After spending three weeks in the Cher Valley, some 40 kilometres east of Tours, we headed for a three-night stay in Chavignol – an opportunity to eat well and enjoy some Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir not forgetting to fit in a few tastings and a bike ride to mitigate some of the acquired calories.
We arrived early on Saturday evening and checked into our favoured hotel in the area – La Côte des Monts Damnés – run by Karine and Jean-Marc Bourgeois. That evening we ate just down the road at the Restaurant Au P’tit Goûter run by Gilles Dubois formerly of the famous Chavignol cheese company Dubois-Boulay until it was bought by the large diary company – Rians. There are some who maintain that the Crottins from Dubois-Boulay are not as good since the takeover. Happily I think this is wrong as the cheeses remain as good as they always were.
But back to Au P’tit Goûter, which is becoming more sophisticated with choice of couple of menus. A strong point remains the choice of local wines, sourced by Gilles from his many years of contact with local producers. We started with the 2014 Tradition from Gérard Boulay, who for me is one of the top producers in Sancerre. His 2014 Tradition was simply delicious to drink. The 2014s are being lauded in Sancerre and with some reason. They have great balance – balance that was evident from the very beginning not just here but throughout the Loire. There is a vibrant tension without the richness of a vintage like 2009, which I assume reflects the cool 2014 Summer. The Indian summer in September ripened the grapes but left the acidities present. Although there are crucial months, for example September here in the Loire, the whole of the growing season plays its part so the 2014 wines will still, in part, reflect the cool summer. The few 2014s in bottle that aI tasted are already showing well and should be wines to keep.
Pierre Martin is one of the younger Sancerre growers, who has impressed me over the past seven or eight years. Although 2013 is not the greatest vintage for Sancerre Rouge, I was interested to see how Pierre had fared in 2013. Although lighter than vintages like 2009, 2010 and 2014, this still had a some fruit concentration and Pinot silky texture – enough to cope with our duck leg. This was the first of three reds that we drank over our stay – all three impressed underlining the progress that has been made with Pinot Noir in the Central Loire vineyards over the past two decades.
Sunday morning there was was time to spend just over an hour with Pascal Joulin (Domaine Michel Vattan) to taste the unbottled 2014s and a few previous vintages in bottle. Again the vibrant, clean and finely balanced 2014s impressed. From the bottled wines I enjoyed the texture and length of the 2013 Argile, Sancerre Blanc and the more concentrated and beginning to evolve 2012 Les L.O., which has an intriguing touch of bitterness in the long finish. Pascal releases L.O. only in good vintages – 2002, 2006, 2010, 2012 and most probably 2014.
Following our tasting we had a quick look at some of his vineyards high up on the steep slopes above the little village of Maimbray. We discussed the problem of erosion on these steep slopes and the role grassing over the vineyards and careful cultivation plays in reducing water runoff. Pascal explained that he leaves the prunings amongst the vines which further helps to slow down rainwater. Sancerre can be prone to severe storms. I remember a good 15 years or more ago a an early August storm with torrential rain that washed down lots of soil from the vineyards flooding out cellars and with a landslide cutting the road between Saint-Satur and Chavignol. This was in the days when the use of weedkiller was more widespread than it is now.
The practice of blitzing these steeply sloped vineyards with weedkiller is, however still unfortunately too common. Pascal showed me one of his neighbour’s vineyard which is entirely weed killered and every time it rains heavily the soil is washed down. This seems such a short-term approach and, given the price that Sancerre commands, not one that can be defended through economic necessity as can be argued in AC Touraine, especially those producers who are members of a coop or who supply négociants.
We left the Joulins in time to drive to Menetou-Salon for a traditional blow-out Sunday lunch at C’Heu l’Zib. If you have been there once then you will know what will be on the menu as it is virtually unchanging largely because the clientele goes for their terrines, the famous pike in beurre blanc and the slab of wickedly rich charlotte aux chocolate as a coup de grâce!. It is fun to do once every so often – always a good atmosphere of people, often in large family group, enjoying themselves. Just don’t arrange to do anything much, apart from take a substantial siesta, afterwards.
Details of what we drank – Menetou-Salon, of course – and the rest of our visit will be posted next week.