John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure – Part I

Part I: Paris-Sancerre

In this series, follow John Szabo and his terroir-hunting partner, Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Zacharkiw on an excellent adventure through the Loire Valley. If you missed reading the background piece, you can jump to it here.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Sunday September 9th:

11:00am: I arrive at Charles de Gaulle and take the RER to Bercy train station to catch the train to Sancerre. Bill got his schedule mixed up and had to delay by a day – he arrives tomorrow – so I’m traveling solo. There’s time for a quick lunch in nearby Bercy village, a quaint little cobblestone district lined with restaurants and wine bars. I stop at Chai 33, recommendation courtesy of Sara d’Amato, for tuna tartar, frites and a glass of muscadet. Nice start.

2:00pm: I make the train, and get so deeply engrossed in work that I very nearly miss my stop, a tiny, slightly dilapidated building identifiable as a train station only by the small “Tracy-Sancerre” signpost. I step off flustered, leave a shirt behind, but I have my laptop, bag and knapsack. There’s not a soul in sight. Tired and bewildered and wishing I had at least 2 Euros to scratch together – not a bank machine in sight – I wait in the parking lot, which is more of a crushed gravel clearing in front of the station surrounded by woods. Three minutes later, Benoît Roumet, head of the BIVC (Interprofessional Bureau for Wines of the Centre Loire) careens in, and we’re off up the hill to Sancerre.

5:00 pm: Check in to the Hôtel Panoramic in Sancerre. True to its name, my room gives out onto a stunning vista of the vine-covered hillsides surrounding the town of Sancerre, which is perched on top of a hill.

Domaine Vacheron, Sancerre

6:00 pm: A two minute car ride through the streets of Sancerre and we reach Domaine Vacheron. I’m greeted by Jean-Dominique Vacheron, who’s joined by his cousin Jean-Laurent Vacheron shortly after. It’s too late to visit the vineyards, so they pull out a detailed relief map of the region and I’m taken on a virtual tour. The estate has been certified biodynamic since 2004, from a conversion that started in 1997, and for the Vacherons, “winemaking is of no interest”. What’s meant is that the real work is done in the vineyards, and intervention in the winery is kept to the absolute minimum. I listen to their views; each angle of their approach is reasoned and thoughtful.

Hotel Panoramic

Panoramic view of Sancerre

The Vacheron estate covers 47 hectares, large by Sancerre standards, with 11ha of pinot noir, also exceptional, considering that only about 15% of the nearly 3000ha of Sancerre AOC is planted to red grapes. Vacheron is indeed considered a reference for Sancerre Rouge. I’m familiar with some of the wines as they are widely distributed in Canada, but we taste through many single parcel wines rarely seen here. Overall, starting with the Sancerre “classique” white, the wines are pure, crisp, well delineated, with a transparent reflection of place.

I start to get a handle on the different soil types, mainly calcaire (limestone) versus silex. The former, represented by a parcel called Chambrate, is a cooler terroir with a wider window for nailing the harvest date – a critical decision that greatly affects wine style in an otherwise transparent winemaking process. The wine is light and linear with crunchy, mouth-watering acids. Grapes on silex soils, on the other hand, go from just ripe to overripe in a matter of a day or two, making the harvest date harder to hit. But the wines from silex, as observed in the Les Romains cuvee, are generally aromatically subtle yet more powerful and mineral-tinged than calcaire wines. They need time to reveal their character, and they age magnificently. The Vacherons speak of “vibrations” in the glass, a unique mineral tension that’s hard to find in other terroirs, and nervousness. “The goal is to be more Sancerre, less sauvignon blanc”. Mission accomplished.

Sancerre has a history with pinot noir. It was far more planted than sauvignon blanc in the region before phylloxera, but lost ground after. Did sauvignon graft onto American rootstock more successfully? Or was their higher demand for white wines in Parisian wine bars than reds in the early part of the 20th century? Benoit and the Vacherons speculate, but no one has the answer as to why Sancerre rouge very nearly disappeared.

