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Vouvraygate

I have reflected for some time on the recent debacle in Vouvray and Montlouis involving Jacky Blot and François Chidaine. If you’re not up to speed with the issue, in a nutshell both have been vinifying their Vouvray in their cellars in Husseau (Montlouis), Jacky for many years, François more recently. Neither are in the zone where vinification is permitted carte blanche, but Jacky held documents which permitted him to vinify in Montlouis, while François seems to have operated under the assumption that he could do the same. Both make excellent wines, and François has control over the Clos Baudoin, one of the most highly regarded terroirs of Vouvray, so these aren’t guys hanging around on the periphery of the appellation. They have been making waves in recent years, Jacky seemingly buying up half of Montlouis, François building a new winery and taking on the old Poniatowski domaine (which is how he came by the Clos Baudoin).

Then, seemingly out of the blue, a few weeks ago word came from the INAO; their domaines in Montlouis were outside the zone where vinification of Vouvray was permitted, therefore they would be denied the appellation, from the 2014 vintage onwards. There is always the (necessarily expensive) legal route, of course, but barring that both Jacky’s and François’ Vouvrays would, from 2014, have to be sold as Vin de France. To see how the story first came to light, see this post on Jim’s Loire, and a subsequent report in La Nouvelle Republique.

Jacky Blot

So why the reflection? Well, as much as I revel in the free spirit and disregard for authority exhibited by many vignerons, I also believe that the appellation system is basically a good thing. This is a thought that will horrify the likes of Richard Leroy and many others, who believe the system favours dull, generic, boring wines made using questionable chemically-dependent methods, while sidelining wines of real interest. In explaining his beliefs, one sufficiently strong for him to personally ditch the appellation system altogether and go down the Vin de France route, Richard makes many good points. But I don’t believe we would be better off if the appellation system were scrapped altogether; it gives a valuable framework for wine, which is a vital slice of Ligérian culture, along with Renaissance châteaux, tarte tatin and the most magnificant moustaches in the world of wine. So I think we need to be careful when it comes to regulations such as this.

There is also a danger when it comes to the INAO and their appellations of picking and choosing which regulations we view as important, and which ones vignerons are ‘right’ to ignore. We’re all guilty of this to some degree. After all, we enjoy the benefits of living in a modern society which functions because of well-established laws, and that’s great until, of course, it is us that comes a cropper with a parking fine, a speeding ticket or some other minor infringement. Then, suddenly, the law is an ass! When it comes to Jacky (pictured above) and François (pictured below) vs. the INAO, the weight of public opinion would perhaps be on their side. But what about the INAO vs. Olivier Cousin, who stuck two fingers up at the authorities with the labelling and naming of his wines? What about the INAO vs. Florent Baumard, and new regulations pushed through despite his protests? I would argue that the first two are minor infringements that would and could be settled through negotiation (if the infringement is really the heart of the matter). The latter I believe was a more serious winemaking issue that failed to respect a hallowed terroir. But that’s just my opinion, and I know others view some of these recent controversies quite differently.

François Chidaine

So what is the issue here? Grapes are loaded onto a truck or trailer in Vouvray and driven cross-river to a winery in Husseau in Montlouis, by road a distance of about 11 km. Montlouis, sadly, isn’t one of the communes where vinification of Vouvray is permitted. So this is the crime in a nutshell; the grapes cross an arbitrary line, drawn by the human hand. In terms of what actually happens to the fruit, however, it is no different to Claude Papin moving grapes from Savennières to his winery in Pierre Bise for vinification (about 8 km). Indeed, should a vigneron as far away as Brissac-Quincé buy some vines in Savennières, he too could do the same, despite being over 20 km from his vines. This is just his good luck; the Savennières line is drawn wide, while that for Vouvray is drawn tight. But none of this will prevent Savennières tasting like Savennières, or Vouvray tasting like Vouvray. The journey does not seem to negatively affect these grapes, even though they are transported by road, and even though they cross the Loire. And isn’t that what the INAO should really be worried about?

