The Ultimate Guide to Sancerre, Part 3: Kimmeridgian Limestone
Does any other soil appeal to terroir-focused wine drinkers like Kimmeridgian limestone? It's almost magic: key to Chablis Grands Crus and many great Champagnes, you also find Kimmeridgian Limestone in many of Sancerre’s very top wines, especially in and around the hamlet of Chavignol.
What is Kimmeridgian Soil?
Kimmeridgian limestone, aka Kimmeridgian marl, is a mix of limestone and clay made eons ago, where ancient sea creatures (especially the famous comma-shaped oyster, exogyra virgula) died and settled at the bottom of seas -- which have long since dried up.
Over the ensuing ages those animals fossilized and left us with soils rich in calcium carbonate from their ancient shells. You can actually see fossils in some of the stones!
The English name, Kimmeridgian Soil, comes from Kimmeridge, an area in the UK with some of these soils. The French often call it argilo-calcaire (clay-limestone), which logical enough. But the most popular alias around Sancerre is terres blanches, or “white soils,” an obvious reference to the soil’s distinct, light, color -- which comes out especially when it has been very dry.
Age-wise, Kimmeridgian soils are from the Jurassic era, which makes them about 150 million years old. Kimmeridgian is younger than Oxfordian limestone, which is found in many parts of Sancerre and is the subject of its own installment.
Kimmeridgian soil is famous (if soils can be famous) not just for the fossilized seashells you can see in the earth. More important to us winelovers, it is famous for the almost mystical way you'll swear you can taste those ancient seas in the wines. In fact, it's one of the main features that comes through in the wines.
How Does Kimmeridgian Limestone Affect the Taste of Sancerre?
Kimmeridgian Limestone imbues wines with exceptional density and structure, as well as the ability to age for decades.
It's frankly amazing that the soil is filled with fossilized oysters and other marine life, and that there's often a flavor in these wines that reminds us of the sea.
Sancerre from Kimmerigian sites, like the Monts Damnés (discussed in more detail below), tend to be the longest-lived wines from the region and among the longest lived Sauvignon Blancs in the world.
The most ambitious examples can be a little tough to appreciate when young, with lots of structure, and fruit and minerality that are tightly-wound. But after a few years, they will start to sing. And the best of them age extraordinarily well over many years -- even a decade or more.
As always, it’s hard to say scientifically how the soils contribute to the final flavors of the wine. The light color is said to reflect heat onto the plants, which can help with ripening. And the friable texture helps with drainage.
Beyond that, science offers us few answers. The pH may be optimal for the vines or for the surrounding micro-organisms, but there’s relatively little evidence supporting this theory.
And there’s even less evidence for the idea that the minerals from those ancient animals work their way up from the roots, through the vines, into the grapes and finally our wine. And yet, try a nicely focussed Sancerre from chalky soils and you may very well swear that you taste echoes of the ancient sea.
Where, in Sancerre, Do You Find Kimmeridgian Soil?
We find bands of Kimmeridgian soil throughout Sancerre, even in regions better-known for Silex or Oxfordian limestone.
But it is more heavily concentrated to the west and south and, in particular, in the vineyards surrounding the hamlet of Chavignol.
What’s the Deal with Chavignol?
If any place-name from within Sancerre has its own cult following, it’s definitely Chavignol.
Chavignol is a tiny hamlet (right by the village of Sancerre itself) and is known for Kimmeridgian soils and three very top terres blanches vineyards in particular.
A high percentage of Sancerre’s most-collectible wines come from Chavignol. But that’s not to say that there aren’t truly great wines coming from other parts of Sancerre. We love, love, love lots of wines from the flintier soils nearer the Loire River [see our post on Silex soils], and there are also famous vineyards making top wines from Oxfordian-rich soils, such as Le Chene Marchand.
However, if Sancerre had a system of vineyard classification like Burgundy's, Chavignol would likely be the village richest in Grand Crus, just because all those Kimmeridgian Limestone-rich sites give such impressive wines.
OK, But What About Chavignol’s Vineyards?
The vineyards of Chavignol (which also include sites nearer the village of Amigny) are generally very steep. So steep in some parts that workers must slide downhill on a cushion to get around!
It's unsurprising then, that one of its steepest (and best) sites is called Les Monts Damnés ("The Damned Mountains"). Quite a few producers make wine bearing the name of this vineyard on the label.
The site’s steep slope guarantees the vines plenty of exposure, ensuring optimal ripeness. And indeed, Les Monts Damnés makes some of the ripest and most muscular Sancerre. A serious bottle of Monts Damnés can make other Sauvignon Blancs seem feeble by comparison.
