All things bright and beautiful (Sancerre, France – Day Two)

Sancerre is another one of those wine words that is almost a synonym for white wine. The white wines have been well known along time not only in France but also in the UK, where as has been suggested by Chris Kissack, Sancerre is an easy name to say and thus ask for. Sancerre is on the Loire River and is thus part of the valley, but it is a long way even from Touraine let alone the western parts of the Loire. It is actually closer to Burgundy which it has more in common in terms of terroir, climate and even varieties. The AOC for Sancerre white wines was created in 1936 around the same time that most of the AOCs in the Loire Valley were established. The cultivation of grapes in this part of France is believed to date back to the Roman era, so it has a much longer history. The name is taken from the village where a castle once stood with nine towers, only one of which remains. This hill and surrounding slopes make it ideal for viticulture in a pretty cool climate, as the exposure to the sun improves ripeness. This is in contrast to Touraine which is a little more flat but also a little warmer. The key grape variety here is sauvignon blanc and is without question the best known place for the variety. 20% of the vineyards however are planted to pinot noir which produce both red and rose wines for which an additional AOC was created in 1959. With the market changing away from sancerre red wines they are beginning to produce more rose wine which is in a very light dry and food-friendly style. The white wines differ depending mostly on the specific terroir on which the vineyards are planted, and also a little on how the wines are vinified.
Always work to be done in the vineyards

Much like sancerre is synonymous with crisp mineralic white wines, so is Domaine Vacheron with iconic Sancerre wines. Much of this acclaim has come from the hard work of brothers Denis and Jean-Louis, who made the shift from vignerons to winemakers. The reputation and commitment has carried through with the next generation cousins Jean-Dominique and Jean-Laurent, who work closely with their fathers today and have been instrumental in converting the vineyards to biodynamics. I met with Jean-Laurent, who is responsible amongst other things for the viticulture. I was delighted to be invited to visit the vineyards, although I think he was a little surprised when I said yes as probably most people aren’t interested. The first thing to know about Vacheron is they are completely certified as biodynamic and are very active in the BD community. They were very early adopters in the region, and many have now started to follow their practices. They follow all the practices, and Jean showed me the preparation, the equipment and also the areas were they compost. They even collect rain-water off all of the buildings and then put them through a treatment that replicates the natural mineralisation of water, subsequently using it in the winery. They have established a nursery using their own massal selection, selling both vine stock but also their natural fertiliser. The difference is quite astonishing in the vineyards, and they are committed to a harmonious and sustainable approach to viticulture.

The biodynamic preparations which are mixed with water and sprayed on the

As we drove around the vineyards the crews were hard at work removing dead vines so that new ones could be planted, a common practice in Europe where various diseases and pests (including the famous phylloxera) gradually take their toll on vines and they must be replaced after some years. The Vacheron vineyards sit on both sides of the fault that runs through this part of Sancerre, and the soils on each side are of different compositions and also different ages. On the western side there is more clay whereas on the eastern side there is more flint. The vast majority of the fruit is hand-harvested into 25kg crates and brought to the winery which is in the village of Sancerre. The whites are pressed gently, the reds go through two sorting tables before crushing, they use a variety of techniques but ultimately it is about capturing the essence of the terroir and the vintage. The perfect way to see this in the wines is the minerality, particularly the flintiness which makes me think of Chablis (which isn’t that far away incidentally). Once the wines are bottled they are transported to a different cellar on the edge of the village where they age before release, when they are brought back for labelling and despatch. Vacheron wines are deservedly exported around the world thanks to their quality, reputation and pedigree. Please click here to read my tasting notes.

Very cool fermenters

In the northern parts of the Sancerre appellation is Domaine du Nozay, which is unique in a number of ways. I was welcomed by Cyril de Benoist who now runs the estate having taken over from his father over the last ten years. The family has some pretty serious connections, including Cyril’s uncle Aubert de Villaine who makes Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and owns his own domaine in the Cote Challonaise (and also is involved with HdV vineyards in the Napa Valley that I visited in the second week of my entire trip). The family history is quite fascinating, including a general who served in the mid-1800s. The family bought the estate at the end of the 19th century and have owned and run it since. On the property there are 15 hectares of vineyards and they are the only vineyards, which makes it much easier to work as there aren’t distances between the vineyards and cellars, and all the machinery is stored on-site. The estate itself dates back to the 17th Century but the chateau was built in the 17th century, and according to Cyril requires a lot of maintenance as any 400 year old house would. The vineyard was actually established in the 1970s by Cyril’s father Phillipe, and thus was not part of the original Sancerre AOC. This explains why the entire domaine has one owner and is in effect a monopole.

Cyril drove me around the estate which surrounds the chateau much like an estate in Bordeaux. The major difference between here and Bordeaux is that there are steep hills that the vines are planted on, and it is in its own valley. The estate is almost entirely planted to sauvignon blanc with only a small part planted to pinot noir, and is now completely bio-organic. When I visited they were yet to begin pruning, but were tearing the alternate rows to open up and aerate the soils. They have a number of attachments they can put on the tractor, some to turn the soil, some to leaf-thin, some to spray when necessary and some to harvest (which in the future won’t be used anymore). The viticultural approach is far from unique (apart from being a single domaine in Sancerre), but once I entered the cellars I was introduced to the eccentricity of Cyril’s father. He is an avid hunter, particularly big-game from Africa, and keeps all his ‘trophies’ in the tasting and bottling rooms. Not only are the animals taxidermied, but there are also some ‘improvements’ made, such as changing heads, incorporating them into the painting on the wall, and use of legs as stools. By comparison the winemaking couldn’t be more simple; press, ferment in vortex-shaped tanks on lees (without battonage), and mostly then bottled for release. Currently there is only one wine available to the market (with a few available to specific customers), and is a perfect example of the terroir and style. Please click here to read my tasting notes.

Cyril introduces me to some of the staff

The final estate I visited is located between the villages of Sancerre and Chavignol, which is quite poetic considering the paternal and maternal grandfathers of the two brothers who now run the estate are from the two villages. The winery is Domaine Roland Tissier, and in comparison to most estates I have visited in France the winery is quite new having been built in the ‘70s, and is essentially a large warehouse. This is very much in keeping with the winemaking philosophy which is to limit the amount of intervention in the expression of the terroir, by using stainless steel or enamel fermentation tanks and barely any oak for maturation. The focus is undoubtedly on the vineyards which are planted to about 15 hectares of mostly sauvignon blanc and a little pinot noir. The vineyards are spread across the three of the main Sancerre soil types of limestone/clay (Les Caillotes), limestone/alluvial and flint (silex). The wines are very pure and clean in youth but given a few years begin to open out beautifully and express very complex characters. Unfortunately the winery doesn’t have much presence online so it is difficult to provide you with much more information. Please click here to see my tasting notes.

Enamel tanks at Roland Tissier

Click here to see more photos from my second day in Sancerre, France.

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