But back to the future: the 2008 Belle Dame pinot noir from silex soils is easily the finest Sancerre Rouge I’ve tasted: powerful, well structured, with terrific length. It’s not Burgundy, but that’s not the goal in any case. The idea is freshness, accessibility, perhaps more vibrant fruit than Burgundy. Jean-Dominique recalls a customer who once came into the cellar to buy wine, saying, “I like Sancerre Rouge because I don’t like red wine”. True enough, pinot noir was historically always picked first, even before it was fully ripe, to avoid regular harvest-time rains and rot, which resulted in pale, easy-quaffing wines. But red Sancerre is being redefined; the serious producers like Vacheron harvest pinot well after sauvignon now, and plantings are increasing. It’s not just for white wine drinkers anymore.

We finish the tasting with some old bottles, poured blind. With a few small clues I’m able to guess the vintage of the garnet coloured red – a pinot noir from 1983, and a white from 2004. I’m off by a couple of years on the 1984 white, which is still so lively it seems younger. It’s fascinating to see how winemaking has evolved from the parents’ generation to the sons’. I believe the current vintages are far superior, and I wonder how they’ll fair in a quarter of a century.

8:00 pm: Dinner at Benoit’s place. We eat delicious Japanese food prepared by his (Japanese) wife and a Japanese apprentice-chef working in the top local restaurant – it’s a nice treat for a weary traveler to have a family meal at home. We finish off the old bottles of Vacheron, and end the night with an excellent 1997 Chavet Menetou-Salon white with some local Crottin de Chavignol, the region’s famous goat cheese, and the first of many cheese tastings to come.

I get to bed by midnight, a reasonable hour.

Monday September 10th:

8:00 am: Hélène from the BIVC meets me at the hotel and we’re off to the other side of the river for visits in Pouilly, chez Régis Minet and Tinel-Blondelet. We get lost, thanks to the maddening French fashion of signposting domaines just off the main highways, but once you’re drawn deep into the French countryside, the signs slowly but surely stop appearing at forks in the road. This is not the Napa Valley; many estates don’t even have a sign outside the cellar door. We pass the only man on the street in the tiny hamlet of Le Bouchot, who looks bemusedly at the tourists whizzing by. Then by process of elimination, we end up back in front of the only plausible building that might house tanks and a press. There’s the same man standing there, now smiling, Monsieur Minet.

Domaine Régis Minet, Puilly-sur-Loire

9:00 am: Domaine Régis Minet is a small two-man operation that produces about 60,000 bottles annually. Régis’ son is preparing to take over the estate in a couple of years, but for the moment he’s selling Champagne in Africa. Régis’ assistant is trimming the cedar hedge in the courtyard; no job is too menial in a two-man business. Hélène and I jump in his station wagon to go tour the vines. AOC Pouilly-Fumé is roughly half the size of Sancerre at 1,300ha total, with about half the number of producers, too. We’re truly in the centre of the Loire Valley here; we pass the bridge that marks exactly the halfway point from the Loire’s source in the Massive Central to where the river reaches the Atlantic Ocean, another 496km downstream.

La Loire

The Middle of the Loire

Soils vary here as they do in Sancerre between clay-limestone and clay-silex variations, visible on the vineyards’ surface with changes in texture and colour. Across the sweeping landscape, more gently undulating than the steeper hills of Sancerre, it’s easy to spot the conventionally farmed vineyards with their immaculately clean, sterile soils and their deep, luminescent green leaves. By this point in mid-September, organically farmed vines without chemical stimulation are already starting to shut down, and their leaves are beginning to yellow – exactly what should be happening in a normal growth cycle. I also see several dead vines amongst the living, and learn that a scourge worse than phylloxera is attacking vineyards across the country. It’s called esca, or grapevine decline, a wood disease caused by fungi that attack roots and pruning wounds. It’s slow and insidious, and it’s estimated that approximately 10% of France’s vineyards are affected and die each year. This means that in the worse case scenario, in ten years all of France’s vineyards will have been, or will need to be replanted. There’s no known remedy.

