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Wine Wanderings: Loire Valley Day 1

(Josh and Jeff spent a few days in the Loire Valley checking out wine this September.  This is the first of a series of posts telling the story.)

The drive from Charles de Gualle to Sancerre was a breeze and we arrived in time for lunch on a beautiful warm and sunny day.   We picked up our friend Andrew and drove the 4kms to Chavignol (of Crottin de Chavignol fame) for a fine bistro lunch (veal brain, andouillette, duck and all with lots of goat cheese and Sancerre, of course).  Well fed, we headed over to Domaine Vacheron.  We met with Jean-Laurent, one of four male Vacherons (two brothers and their sons) who currently run the domaine.

Vacheron is based in the village of Sancerre proper, and all his vineyards are close by.  Like all the great French vignerons they are terroir-obsessed, and they make separate bottlings from all their top vineyard sites.  Jean-Laurent started the visit with a tour of his holdings.

This was a lovely drive under the Loire sunshine, with great views of the hilltop town of Sancerre as we tasted the just-about ripe grapes and smelled chunks of calcaire (limestone) and silex (flint) to ready us for the tasting that would come.  The vineyards are beautifully maintained with fully biodynamic methods.  The range of holdings is impressive, with highlights including Les Romains with its silex soils, Guigne Chèvre with its chalk, Belle Dame with limestone, and Chambrates with clay.  Pretty much the whole range of terroirs in the village.  He also showed us some vines in a clos recently planted "franc de pied" (without grafting), which he said didn't exist in Sancerre.  His first vintage will be in a year or so.

The tour was followed with a tasting at the domaine, where Jean-Laurent proved to us that these different terroirs really matter, and that Sauvignon Blanc, when fashioned in a non-interventionist manner, is an excellent vehicle for transferring the land's soil characteristics to the palate.

The tasting started with the Sancerre Classique Blanc 2011.  This is the work-horse of the line-up made with a blend of wines 50% from silex soils and 50% from limestone.  Even at this level, you are at a huge step up from the industrially-made Sancerre that dominates Parisian bistros.  While it’s not a wine that tries to showcase a specific terroir, it is one that achieves the pinnacle of what classic, fresh Sancerre is supposed to deliver: a zippy and delicious combination of green fruit and rocks and minerals.  Perfect as an aperitif while you nibble some goat’s cheese.

Jean-Laurent discusses his terroir. Check out the calcaire between the vines!

We then tasted through the single vineyards.  Guigne Chèvre 2011, Jean-Laurent said, was the hardest to understand, but we found it to be very expressive, with finely toned fruit and an acid finish that delivered waves of flavor that never seemed to stop.  Chambrates 2010 was completely different, with earthy, rocky notes and a finish that showed fine sweet fruit.  Paradis 2010 tasted like it needed a few more years in the cellar, showing at this point notes of herbs and goat cheese (coincidence?). The least ready of the line-up was the 2011 from the most famous vineyard in their holdings, Les Romains, but the wine promised something spectacular down the road, with a crazy array of flavors competing for attention on the palate in a very fine, long package.  If you can make some room in your cellar for a few bottles of Sancerre -- and you should -- this would be an excellent choice.  It is absolutely sensational and already quite expressive, but will keep getting better and better.

Vacheron is also quite well known for his reds, as they have great terroir for Pinot Noir, which they make in a Burgundian fashion.  For this reason Vacheron’s Sancerre Rose ($28.99) is one of the very best  The star of the Pinot lineup, though, is the single-vineyard Belle Dame: Burgundian Pinot Noir from limestone soils.  We tasted a number of different vintages and we were particularly impressed by the 2008, with its berry fruit, foresty notes and silky structure.  Something like a top Mercurey, but with a fresh herbaceous side.

Dinner that night was at La Cote des Mont Damnes in the heart of Chavignol, owned by the Henri Bourgeois family, who also own one of Sancerre’s larger but still very fine estates.  You should go there if you’re in the region.  The food is excellent, and it is a great place to sample the famous local goat’s cheese.  And if you’re lucky, as we were, you’ll find some older bottles of Sancerre on the list that will prove to you how delicious the wines become with a few years in the cellar.