The vinificiation of these wines in Montlouis is no great crime. The INAO, with support from within Vouvray (I spoke to two vignerons in the town – I was sorry to hear there was no sympathy for Jacky or François expressed) has chosen to maintain the hard line (not for the first time), sidelining two significant vignerons in the process. The Clos Baudoin, one of the appellation’s most significant terroirs, will now be sold as a Vin de France. It feels rather reminiscent of the Super-Tuscan debacle, when a number of domaines turned out superb wines which, because they flouted regulations on grape variety, started out as Vino da Tavola. Eventually, after two decades, when it became clear that not only were these ‘table wines’ some of the best in the region, but that they also weren’t going to disappear, that they were taken into the fold, the regulations ‘stretched’ to encapsulate them. It is a shame the INAO cannot learn from history and work towards a similar solution. It seems that, sometimes at least, the law really can be an ass.

R.I.P. Claude Lafond, King of Reuilly

There are few appellations that owe their existence to one man, but it could be argued that the appellation of Reuilly, just a stone’s throw from Sancerre, would not be here today if it were not for Claude Lafond. Sadly, I have learnt that Claude (pictured below, during the harvest, October 2013) died at the weekend, on the night of Saturday 3rd October.

Claude Lafond

Claude Lafond joined his father André at a fairly young age, and when André retired in 1977 Claude took on the 6.5 hectares. In a time of great decline for the region, plantings having fallen after phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, Claude’s domaine was a significant chunk of the 48 hectares that survived. His support for the construction of the Chai de Reuilly was instrumental in resurrecting the appellation. His pre-eminent position was secured four years ago when he moved out into swish new facilities, built next door. But the appellation’s future as a whole was also more secure; thanks in part to Claude, today there are 200 hectares planted up in Reuilly.

Claude Lafond

I will always remember my first taste of Claude’s Clos des Messieurs, a 100% Sauvignon cuvée of mind-blowing texture and confidence. Seriously good wine. Reuilly and the Loire Valley will be a slightly dimmer place without the presence of Claude’s brilliant smile and generous character. My condolences to Nathalie Lafond (who has been working alongside her father for the past few years) and family.

News on the 2016 Salon des Vins de Loire

In recent times I have had concerns for the Salon des Vins de Loire. To recap the fair – which is very expensive for an exhibitor – doesn’t seem to have delivered enough for some domaines to justify their participation. Several influential names – Domaine Huet, Henri Bourgeois and Château de Tracy to name just three – have pulled out, and the Salon has clearly contracted. In February this year there weren’t enough exhibitors to fill the hall, so the edge of the exhibition area was drawn in using false walls. Very ingenious. Not even the inclusion of the Levée de la Loire could change this; the Levée exhibitors were tucked away in a corner room, almost as an afterthought. Indeed, it was only on my third day there that I ventured into this corner; thank heavens I did, it was where I discovered François Pinon, Domaine de la Pépière and Jonathan Pabiot hiding.

2016 Salon des Vins de Loire

A recent release from the Salon des Vins de Loire is, however, as upbeat as ever. In particular, they hope to “build on the momentum from 2015″ which I think is a bad idea as the recent momentum has been downwards, not upwards. I stayed until the end of day three for the Salon last February (I usually leave around lunchtime) and the majority of exhibitors were packing up in the early afternoon.

Nevertheless there is some good news for prospective attendees. First, the next Salon will see the return of the Levée de la Loire, so I will be sure to venture up there earlier in 2016. Second, a new Demeter Exhibition will be joining the Salon. I suspect this is the Salon Vins Biodynamiques Demeter which was held for the first time last year at the same time as the Salon and which was largely unadvertised (I was unaware of it, anyway) and apparently very poorly attended. There are also new features aimed at Parisian restaurateurs and young vignerons (I am avoiding mention of a new Bag-in-Box feature – I have always believed a focus on quality is how a region succeeds, but this is a trade fair I suppose, so fair enough). And there will be a section featuring Loire Valley beers and ciders. It does feel as though there is a lot of sticking plaster being applied here though, because although some of these features might sound tempting, I worry that the Demeter exhibition isn’t really Loire-focused, and many of the other features are similarly peripiheral. Beer? Cider? Biodynamic wines from all over France? Should the Salon des Vins de Loire not focus on (a) the Loire, and (b) vin?