Back at the domaine, Minet shows us the old, small cellar out of which his father used to sell wine and his mother goat cheese to passers-by in the ‘60s. It’s interesting to note that living exclusively from vineyards and wine even here in a high-profile appellation like Pouilly-Fumé is a recent phenomenon. As in many traditional winegrowing regions of the old world, polyculture was standard practice. In the Loire Valley that meant other crops, fruits, vegetables and of course tending to a few goats in order to produce the region’s now famous goat cheeses.

Goat Cheese and Wine Breakfast with Régis Minet

Contrary to the current, single vineyard fashion, Minet makes only 3 wines, despite farming 11 different parcels. We see the very fine Pouilly-Fumé Vieilles Vignes here in Canada, his flagship wine and the one that legendary US Francophile importer Kermit Lynch has been importing into the US for 25 years. The 2011 has a tight, shy, highly mineral nose, though the palate shows unexpected fleshiness, fruitiness and ripeness. This is one of the particularities of top Loire sauvignon: the ability to make fully ripe wines (no green pepper or jalapeño flavors), yet still come in light and lean, with low alcohol (12.5-13%), high acid and palpable chalky-mineral texture. We do the tasting in informal fashion down at what Minet calls his “Canadian House”, a kit log cabin he was inspired to build on the banks of the Loire after a trip to Québec some years ago. It’s a perfect way to sample the wines of the region, while overlooking the river that defines it. Naturally, there’s a big chuck of firm, farmhouse goat’s cheese on the table and a fresh, crusty baguette.  Along with a cool glass of Pouilly-Fumé, that’s breakfast, Loire-style.

Domaine Tinel-Blondelet, Pouilly-sur-Loire

11:30 am: The cheese was so good and the view so pleasant, we arrive half an hour late for the next appointment. Annick Tinel has been called away on some urgent business, but we’re left in the capable hands of her cellar manager. This is a six-generation family operation that was divided by Annick’s father. Annick’s sister now runs Masson-Blondelet, while she runs Tinel-Blondelet, a pattern of confusing names that’s repeated across France thanks to the Napoleonic code of heritance which states that property must be equally divided among all children (but in this case you’re safe in choosing either – they’re both very solid producers).

I spot a rare bottle of Pouilly-sur-Loire that I am keen to try, an appellation for the chasselas grape that has all but disappeared; there are only a few dozen hectares of chasselas left in the region. It’s one of those wines that you read about and memorize for some sommelier examination, but that you never actually see. Annick, however, is dedicated to keeping the tradition alive (“faire honneur aux anciens”), but it’s a funny tradition. Pouilly used to be a major supplier of table grapes for Paris, being just a day’s cart ride away, and in the late 1800s, chasselas was the most planted variety for this purpose. But then along came the railways, which enabled grape growers in the south of France to ship their cheaper and earlier-ripening grapes to Paris weeks ahead of Pouilly’s. The market collapsed and local growers were left with a glut of chasselas; there was no other remedy other than to make wine. And thus, the tradition of Pouilly-sur-Loire chasselas-based wine was born. I taste the 2011. It’s pleasant, supple, with an apple-like flavor. But it’s time to move on the Pouilly-Fumé.

Of Tinel-Blondelet’s two cuvees, Genetin from limestone soils, and L’Arrêt Buffatte from Kimmeridgian-marne soils (which are more or less identical to what you’d find in Chablis just 45m away by car), I prefer the latter. It’s just that much more mineral, refined and classy, like comparing a VW Passat and an Audi Quattro – the Audi has more or less the same engine, but with a few more elegant finishing touches. Although in this case there’s little price difference.

12:45 pm: I get a text message from Bill. He’s finally arrived and is waiting for us on the terrace of the Restaurant Le P’tit Berry in Saint Satur, drinking espressos in the warm September sunshine. We join shortly thereafter for a simple prix fix lunch. I have the typical French salad composed of more protein and fat (confited duck gizzards) than greens, followed by roast duck leg. It’s all washed down by some additional samples of Régis Minet and Tinel Blondelet that Bill missed, plus a perfectly chilled bottle of Daniel Chotard Sancerre Rouge, a brilliant match with the duck.

