here. At the goat farm and B&B La Brissauderie, 20 minutes' drive outside of Sancerre near Jars, you can meet the nanny goats whose rich milk goes into the two-inch fromage rounds, then taste and purchase the finished product in its various stages of aging. Diehard cheese nerds also shouldn't miss a visit to the affineur Romain Dubois. The clean and modern shop is named for its young producer (though his facility is just a few years old, Dubois is from a line of cheesemakers). All of his products are exquisite — from soft young cheese to a moldy blue version to a super-aged version with the nuttiness and bite of a good Parmesan, and Dubois also stocks a fine selection of cheeses by other artisanal operations.
If you plan a morning visit to Romain Dubois, you'll be close to a recommended lunch option (which just happens to also be run by the Dubois family): Au P'tit Gouter in the village of Chavignol. This adorable spot (the kind of places locals bring their dogs) is exactly what you want a French country café to be: cozy, unpretentious, and focused on straightforward, delicious food. Charcuterie is a specialty here, and so are veal chops with French fries. Curd hounds will want to round this out with a salad topped with deep-fried goat cheese rounds.
Tiny though it may be, Sancerre proper is home to several very good restaurants. Michelin-starred La Tour is a must-try, assuming you have four or five hours for dinner. You'll tuck into course after course of exquisite fare emphasizing local ingredients. No matter how good dishes like clams and pork belly in a buttery seafood bisque are, be sure to leave room for when the chariot de fromages (a classic French cheese cart on wheels) rolls your way. A slightly less fancy option is Auberge la Pomme d'Or , where you'll also eat what's fresh and local, just fewer courses of it. Blessed is the traveler who visits, as I did, during St.-Jacques (scallops) season. Here, they were served in a pumpkin soup with shaved black truffles.
Wherever you dine, be sure to have at least a drink or two at Sancerre's bar (yes, bar singular—everyone in town goes there), Chez Gérald (a.k.a. Les Arcandiers), located on Rempart des Dames street. Small and unadorned, Gérald's at a glance is nothing special, but it's the mix of young and old clientele throwing back beers (try it like the regulars do, with your choice of flavored syrups), not to mention the affable and chatty barkeep himself, who make the place. If he's not too busy, get him to tell you the story about how the American ambassador to France visited the bar one time. Talking to Gérald, it's becomes clear that excellent wines are only the beginning of the appeal in this extremely likeable part of France.
If you're not planning a trip to Sancerre anytime soon (or if you need something to drink in the meantime), Joseph Mellot wines are available at shops around the U.S. or online through Millesima; Domaine Pierre Prieur et Fils wines are available through Sunfish Cellars.
Earlier: A Goat Cheese With A Serious Pedigree | The Art Of The Apéritif | Matching Muscadet With Oysters | Stay In The Caves | A Weekend Getaway From Paris | Exploring The Wine Region By Boat, Horse and Balloon | 10 Things You Didn't Know About Sancerre