Nevertheless, there are plans for a special tasting to celebrate the Salon’s 30th anniversary, and this does sound tempting. Let’s hope there is also an opportunity for a 31st anniversary tasting in 2017.

Is Natural Wine Spoofy?

Spoofy wine. You have probably heard the term. If not, a quick 101; the term ‘spoofulated’ or ‘spoofy’ seems to have come out of the East-Coast US wine scene (although I welcome corrections on this – it’s not as if I have spent time researching the etymology) and is on occasion used to describe wines that are made in an overly slick, international style. There’s no definition of what it is that makes a wine spoofy, but a few typical features might be a long hang-time (giving over-ripe and indistinct flavours, sweetness and low acidities), cold maceration (giving a slick presence of fruit and plenty of well-fixed colour – at least that’s my take on it), and plenty of new oak (to tart it up). Of course, one person’s tarted up wine might be another persons nirvana, so from that point of view it isn’t a term I have ever used (before now, anyway). Such wines naturally deserve critique, but to me the term ‘spoofy’ always seemed to be imbued with more than a hint of derision, not just for the wines but also for those who drink them.

Spoofy wines are ‘wines of process’; they aren’t so much about the the fruit, they are more about the winemaking, about the technique. Spoofy wines hide their origins; taste a spoofy wine from St Emilion and it doesn’t speak of the terroir, whether it be sandy (I have to confess when thinking of the style certain sandy-terroir St Emilions spring to mind first) or from the clay or limestone of the plateau and côtes (I can certainly think of one or two here as well). What you get is jammy and ill-defined fruit, sweet oak, the whole package polished to a state of ambiguity.

What is the antithesis to spoofy wine? Natural wine is surely the answer, wines that are ‘honest’, some would say ‘authentic’ or ‘real’, or some similarly indefinable term.

The word ‘natural’, when applied to wine, is imbued not with derision, but with superiority. Our wines are natural, ergo yours are unnatural. The term is no less challenging to define than ‘spoofy’, so I’m not even going to try, but ‘natural’ wines do tend to follow a schema in the same manner as spoofy wines, although here it is nothing to do with hang-time or oak. Instead, the important aspects of the fermentation are the negatives; no enzymes to clarify the juice; no manipulations with added acid, tannin, colour or similar; no preservatives, most notably no sulphur dioxide. There are some positive rather than negative correlations though, the most notable of which would have to be the widespread use of novel fermentation vessels. There is, apparently, nothing more ‘natural’ than a wine fermented in qvevri, amphorae or a concrete eggs. Another correlation is extended skin contact, in some whites, giving us orange wines.

However you look at it, ‘natural’ wines are also ‘wines of process’. Even though much of the winemaking schema is about what the winemaker shouldn’t do, as opposed to what he/she should do, there is to my mind an undeniable dogma to it. Even though the original intention may well be to let the wine express its origins without manipulation, as a consequence of following this dogma many ‘natural’ wines I have encountered do not achieve this stated aim, and instead they display characteristics reflecting the winemaking process, obscuring the origins of the wine. This isn’t true of all ‘natural’ wines of course, an example that ticks all my boxes being the 2012 La Lune from Mark Angeli, a wine which sings so clearly of Chenin Blanc and schist. But so many fall short of achieving this. Instead, their origins are obscured by features such as oxidation (the most common problem), refermentation, Brettanomyces or other funk, all of which are direct consequences of the winemaking dogma. Indeed, these are the ‘natural’ wine equivalents of the slick texture, ill-defined fruit flavours and the new-oak vanilla and toast we find in spoofy wine. Therefore, is it not true to say that the two wines are fundamentally the same; whether ‘natural’ or ‘spoofy’, are both not basically process-driven wines that fail to speak of their origins?