Domaine Pascal Jolivet, Sancerre

2:30 pm: We’re back across the river in Sancerre, still running half an hour behind. We’re met by estate viticulturalist Yanick Cadiou for a tour of the vineyards, and tell him we have only about 45 minutes. He shakes his head and noisily draws air into his mouth with a sucking sound, the French way of saying that that will be tough. Once in his car we immediately begin a deep discussion on organic farming. It turns out that Cadiou spent 27 years as vineyard manager at Domaine Laroche in Chablis, and has been hired on at Jolivet to aid in the conversion of his 42ha of vines to organic farming, following the success of a small trial on Jolivet’s Chêne Marchand parcel. Jolivet makes an impressive range of wines from the entry-level “Attitude” sauvignon blanc under the Vin de Pays de Loire appellation, up to a series of single parcel wines from both Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Although a sizable and successful commercial operation, Jolivet’s wine maker Jean-Luc Soty is willing to take risks in order to let the terroirs speak as crisply as possible. Natural yeasts are allowed to ferment must, most famously in the cuvee called “Indigène”, in reference to indigenous (wild) yeasts present on the grapes and in the winery.

Playing in the dirt with Yanick Cadiou

Considering the low-intervention winemaking and the wealth of different parcels in both Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé appellations, it seemed an opportune time to ask the question most frequently on a sommeliers’ minds when considering the Central Loire: What’s the difference between Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé? Well, the short answer is, not much. Jean-Luc and Yanick pause and look at each other when the question is posed, neither really wanting to answer first. In reality, most winemakers in the region would be hard pressed to identify one from the other in blind tastings. You’d stand a better chance of identifying soil types: limestone, kimmeridgian marne, silex, and clay, all of which are found in both appellations. Certain vineyards in Sancerre might achieve higher degrees of ripeness given steeper, south-facing slopes, but you’d have to be pretty sharp to pick them apart.

I enjoy the tight and minerally 2011 Sancerre Chêne Marchand and 2010 Sancerre Sauvage, both from limestone, as well as the ripe and powerful Pouilly-Fumé Les Griottes (limestone). But it’s the Pouilly-Fumé Indigène, an unfined, unfiltered cuvee from silex soils that steals the show on the day. I’m glad I didn’t have to figure out which was which. We’re late.

Domaine Alphonse Mellot, Sancerre

4:30 pm: It’s back to the village of Sancerre for a visit with local legend Alphonse Mellot. I’ve been here once before about 10 years ago, back in the days I was importing French wines with Vinifera Wine Services. At the time we were treated to an epic tasting of just about every tank and barrel in Mellot’s cellar, which is considerable, plus bottles. I could see history repeating itself: a friend from Ottawa, Ian Martin, who was on the tour 10 years ago, happened by sheer astronomical coincidence to be in Sancerre that afternoon. He joined us just as we entered Mellot’s cellar.

Our discussion with Mellot centered on harvest timing and the use of barrels to make Sancerre blanc, a somewhat contentious issue. He farms biodynamically with his son, who is slowly taking over the reigns of the operation, and believes, as most serious vignerons do, that all of the work is done in the vines. Mellot is a strong believer in “phenolic ripeness”, technical talk for picking grapes at optimum maturity. Bill was struggling with the acidity in some of the Sancerres we had been tasting, complaining of a hard, green, malic bite, like biting into a tart green apple. As grapes ripen, the balance of tartaric and malic acid (the two main types of acids found in grapes) starts to shift.  The riper the grapes, the less malic acid and therefore the less of a harsh, acidic crunch you’ll have. Mellot’s wines were clearly ripe; he reiterates what we have heard elsewhere: choosing the right harvest time is one of the most important decisions on the winemaker’s calendar.

