Standing at the summit of Les Monts Damnés, a vertiginous south-facing carpet of mostly Sauvignon Blanc vines above a little village only a few kilometres west of Sancerre, one cannot help but appreciate how this damned mountain came to be so named. It is extraordinarily steep, a high, hard-to-climb slope. And workers looking to head down from the summit – perhaps needing to do some work in the vines – have no dainty descent to the valley floor below ahead of them. It is a long and dangerous scramble down the rough, stony ground. It was harvest time, and pickers that were now out in the vines, near the foot of the slope, were little more than brightly-coloured dots in a distant swelling sea of green.
While generations of harvesters have no doubt cursed the gradient underfoot, to the wine-focused visitor such as myself (and I have to admit, in case you think I was being an intrepid climber for the day, that I had arrived at the top by car, on the back roads) the precipitous vineyard was a beautiful sight. And as my eyes rolled down the ribbons of vines below they came to settle on the little village nestled between this slope and the one that rose just as convincingly on the other side of the valley. This village is Chavignol, to drinkers of Sancerre almost certainly the most favoured village and commune of the appellation. Its scattering of tiled roofs, some slate-grey, the others an almost rusty brown, had a sense of charm to them. In every one (well, not quite every one, but certainly in many of them) live the vignerons of this little village. More than one or two are rather well known – François Cotat, Gérard Boulay, Pierre Martin and Anne Vatan, for example – but these winemakers have their own profiles, and should not concern us here.
At the western end of the village, as the slope begins to rise towards the valley’s apex, these tiny roofs give way to an imposing collection of buildings, dwarfing the others in the village, and clearly of relatively recent construction. Now here is a domaine to interest us. Dominating the village in a very convincing fashion, these are the facilities of Henri Bourgeois, undoubtedly one of the best-known names of all Sancerre, and perhaps of the entire Loire Valley. Pictured above, the complex consists of several warehouse-like buildings (close to the church), but higher up the slope there is also an even more recent multi-level winery (behind which you can make out a white marquee over their table de tri). These impressive facilities allow the Bourgeois family to turn out a very broad portfolio that stretches from blended value-wine to single-site grand vin, and as a consequence this is a domaine that no visitor to Chavignol should overlook. Indeed, given its prominence, and its elevated position, it would be difficult to overlook it even if you tried.