Reprised: New in . . . the Loire

Last year – around about this time as it happens – I ran a series of profiles of young, new, up-and-coming and next-generation vignerons working in a variety of appellations throughout the Loire. I recall introducing the series of tastings and reports in my New in….the Loire blog post. It was the first time I cast the spotlight onto some real Loire Valley stars, including Thibaud Boudignon, Jérôme Billard of Domaine de la Noblaie, Domaine Perrault-Jadaud, Florent Cosme, Laura Semeria of Domaine de Montcy and more than a handful of others.

Looking back now, these are not just a collection of Loire Valley curiosities. Some of these domaines have become important fixtures in my personal tasting calendar; discovering the wines of Laura Semeria, for example, was something of a revelation. She seems to excel in both Cheverny (in both colours) and Cour-Cheverny, and is already an important name to add to what was really a rather brief roll-call of domaines of interest in this part of the Loire Valley (a comment which is in no way meant to lessen the significance of François Cazin, Domaine de Veilloux and Domaine des Huards, who all make some top-notch wines). In Chinon, Domaine de la Noblaie is one of the best discoveries I have made in recent years; the wines of Jérôme Billard (pictured below), both red and white, are pure, classic, vibrant and fresh. This is a name to consider alongside other Chinon stalwarts.

Jérôme Billard

It is vital, I think, that any wine writer specialising in one particular region or style continues to explore in this manner, both to broaden their experience and to uncover new talent. It is also important, I have realised, that I should probably highlight these new discoveries and new profiles for readers more clearly. With daily updates featuring new (and refreshed) Bordeaux profiles, Bordeaux and Loire tasting reports, updates to my Loire wine guide (coming on nicely I think….the forthcoming treatise on Sauvignon Blanc should be of interest) and more, I think it is too easy for new profiles of less-than-familiar Loire domaines to get a little lost in the mix.

With this in mind I have decided, Frankenstein-like, to once more give life to my New in the Loire ‘tag’ (as can be seen on my home page) to highlight new profiles of interest. As was also the case last year, I will use this ‘tag’ to highlight profiles of domaines completely new to me, and coming up I have profiles of Domaine Bois Brinçon (in Anjou), Pierre Morin, Vincent Grall, Vincent Gaudry (the latter three all in Sancerre), Domaine Rocheville (in Saumur-Champigny), Domaine Sérol, Domaine du Picatier (these last two in the Côte Roannaise) and a few others. I will also use it to highlight new profiles of domaines that, while perhaps already familiar to fans of the wines of the Loire Valley, are being profiled on Winedoctor for the first time ever; candidates here include Clos la Néore, Domaine de la Cotelleraie and Les Maisons Brûlées.

A Summer Break: Sunshine & Saumur

Now summer has arrived (in the northern hemisphere, anyway) I will be taking my customary break from Winedoctor updates for a few weeks. I am currently packing two bags in preparation; bag one will be coming with me for two weeks of sunshine and poolside relaxation in Portugal. Then, immediately after my return to the UK, bag two will be accompanying me as I return to Saumur again for a week. This is my second time in Saumur this year as I was there just a few weeks ago (tasting in the cellars at Clos Rougeard, pictured below, among other places).

Clos Rougeard

As is usual this break means there will be no behind-paywall updates now until July 27th. It has been a hectic six months so far, with more updates, reports, profiles and blog posts than ever, and I am looking forward to the break. I am also (weirdly – this is an obsession though) looking forward to getting back into it when I return, especially publishing a huge pile of Saumur tasting reports I have lined up, for Clos Rougeard, Domaine Guiberteau, Château de Targé and Château du Hureau among others, as well as some Vouvray and Montlouis reports (getting to grips with some lovely 2014s) and a string of new Sancerre profiles for Domaine Thomas-Labaille, Pierre Morin, Clos la Néore, Vincent Gaudry, Vincent Grall and others. I will also revisit 2013 Bordeaux, 2011 Bordeaux, and I have other trips to the Loire (again!) and Bordeaux planned.