Then there’s the issue of wood. Mellot uses wood for most of his cuvees, which some would decry as a denaturing of terroir, obscuring the nuances of soil with the taste of wood. Mellot argues that it’s a question of time, that wood will integrate, and that the extra aeration permitted by wood as opposed to stainless steel allows a better expression of the terroir to emerge over time. It’s an ongoing debate in the world of wine, and while I believe in the use of wood as a natural, porous, breathable container for ageing wine, the flavor of new wood, when too much is used, obscures nuances of terroir.

Street Party outside Domaine Mellot

The debate raged on for a few hours, finishing on the street outside of Mellot’s cellar door, where we continued to taste wines. Other savvy locals who know to wander by his cellars during aperitif hour slowly joined in, then a group of Austrian tourists rolled up for a tasting. A local sommelier named Nadine on her day off eventually joined. Soon, it was a street party. First older bottles came out (and more guessing games – Bill was en form for this round and nailed a couple), then back to the dark corners of the cellar for extra innings, culminating in a tasting of Mellot’s solera-style Sancerre, a wine that had been in barrel for 24 years, topped up each year by some fresh wine. Not surprisingly it tasted like sherry. Very good sherry, mind you.

By this point Bill had escaped to the hotel for a quick shower and change before dinner, while Ian and I carried on the tasting/debate. We were rescued by Hélène and Bill shortly before 8pm, just as the beers were about to hit the table, and it was off to dinner.

Dinner at Restaurant La Pomme d’Or, Sancerre

8:00 pm: We meet Sophie, from Domaine Eric Louis, in the stylish Pomme d’Or restaurant that specializes in local cuisine with a modern twist. It’s a convivial night; Ian and Nadine join for dinner as well. We taste several bottles from Louis: they’re clean, pure, floral, classic examples of the region. Hélène decides to order a bottle of Châteaumeillant, an obscure appellation up-river from Sancerre that’s technically part of the Centre Loire and thus under her commercial purview. It’s a gamay-pinot noir blend grown on granite soils, and it’s delicious, the sort of wine you chill lightly and quaff back with a plate of charcuterie. The bottle doesn’t last long. Then I insist on ordering a bottle of François Cotat’s Sancerre Les Monts Damnés, the top wine from one of the legendary producers of the region, who had been on our wish list of visits but could not accommodate. When it arrives, it pours thick and viscous. I check the label: 15.3% alcohol. It’s hard to drink after all the lovely, crisp, fresh Sancerres and Pouillys we’d been enjoying thus far. It was like an aberration of the region. I understand now why Cotat has been denied appellation declaration on some of his wines in the past – they’re definitely not typical.

The night ends late, finishing up with a sip of champagne at the only bar that’s open for miles around, the Hotel des Remparts. The hotel is slightly downhill.

Tuesday September 11th:

It’s a bleak and grey morning for reasons extending beyond the weather. But sufficient coffee and a quick sandwich are enough to regain faculties and prepare for the day ahead. Two more visits are planned in Sancerre this morning, both in the small village of Verdigny.

Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy Verdigny, Sancerre

Bill and Hippolyte Reverdy

Bill with Hippolyte Reverdy

9:30 am: We’re 30 minutes late, but at least we’re consistent. Hippolyte himself greets us as we roll into the courtyard and park. He too has been selling to Kermit Lynch for nearly 30 years, though a short period in the family’s history, which has been in the region since the 1500s. Like his ancestors, M. Reverdy was born here and will surely pass here. He’s the model of the humble French vigneron: a man of few words, somewhere in his mid-fifties and single, with no one yet designated to take over the family estate. After the mandatory trip up to the vineyards, we’re back down in the tasting room.

There’s nothing special going on here, no luxury cuvees nor vineyard selections nor extraordinary winemaking techniques, just three wines: white, red and rosé. With the right grapes in the right place, there’s not much else one need do. He fills our glasses and sits back in silence. Clearly his wines will do the talking for him. If I had one word to describe them, it would be textbook. Again they showed the marvelous combination of tight, mineral character bolstered by fleshy, ripe fruit on the palate and framed by riveting acidity that Sancerre does so well. The rouge, too, is excellent, full of exuberant tart red fruit, floral tones and juicy acidity, the way Sancerre rouge was meant to be. We bid adieu to M. Reverdy and make our way to the next appointment.

