Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2008-06-09
Two and a half hours away from Paris, the medieval town of Sancerre is perched on a peak dominating the Loire valley and the historic vineyards of the “heart of France”. Of course the rustic Berry region of Georges Sand and Alain Fournier is no longer quite what it was, but basically the magic is still the same when you sample a real winegrower’s Sancerre or a tasty Crottin de Chavignol cheese!
The site of Sancerre, unchanged for centuries, boasts a long history, as witnessed by the 14th century Tour des Fiefs and the old belfry, which became the Tour Saint-Jean (1509), and in whose shadow lie the oldest houses in the town.
To reach the foot of the 306-metre high hill that made Sancerre a real Protestant fortress during the Wars of Religion, you have to cross several traditional winegrowing villages, such as Saint-Satur, bordered by one of the channels of the Loire or, further south, Ménétréol-sous-Sancerre and Thauvenay, which both nestle between wooded hills and a waterway that boatmen used to take to convey the wine to Orléans and Nantes.
Since the late 18th century, the most famous village has been Chavignol. Nestling in the middle of a basin surrounded by very steep vine-covered slopes, Chavignol is one of the jewels of the Sancerre region, as much for its wines from prestigious terroirs (like the Côte des Monts Damnés) as for its goat’s milk cheese!
Exceptional goats’ cheese
To begin this jaunt, I suggest paying a visit to a lady of character who (sadly!) produces perhaps one of the last traditional Crottins de Chavignol worthy of the name (nowadays production is mainly industrial).
Based on a family farm at Sury-en-Vaux since 1980, Isabelle Naudet keeps 45 “Alpine Chamoise” goats, giving them only food from her land: grass and hay gathered in the summer, barley, oats and maize. What once made the reputation of the Crottin de Chavignol is the fact that the goats fed on the branches of elm and hazel trees along the tracks (thereby clearing the undergrowth free of charge, for the greater good of the community): this gave the milk an exceptional richness of aroma and taste.
Today, elm and hazelnut trees have practically disappeared from the tracks and the goats are generally kept in pens on the farms. Living in the open air as much as possible, Isabelle Naudet’s “unstressed” goats produce on average only 3 litres of milk a day each (as opposed to twice that amount in the industrial cycle) and therefore live twice as long (8 years instead of 4). Isabelle does not use frozen curds and matures her crottins in a hâloir (drying room) for 2 months. The cheese then takes on a bluish colour and becomes dry and brittle, offering a subtle nutty taste. But Isabelle Naudet’s crottins are also delicious when young, after just 10 days of ripening. At its various stages of ripening, the Crottin de Chavignol goes well with white Sancerres of varied expression: young, lively and fruity or, on the contrary, fat, round and potent… Try it – it’s a perfect combination!
The young guard of the Sancerre vineyards
The Sancerre vineyards developed at the dawn of the Middle Ages and had their hour of glory in the 19th century, when their wines were all the rage in the Parisian cabarets. The centre of gravity of these vineyards, nicknamed the “heart of France”, stretches out over the very steep slopes that surround the town of Sancerre like an amphitheatre (the Tour des Fiefs offers a fine panorama of the whole landscape).
Here, the three main types of soil are “Les Terres Blanches” (40% of the appellation), “Les Caillottes” (40%) and “Les Silex” (flint) (20 %). The first soils, very sloping and of the clayey limestone type, give full-bodied, opulent and complex wines; the second ones, located lower down on hillocks of soft limestone, give, on the contrary, fruity, aromatic wines that are very full-flavoured when young; the third type, finally, facing east towards the Loire, produce more severe but more elegant wines that are very mineral (like the Pouilly-Fumés), which need time to express themselves. As for the grape varieties, there are only two: Sauvignon for the whites, and Pinot Noir de Bourgogne for the reds.
Today, Sancerre boasts several international stars whom I will just mention by name. Alphonse Mellot remains a benchmark. After a long time as a wine merchant, he has returned to his first love: working the vines! His son – also called Alphonse – is now considered to be one of the most outstanding winegrowers in France.
The wines produced by the Mellot family are of exceptional finesse, especially the ones matured in casks, such as the “Génération” and “Edmond” cuvées. I also recommend paying a visit to their cellars in the centre of Sancerre. Unfortunately, the price of the wines is on a par with their reputation. Other big names, Paul and François Cotat, own a legendary little estate on the great terroir of Les Monts Damnés in Chavignol, but their wines are in great demand and always sold out. The Domaine Vacheron estate is, for its part, renowned for its wines from parcels of flint soil (silex), “Les Romains” cuvée.
Myself, I preferred to pay a visit to two very talented “youngsters”. The first one, Sébastien Riffault, has been cultivating his 2 ha of vines organically since 2002 at Sury-en-Vaux. From 35 different parcels of land ploughed by horse, he makes two cuvées of sparkling minerality and purity: the Skeveldra cuvée (Silex), which ages for 18 months, and the Akménidé cuvée (Caillottes), which ages for 9 months. Sébastien also produces a marvellous red Sancerre, which ages for 18 months in old casks. All his wines are made without sulphur, fining or filtration. A maverick of the appellation, he is also progressively converting his parents’ estate (10 ha) to organic methods. From €14 to €19 a bottle. In the village of Bué, you should also pay a visit to François Crochet, one of the most promising Sancerre winegrowers. This former rugby player, who took over the property from his father in 1998, makes lively, elegant white Sancerres for keeping (like the “Les Amoureuses” cuvée), but also sensual, fat and charming wines (like the “Le Chêne Marchand” cuvée, from a highly renowned limestone terroir). But François Crochet has, above all, distinguished himself with his red Sancerres, which are now among the most expressive of the appellation. His rosé is also remarkable, with an absolutely bewitching flowery nose. From €8.20 to €13 a bottle.
Where to eat in Sancerre
Without hesitation, I recommend the Auberge de la Pomme d’Or in the centre of Sancerre (Bib Gourmand). This old coach stop from 1860 has become, thanks to the talent and hospitality of its chef Denis Turpin, the canteen of the great winegrowers of the region.
Denis offers excellent, honest and hearty local cuisine, with the traditional Loire pikeperch in citronella, saddle of lamb from the Limousin in coriander, and tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream. The Crottin de Chavignol roasted in filo-type pastry with lardons and ham from Sancerre (cooked and smoked in vine shoots) is a classic. The wine list is also wonderful for its quality and prices (to give you an idea, Dagueneau’s famous Pouilly Fumé “Silex”, generally sold for over €100 in restaurants, is available here for €68!). All the great Sancerres are on the list, as is only right and proper. Sancerrois menu at €19.80, market menu at €27.80, sampler menu at €46.
Tel: 02 48 79 31 66
Route de Sancerre
Tel: 02 48 79 35 57
Tel: 02 48 54 21 77
Auberge de la pomme d’or
Place de la Mairie
Tel: 02 48 54 13 30