Happy summer (or winter) holidays, whatever you have planned, and thanks for supporting Winedoctor. Subscriber numbers are at their highest ever, ensuring Winedoctor (a) keeps going and (b) remains as indepependent and transparent as possible. I have some significant news on the issue of independence coming later this year – so watch this space!

Best wishes – Chris

There is More to Sancerre than Sancerre

I spent a day last week in Sancerre, visiting domaines in Chavignol and Bué (as well as a flying visit across the Loire to Pouilly-Fumé). It got me thinking about what Sancerre is, and why some people reject it and some adore it. And I also got to thinking about how Sancerre is farmed and how the wines – or rather the appellation as a whole – is marketed, particularly in contrast with other regions, especially Burgundy which is not that far away (Sancerre is closer to Chablis than it is to Vouvray – apologies if I am repeating myself with this little nugget).

I can’t address all my thoughts here but I can the first one. There is certainly more than one ‘type’ of Sancerre (and no, I don’t mean red versus white, or oaked versus unoaked!), just as there is more than one type of Chablis. Simply because, I think, there is more than one type of terroir here. This was most apparent tasting with Jean-Paul Labaille at Domaine Thomas-Labaille. He opened with his 2014 L’Authentique tasted from cuve, an entry-level wine which is pretty, with clean fruit in the floral vein, and fresh acidity. It was an attractive sample, and a wine which once bottled I could certainly drink, but it lacked any hint of minerality, and for that reason it lacked a little interest too. Jean-Paul knows this, and he described it as a “Vin de Sancerre”, implying a ‘generic’ style.

Sancerre

Then it was onto Jean-Paul’s other cuvées, from a number of different parcels in Chavignol, and suddenly there it was, all the powdery, rocky, flinty minerality I look for in this appellation. These you might call varietal rather than terroir wines, but Jean-Paul thinks of each of his as a “Vin de Chavignol”. It was, for me, and for him I think, the minerality that set these wines apart. I found the same minerality later in the day, tasting in Chavignol again, and also in Bué (Chavignol doesn’t have a monopoly on minerality). Within the appellation this distinction between some sites or indeed villages and more ‘generic’ Sancerre seems well recognised, although not always well-received. I remember not that long ago receiving a somewhat cross message from one vigneron, based right in the heart of Sancerre, when I featured a wine I described as being “from Chavignol” on Winedoctor. “Chavignol is not an appellation” was the general tone of the reply. I guess the fact that Chavignol was written large on the label, much more prominently than Sancerre, didn’t help.

Sancerre is a vineyard of slopes, classically with wheat planted on the windswept plateau and in the too-fertile valleys (as pictured above, the little road in bottom-left being the route out from Sancerre to Chavignol). Some of these slopes are better than others. Some have famous names – Les Monts Damnés, for example – or as an alternative we can speak of desirable geology – Kimmeridgian limestone or marl seems to be the one to go for. It seems strange to me that such names and phrases are largely absent from the Sancerre lexicon. Most of us probably know the top half-dozen famous vineyards, but after that it becomes hard work. Contrast this against Burgundy, where every slope is divided up with meticulous attention to detail. I wonder if in this Sancerre is a victim of its own success – that word on the label is enough to secure sales, so why bother with nuances such as slope, vineyard, terroir or village of origin?

There are some domaines, though, where the individual vineyards are being seen as increasingly important, and perhaps in the not-too-distant future these names will be seen as more significant than the word Sancerre itself. But I will come back to that another day I think. For the moment I will simply conclude that there is more to Sancerre than at first meets the eye. There is more to Sancerre than, well, just Sancerre.

I’m Not On a Press Trip to Saumur

Ahhh, the romance of wine writing. As I sit here, a mere stone’s throw from Saumur, the view from my window a vibrant pink-and-blue melange of a sunset, bird song in the distance, slowly giving way to the chirrupping of nocturnal insects, all that is missing to complete the picture is a glass of the good stuff itself. A little Saumur-Champigny, or Saumur Puy-Notre-Dame perhaps, would do the trick.

Unfortunately the above words constitute something of a fabrication. It’s all true, it’s just not the whole truth; it’s what I have left out that tells the real story. I’m in a budget hotel, and in France these seem to be either (a) on the side of an autoroute or (b) in the middle of a zone industrielle, in my case the latter. The view from my window comprises a Carrefour filling station, three grey-box-warehouse outlets selling incomprehensible services, a white van that seems to be kerb crawling and a car park. There is a sunset though.

I’m here to make a few flying visits, to catch up with a few vignerons I know, to visit others for the first time. In Saumur I will visit tomorrow (Thursday) Domaine Guiberteau, Clos Rougeard and Château du Hureau. On Friday I’m off to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé to see Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau (pictured below the last time we met, in 2013), Pierre Morin, Domaine Thomas-Labaille and Anne Vatan. Yes, Anne Vatan, as in the daughter of Edmond Vatan. She is not always easy to get hold of, so I’m really looking forward to that one.

Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau, October 2013

As you might imagine from the quality and stature of the growers on my list this is no carelessly thrown together schedule, so my thanks to Matt Wilkin of H2Vin and also Benoit Roumet, directeur of the BIVC who both helped. Matt opened some very big doors, and Benoit was ruthlessly efficient in his arrangements (my first email to Benoit was at 7pm on a Sunday evening – I had a reply eight minutes later….impressive, very impressive).

You can deduce from the above that this obviously isn’t a press trip either. InterLoire, the generic body covering PR for the Loire Valley (except for those appellations who have left, e.g. Montlouis, Bourgueil) do fly out a number of journalists to the Loire Valley every June, but those trips have been and gone. These trips naturally tend to focus on vignerons who are (a) good communicators, which may go hand-in-hand with them being (b) English speakers (not necessarily though), a good ‘press trip’ vigneron should also be (c) amenable and (d) accessible. It helps, no doubt, if they put on a good spread too. Two days in the company of such individuals no doubt makes for a fun trip and a few lovely blog posts (maybe even a newspaper column), but my problem with such short visits to see such a highly selected group of vignerons is that it surely presents a rather narrow view of a wine region. All you have seen is one side of wine scene that probably has many diffeent facets.

I guess press trips are fine if you just want an easily accessible snippet on Savennières or some nice pictures for a forthcoming column or feature, but if you want to get under the skin of the Loire Valley (and no doubt any other region) you have to dig a bit deeper. I think this means spending time tracking down some less easily accessible individuals, perhaps some of the less talkative vignerons, those growers who don’t readily engage. Because sometimes these individuals can make the best wines of all, the appellation-defining wines that we all obsess over from time to time. To truly understand one region, to develop a real depth of knowledge and to communicate using the confidence and experience that brings, you have to go beyond the press trips.

The gendarmes are now questioning the driver of the white van. I would continue to watch, but it is time for some kip prior to my first appointment at 8:30am tomorrow.

Sancerre: Classic versus Cult

I have just put the finishing touches to my schedule for a short trip to Saumur-Champigny, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé that I will be undertaking next week. It’s going to be a flying visit to see some of the top names in each of these three appellations. I do spend a lot of time seeking out ‘value’ in the Loire (not difficult – there’s a lot of it about) but on this trip I’m shooting for the other end of the spectrum. Basically, name your ‘number one’ domaine in any of these appellations and it’s likely I have an appointment there. As you might imagine I am looking forward to it immensely.