Domaine Roger et Didier Raimbault Verdigny, Sancerre

10:30 am: Thanks to the short tasting at Reverdy, we’re almost on time for the rendez-vous at Domaine Raimbault. We meet Didier, the 39 year old, 10th generation of the Raimbault family to grow grapes in Verdigny. Roots run deep here. His father Roger was the first in the family to live exclusively from the vine. Like most other domaines in the region, mixed agriculture was the way of life, a much smarter hedge than monoculture considering the vagaries of the weather and the shortage of supermarkets. But times have changed. Roger started with two hectares and thirty goats; Didier now farms 17 hectares, and buys excellent goat’s cheese from the neighbors.

Pierre à fusil with Raimbault

Connecting with the terroir at Raimbault

He shows us a few parcels of vines, some on so-called terres blanches, limestone-rich soils also known as griottes, and other parcels on caillotes, similar in origin yet filled with small white pebbles that crumble and make their way to the base of the slopes. These different parcels are usually blended to make the regular estate Sancerre as well as the vieilles vignes cuvee, but we have a chance to taste the 2011s still in tank, with the different terroirs unblended. The caillotes has a fine, zesty mineral attack and marked freshness, though finishes rather short. The griottes is much firmer, harder, less giving up front but much longer on the finish. It’s fascinating yet again to see such marked differences arise from nothing other than soil type, and also easy to see why the two terroirs are blended to make a more complete estate wine.

We move on to taste some bottles of finished wine, including a 2008 Vieilles Vignes, which is just starting to show some bottle age, and it’s showing nicely. Most people consider Sancerre a wine for drinking as young as possible, but in reality, the top wines age beautifully, as we also saw at Vacheron and Alphonse Mellot. As Didier puts it while we’re marveling at the wine, “il faut laisser le temps au temps”, a wonderfully cryptic French expression that means literally, “you must leave time to time”, but whose essence translates to something more like “one must leave time to do time’s work”. Time can’t be rushed. I contemplate this as I sip and nibble on some extraordinarily good goat’s cheese, from a local farmer, of course.

Domaine Fouassier, Sancerre

1:30 pm: After a classic French country picnic lunch, including goat’s cheese, and comprehensive tasting back in the cellars of Vacheron (Bill didn’t want to miss out, so lunch at the bistro was canceled and arrangements were made), we say goodbye once and for all to Jean-Lo and Jean-Do, and arrive at our last appointment in Sancerre, Domaine Fouassier.

The Fouassiers are another local family with ten generations of grape growing and winemaking history. Today they farm 57 hectares of vineyards organically/biodynamically, of which 10ha is pinot noir. Somewhat unique for the region is that Domaine Fouassier has been bottling different terroirs separately since the 1980s, long before single vineyards were all the rage and the word terroir was bandied about with marketing gravitas. The labels on Fouassier wines are conveniently colour-coded to convey the soil type, roughly equivalent to the actual colour of the soils in each terroir. I fall for the silex cuvees again: Les Chailloux, Les Romains and Le Clos de Bannon, the most intensely mineral of the range of 16 wines (we taste 11). Les Vallons, grown on limestone, is also very fine, delicate, nervous, an accurate reflection of its origins from what I’ve learned over the last three days.

Departure for the city of Tours

3:00 pm: By this point, I’m utterly shattered, and I sleep most of the way to Tours. The next part of the adventure will take us from Vouvray to Muscadet through Anjou-Touraine and the Pays Nantais. We leave sauvignon and pinot noir behind and look ahead to cabernet franc, chenin blanc and melon.

Stay tuned. Parts II and III of John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure will be published over the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can access a list of recommended Loire Valley wines here.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier