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 of the greatest Champagnes of the Côtes des Blancs, it can be a pricey taste to aquire.
But you also find it in Sancerre.
What is Kimmeridgian Soil?
Kimmeridgian limestone is a mix of limestone and clay, so the French often call it argilo-calcaire (clay-limestone), logically enough. though the more popular alias around Sancerre is terres blanches. Age-wise, it's from the Jurassic era which makes it between 157 and 152 million years old. Kimmeridgian is younger than Oxfordian limestone (which is found in many parts of Sancerre and will be the subject of the next installment), and older than Tithonian limestone.
It is famous, if soils can be famous, for its fossilized seashells, primarily small curled oyster shells. You can see these in the earth but, more to the point, you'll swear you can taste it in the wines. In fact, it's one of the main features that comes through in the wines.
There's a lot that could be said about the soil in far greater detail, but for everyone's sanity I'll refrain (for now); it's more practical (and fun) to speak here of the wines which come from this soil, which rank among the greatest and most powerful in all Sancerre.
How does it affect the taste of wines?
Kimmeridgian Limestone imbues wines with exceptional density and structure, as well as the ability to age 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 me of the sea.
Where, in Sancerre, you find it?
You find Kimmeridgian soil particularly (though not exclusively) in the vineyards surrounding the hamlet of Chavignol.
What’s the deal with Chavignol?
Chavignol is a small hamlet known for these soils, and often cited as the source of the region's best wines (though you can make a good argument for the flintier soils nearer the Loire River, which give the likes of Vacheron and Mellot). If there was a system of vineyard classification in Sancerre 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.
Which Vineyards are in Chavignol?
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. Here are some of the ripest and most muscular Sancerres. They can make other Sauvignon Blanc wines seem feeble by comparison. Top expressions, which require at least a few years to hit their stride, come from Gérard Boulay and both Pascal and François Cotat, though they can be pricey. Thomas-Labaille makes two very good bottlings (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. Any bottling from this site is sure to make an impression.
- 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. Again, Boulay and the cousins Cotat make exceptional wines from this site, which is slightly cooler than Monts Damnés. This may be my favorite cuvée from Boulay, a complex mélange of herbal and tropical flavors with great definition and depth. It ages effortlessly.
- The Cotats and Boulay also make wine from the a site known as the Côte d'Amigny. Boulay's is called "La Côte," while the Cotat bottlings go by the name "La Grande Côte." Though even cooler than Culs de Beaujeu, this site nonetheless brings a lot of power and minerality to its wines, even if there is also a high degree of finesse and aromatic brightness. With continued global warming this may well become our favorite. Age is definitely required, however.
Any other notable places?
The marvelous Kimmeridgian soils are not limited to Chavignol. Alphonse Mellot's extraordinary Cuvée Edmond is one of the most compelling examples of Sancerre made from this limestone I've tried 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.
What should I drink?
Thomas-Labaille 2019 Sancerres
You can read more about this release and find the wines in New York here.
Gerard Boulay, Sancerre Comtesse, 2018
Gerard Boulay, Sancerre Monts Damnes, 2018
Gerard Boulay, Sancerre La Cote, 2018
Gerard Boulay, Sancerre Clos de Beaujeu, 2018
Gerard Boulay, Sancerre Sybille Rose, 2018
Pascal Cotat, Sancerre Chavignol "Mont Damnes", 2018
Pascal Cotat, Sancerre Chavignol "La Grande Cote", 2018
Pascal Cotat, Sancerre Chavignol Rose, 2018
Francois Cotat, Sancerre Chavignol Les Culs de Beaujeu, 2017
Francois Cotat, Sancerre Le Grande Cote, 2018
Cotat, Boulay, Who else?
Lucien Crochet, Sancerre "Chene Marchand", 2017
Claude Riffault, Sancerre "Les Boucauds", 2018