Looking at my three appointments in Sancerre I was struck by a schism in the style of wine in this appellation. When I first started drinking Sancerre it was the ‘classically’ styled wines of Domaine Vacheron that drew me in. They are one of many that produce wines in a very pure style (especially with the current range of single-vineyard cuvées), focusing on minerality first, with flavours of delicately ripe Sauvignon Blanc which to me means citrus fruits, white peach, perhaps pear. In other words nothing grassy or green (it is not hard to find greener entry-level wines from Sancerre – I come across too many when judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards), and nothing too ripe or overtly varietal either, so no passion fruit or gooseberry.

These wines, importantly, seem to me to speaking of the place from which they come with some conviction, not of the variety, not of the winemaking. There are any number of domaines that you could think of working to produce the same rather ‘classic’ style; François Crochet, Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy, Henri Bourgeois, Domaine Thomas-Labaille, Pierre & Gérard Morin, Gérard Boulay, Alphonse Mellot, Vincent Gaudry and others. I am sure most readers have their personal favourites, almost certainly some not on this list. I would regard all these domaines as producing wines with ‘typicity’. Wines that are pure, minerally, with very precise fruit character. You might say these are the classic wines of Sancerre.

Sancerre: Classic versus Cult

But then when you scour internet forums to see which domaines in Sancerre generate the most chatter, very few of these domaines make an appearance. Gérard Boulay pops up now and again, but rarely any of the others. Instead all the obsession seems directed towards other domaines. François Cotat, for example, who makes exemplary wines from the classic Chavignol terroirs but sometimes they stray from the classic style sketched out above, with riper fruit flavours of pineapple and mango, or sometimes they have very high alcohol levels, or perhaps even a touch of residual sugar. There is nothing typical here I think. Then there is his cousin Pascal Cotat, who seems better known for his Vin de France rosé than his Chavignol cuvées, again little here that is typical. Then there is Clos la Néore, where Edmond and now Anne Vatan have a reputation for turning out distinctive wines, harvested late, rich in character and flavours that go far beyond the ‘classic’ model described above, and which have a reputation for ageing well. And I suppose there is also Sébastien Riffault, where the oxidative style dominates. Different again. How should we refer to these wines? They are, I suppose, the cult wines of Sancerre. Idiosyncratic, of limited availability, and loved by those who know them.

Which of these wines appeal most will depend on your personal preferences, what you understand of the appellation, and exactly what you want out of the wine. Personally I can see something of interest in the wines of all these domaines – I think every one has made a wine which, at one time another, has enchanted me, even if for different reasons. But to me it begs the question – who here is really ‘classic’ and who is the idiosyncratic ‘cult’? Indeed, if you asked Anne Vatan or the Cotat cousins about their winemaking philosophies they would probably say they are allowing the vineyard to speak, through the ripeness of the fruit, and they are only doing things the way their fathers or the vignerons of old did them. In that case, is my concept of classicism completely wrong? Are these the classics of Sancerre rather than the Vacherons, Mellots, Crochets and Reverdys?

Maybe I will make my mind up during my trip to Sancerre next week…..

Quarts de Chaume: The Hard Work Begins

“Cent cabarets offrent leur vin
Rochefort, Huillé, Quart de Chaume,
Martigné, tous les Saints qu’on chôme
Saint-Aubin, Saint-Lambert, Saint-Cyr
– Nectar, ambroisie, Élixir!”

A.J. Verrier (1841 – 1920)

I don’t know much about Verrier, other than he had a penchant for language and dialect. He obviously knew a thing or two about wine though, as he makes clear in his ode to the wines of Anjou, a few opening lines from which are reproduced above. He doesn’t take long to get around to Quarts de Chaume you note (even if he does spell it differently), followed by several other notable Layon villages.

