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Wine Wanderings: Loire Valley Day 2 (Continued)

We drove straight from Marc Deschamp’s domaine in Pouilly-sur-Loire to Domaine Thomas Labaille in Chavignol.  Chavignol is in the Sancerre appellation, on a hill across the valley to the west of the actual town of Sancerre.  The narrow country road connecting the two villages is extraordinarily beautiful, passing through hilly vineyards with great views of medieval Sancerre up on the hill.  The Labaille winery is right on this road, just before entering the village.

Chavignol, famous enough for its cheese, is also the most famous village for lovers of quality Sauvignon Blanc.  The two domaines most responsible for Chavignol’s fame are Vatan and Cotat (now actually split by cousins into two separate Cotat domains, Francois and Pascal).  These are producers that grow Sauvignon Blanc in Chavignol’s kimmeridgian soils and then make wine in an old-fashioned style, usually with a few grams of residual sugar.  The wines are tightly wound up for years but eventually explode into an incredibly expressive wine with strong similarities to Grand Cru Chablis – not surprisingly because Chablis is also famous for the same soil type.  Vatan’s and Cotat’s wines are very hard to find – their holdings are tiny – but are well worth seeking out.

Vineyards along the road from Sancerre to Chavignol.

Jean-Paul Labaille appreciates the wines of Vatan and the Cotats, but for him, they are not true expressions of Sancerre, mostly because of the residual sugar.  Labaille has vineyards, farmed organically, in one of the Cotats’ most famous vineyards, Les Mont Damnes, a steep kimmeridgian slope that would surely be considered Sancerre’s top Grand Cru vineyard if Sancerre had a classification system.  But he wants to express this terroir in the zippier style that is more normally associated with Sancerre.

Jean-Paul is an infectious character, the kind of guy you feel is your best friend after talking with him for a few minutes.  He seemed to be as curious about the New York wine scene as we were about his wines, and we chatted extensively and widely as we tasted through his wines, watching him impersonate American wine journalists and tell stories about other wine-makers in the region that really shouldn’t be repeated here.

The wines we tasted were powerful and intense but also taut and nervy, showing lots of chalk, stone fruit and in some cases classic Sauvignon herbaceousness.  His Sancerre “Authentique” 2011 seemed to need a bit more time; his 2010 was delicious now.  His Mont Damnes bottlings were a huge step up, showing extra dimensions of flavors and much greater depth and length.  His top wine, called in the American market “Cuvee Buster” after the Dressners’ now-deceased dog, made from older Mont Damne vines, was clearly a vin de guard.  It had a quiet intensity with all kinds of intriguing flavors murmuring just beneath the surface, like tiny little elderflower berries and fresh almonds.  It is surely near the top of my shortlist of top, cellar-worthy Sancerre (or any white wine).

After the visit we drove down-river through lovely country roads to Bourgeuil, where we checked into the Café de la Promenade, a well known spot for natural wine travellers in the Loire.  The comfortable (and bargain-priced) hotel has a well-stocked cave – something that we’re pretty good at taking advantage of.  A night of drinking ensued.

After a few bottles of sparkling and still Chenin Blanc we needed something to go with steak.  We cracked a 1989 Domaine de Raiffault Clos du Villy Chinon and an unlabeled magnum that we were told was a 1976 Robert Martin Chinon (Josh remembers it being Bourgeuil).  These were incredible wines that we shared with Dorothee, who works at the Café (for now; I understand Fifi at Ten Bells is recruiting her aggressively…) and a woman, whose named escapes us, but whose wine credentials were proven to us when she lifted the crumbling, sunken cork out of the magnum with a thin wire, ninja-like.  That magnum was actually one of the best things we tasted on this trip, and we can’t find out anything about the producer.  We had never heard of Robert Martin, and it seems that Google, wine-searcher and cellartracker don’t know who he is either.  If anyone out there does please send us a message.

The delicious but mysterious magnum of Cab Franc.