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Gérard Boulay Sancerre Comtesse 2011

Last week I spent a couple of days in London judging on the Loire panel of the Decanter World Wine Awards. I enjoy the focus this wine competition offers; I wouldn't feel comfortable judging Furmint and Hárslevelü from Hungary, or several dozen recently bottled wines from Rioja, and indeed there are Hungarian and Spanish experts who should be doing that. But give me a line up of Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc or Muscadet and I am in my element. With these wines, I know exactly what to expect, and exactly what makes a wine stand out.

There is a lot of Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire submitted, perhaps unsurprisingly; there are approximately 4300 hectares planted to this variety in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé combined, and another 3000 hectares in Touraine. And some of it is very good indeed; in fact, one or two wines in a flight of wines from Sancerre, from the 2012 vintage, were of absolutely tip-top quality. It was a very good vintage for early ripening varieties at the extreme ends of the Loire Valley's main vineyard area (Muscadet at the Atlantic end, Sauvignon Blanc near France's centre) and so I wasn't surprised to see some good performances. There was real quality in one wine in particular, a wine such purity and ripeness I was reminded of the wines of some of the very best growers in Chavignol, so I was happy when the panel agreed it should be awarded a gold medal. Of course, I have absolutely no clue as to the identity of the wine, as the Decanter World Wine Awards is conducted in a rigorously blind fashion. Nevertheless, with my Sauvignon-Sancerre enthusiasm bolstered yet again, I turned back to the variety and the appellation (although a different vintage) this weekend, with a wine from Gérard Boulay.

Gérard Boulay Sancerre Comtesse 2011

Gérard Boulay is a relatively new name in the Sancerre appellation, although there have been Boulays in and around Chavignol - where Gérard is based - since the 14th century. An entry in a land registry of 1380 tells us that there was a Jean Boulay here at that time, when many of the vines were tended by monks, who supplied the wine to the Cathedral Saint-Etienne at Bourges, a few miles to the west. Up until 1995, however, Gérard chose to sell his fruit rather than vinify the wines himself; I suspect much of it was purchased by Henri Bourgeois, by far the largest buyer locally, and indeed one of the largest négociant businesses in the entire Loire Valley. But from 1995 onwards Gérard has been making and bottling his own wines, initially from rather tiny premises in the centre of Chavignol, more recently from a new purpose-built winery outside the village.

His portfolio of vineyards is impressive, taking in all the top sites of Chavignol, but one plot that is of particular interest to me is Comtesse, because it provides a level of site-specific winemaking that is not commonplace in the appellation. Although Domaine Vacheron have recently introduced a number of single-vineyard wines, and other domaines do also make single-site cuvées, the norm here is to blend, albeit often within soil type (so one domaine might produce three whites cuvées, one from flint, one from terres blanches, a third from caillottes, each one taking fruit from a number of different vineyards with those soil types). In the case of Comtesse, however, this plot of vines is situated on the slope of Le Monts Damnés. It is often described as being at the 'heart' of the slope, although this is perhaps true in only an emotive fashion; the plot in question actually lies fairly close to the foot of the slope (let's say about one-third of the way up, at best) and lies towards the top end of the village. Boulay has 40 ares here (0.4 hectares), and I have enjoyed the wine from these vines in previous vintages; the 2011 Comtesse from Gérard Boulay continued this strong performance. In the glass the wine has a vibrant hue, tinged with a little lime-green. The nose is all smoky and flinty, and these wispy elements lie on a base of white stone fruit, cut with the fresh bite of green pear-skin. It feels pure and expressive, although slightly more indicative of the variety involved than I had expected. In the mouth it shows a nicely polished, rather weighty palate with quite broad shoulders, and these shoulders carry a large basket of fruit, all juicy pears and freshly-picked citrus fruits. There is simply fabulous acidity giving it lift, the overall style very cleanly defined and surprisingly rich. I adore the fleshy weight of fruit, thankfully counterbalanced by some lightly bitter, pithy notes and that acidity of course. This is a wine of real energy; it is great now, but this will also surely age very well. 17.5/20

Coming this week, a full profile of Gérard Boulay (for subscribers) and more notes. (5/5/14)

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