The wines of Quarts de Chaume, and to a lesser extent Chaume, have enjoyed an exalted reputation for many decades, indeed for centuries. And if you take a look at a map of the Quarts de Chaume the first thing it calls to mind are maps of the great wine villages of the Côte d’Or with which, I suspect, more wine drinkers will be familiar. There, famous grands crus lie nestled in among less well known vineyards, some of which will be premier cru, some of which are ‘mere’ village lieux-dits. The lines are drawn on a plot-by-plot basis, making a patchwork of potential quality within each village.

Note that I write ‘potential’ quality. Sometimes the weather gods conspire against the vignerons, and deal them a difficult vintage where the wines are, across the board, simply not up to scratch. In this sort of situation the grower with a plot of vines in a grand cru vineyard has, I suppose, two options. First, harvest the fruit, ferment and bottle the wine, stick the grand cru label on, which comes with a very expensive price tag, and send the wine out into the world. In other words, try to sell it on the basis of the appellation rather than the quality of the wine. One day that might have worked, but in the modern world of widely available critical review and consumer-to-consumer communication via social media the game would soon be up. It would be like Pontet-Canet or Pichon-Baron during the 1970s; great names, but we all knew the wines fell far short of where they could have been. Would a dedicated vigneron, one who respects the land as much as he respects his customers, want to do such a thing anyway?

Quarts de Chaume

The other option is of course to declassify; drop the grand cru fruit into a premier cru cuvée, or even a village wine (or sell it off I suppose). This protects the name of the grand cru, and also the reputation of the vigneron. The declassification of the entire 2004 vintage to village level by Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy was an extreme example of this practice, but a well known one (it was the first that popped into my head anyway). It’s a relatively common practice in Burgundy I think, and a good way not just of dealing with difficult vintages, but also the fruit from inherently ‘lesser’ vines, those that are younger, or lesser clones, for example.

Unfortunately, to declassify is to firmly grasp a very vigourous nettle, because it means volunteering for a financial hit. And so some (many?) vignerons don’t seem to be able or willing to take the plunge, and they would prefer to risk their brand and status instead. The Bordelais have done this in 2013, as described in my post What Erasmus says on Bordeaux 2013, and I think it will come back to bite the majority of them once the wines are in bottle and consumers – who don’t hold back when posting on their favourite wine forum – get to taste the wines. Some other vignerons who might need to think a litle harder about it are those with vines in France’s newest grand cru, which of course is where Quarts de Chaume comes in.

After more than a decade of wrangling the vineyards of the Quarts de Chaume were finally recognised as grand cru, effective from the 2011 vintage. I can imagine exhausted members of the Quarts de Chaume syndicat, led by Claude Papin, breathing a final sigh of relief. At last, it is over! No, wrong! Now is when the hard work really starts on the Quarts de Chaume. Now you have to prove that the title was really deserved, because if consumers enticed by the grand words on the label don’t find the sort of quality they expect, it won’t be long before the grand cru designation is seen as a joke, more of a Clos de Vougeot than a Chambertin, shall we say. I appreciate that the few barrels of wine that were salvaged from the slopes in 2013 and 2014 were born through the blood, sweat and tears of the vignerons, but being blunt that’s of no concern to the consumer. If a vigneron can’t say, hand on heart, that the wine is up to scratch, it should be declassified into generic Coteaux du Layon.

I’m not taking about dreadful wash-out vintages such as 2012, where almost nobody made wine anyway, as here nature has taken this decision away from the vignerons. I’m also not taking about some new body or regulation where wines are deemed, by some tasting panel perhaps, of being worthy – that already happens under INAO regulations anyway. No, I am asking the vignerons of the Quarts de Chaume (and of the premier cru Chaume too, of course), to do this for themselves. They need to take on the responsibility to do what Lalou Bize-Leroy did in 2004, to protect their reputations, and the reputation of this new grand cru. If they don’t, it will all have been for nothing. And besides, if Quarts de Chaume becomes a joke, what wines will the next Verrier have to dedicate his odes to? Surely not something from Burgundy instead?