And then there's the nearby vineyard of Culs de Beaujeu (sometimes called Clos de Beaujeu), which is a very ancient and renowned parcel that's been in existence since 1328. Originally farmed by monks, the walls that enclosed the ancient Clos are gone, but the site remains a national treasure. Slightly cooler than Monts Damnés, in the right hands it can give a complex mix of herbal and tropical flavors with great definition and depth. It ages effortlessly.
Another great Chavignol “cru,” the Côte d'Amigny, is the source of many amazing wines that go by the names of “La Grande Côte” or simply, “La Côte.” The coolest of Chavignol’s three most famous sites, it offers incredible, bright aromatics, lovely finesse all while continuing to offer beautifully defined Kimmeridgian minerality and power.
Chavignol’s Famous Growers
In addition to being home to many of Sancerre’s most famous vineyards, the commune is also home to a few of its most famous producers.
Domaine Edmond Vatan is hands down the most famous, the cultiest, the most expensive and the hardest to find. It has been run by Edmond’s daughter, Anne, since he retired around 2008. The wine is from a single parcel near the bottom of Les Monts Damnés, “Clos la Néore,” and is undeniably wonderful. Only tiny amounts are imported to the United States, however, and if you can find it at all it won’t be cheap.
But there’s no reason to despair just because you can’t get your hands on any Vatan -- there are plenty of great bottlings from Les Monts Damnés.
Gerard Boulay, (check out his wine in New York or in San Francisco) another top grower, makes his “La Comtesse” from a single parcel near the Clos la Néore. It is powerful but refined, and almost absurdly delicious, especially with a few years of age. And while it’s not exactly easy to find, it doesn’t (yet) require the same sort of hunt as Vatan. Boulay’s straight Monts Damnés bottling (i.e. not exclusively from the Comtesse parcel) is also a wonderful expression of the vineyard.
Boulay also makes gorgeous wines from both La Grande Côte and Beaujeu. The Clos de Beaujeu bottling is from old vines in the original enclosed vineyard and, like his Comtesse, is very long-lived. Boulay’s “Sancerre La Côte” bottling shows off that cru’s finesse and definition.
Even more famous than Boulay, but not quite at Vatan levels, are the Cotat cousins: Pascal and François. Their wines are hard to find, but you will see them at fancy restaurants in New York from time to time. If you feel like a splurge, you should definitely try one!
But there are plenty of great producers making wine that is very much worth checking out in Chavignol and that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Thomas-Labaille, another Flatiron Favorite, makes two very good Monts Damnés wines (and an excellent "village Chavignol" blended from multiple Kimmeridgian sites), and they tend to be a little more affordable as well as easier to find.
But almost any bottling from Chavignol that you find from a trustworthy retailer or restaurant is sure to make an impression.
Any Other Notable Sancerre Regions for Kimmeridgian Soils?
Don’t let Chavignol’s fame make you think it’s the only source of terres blanches Sancerre; marvelous Kimmeridgian soils are not limited to Chavignol. Patches of terres blanches can be found in many of Sancerre’s villages, especially on the western side of the appellation. Sury-en-Vaux, for instance, is best known for, Oxfordian soils, but there are some great sites full of Kimmeridgian soils. One of our favorite Kimmeridgian Sancerre wines, Claude Riffault's "Les Boucauds," is actually from there.
Because of the way erosion marked the land over the eons, Sancerre has many isolated outcrops of these fascinating limestone soils. For instance, the tiny village of Montigny, at Sancerre’s southwestern extreme, has tons of Kimmeridgian soil. Unfortunately, when the Sancerrois began replanting after phylloxera much of Montigny’s vineyard land remained fallow and we don’t see many wines from there in the US.
But there are lots of other great options! Alphonse Mellot's extraordinary Cuvée Edmond is one of the most compelling examples of Sancerre made from this limestone and it comes from the south-facing vineyard in the Sancerre commune, near the west-reaching arm of the forest, known as Les Garennes.
The wine is a bit more upright and tense than the wine of Chavignol and shows more mint and citrus on the nose. But it still has the intensity and substance that betrays its geologic origins.
In fact, you will find plenty of producers from throughout Sancerre whose wines are marked by Kimmeridgian soils -- sometimes blended with other soil-types and sometimes bottled as a straight-up expression of Kimmeridgian terroir.
How do you find these wines if they can come from almost anywhere? Well, if a wine is labelled “terres blanches” it’s a sure sign! Otherwise, and as always, you should ask your sommelier or retailer. They’ll be happy to help you find some Kimmeridgian flavors to sink your teeth into.