Gérard Boulay Sancerre Comtesse 2008
Nobody who read my blog post last Friday concerning The New Sancerre will be surprised to see the latest selection for my Weekend Wine is from what might be the Loire Valley's most famous appellation. I'm increasingly aware, as is the case with Muscadet (which, come to think of it, is the other contender for the Loire's most famous appellation - even if it is part fame, part infamy), that although many of the wines are not that remarkable, there is a hard-core of domaines turning out wines that really pique my interest. And in the case of Sancerre this is despite a disdain I have developed in recent years for the varietal characteristics displayed by the vast majority of wines made from Sauvignon Blanc.
These two groups of vignerons - one down in Muscadet-land, one up in Sancerre - have at least one thing in common, and that is they are both working with a less-than noble variety and yet obtaining superb wines. In both cases I feel terroir is vital; when it comes to Muscadet, this relevance is slowly being ratified with the creation of the crus communaux. No such programme is underway in Sancerre, despite probably widespread agreement that certain parts of the appellation - Les Monts Damnés and other slopes around Chavignol being the most obvious candidates - are worthy of cru status. I suspect that this is because the name Sancerre already sells well enough whereas in Muscadet, where there is continued financial crisis such that many growers (those that haven't already declared bankruptcy) can't even afford to carry out basic treatments in the vineyards, anything that helps to define and raise the profile of the wines is welcome.
It seems clear to me that, whether ratified or classified in some way or not, to my mind the best wines in both appellations are those that display their origins, their terroir, most clearly. Around the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine appellation this means a complex mix of gneiss, orthogneiss, granite, serpentinite, gabbro and schist (and a few others as well), whereas in Sancerre there are three principal types. These are firstly terres blanches, perhaps the most fascinating thanks to the way in which it links the Sancerre, Chablis and Champagne appellations, secondly the stony caillottes and thirdly silex (there is more detail on this in my Sancerre guide, and last week's blog post).
Revealing the terroir-influence in Sancerre perhaps demands a little more legwork on the part of the taster than is required in Muscadet. First, as indicated above, we are talking about a hard-core of top quality domaines here; there is still plenty of grassy, varietal, capsicum-tinged Sancerre-Sauvignon out there. Secondly, even in the best wines, the terroir effects can be quite subtle and evanescent; wines that seem to display the fresh, filigree, citrus-tinged character of silex soils just as the cork has been popped can soon settle down into a more solid, limestone character given an hour of aeration. We don't tend to think of Sauvignon Blanc as a variety that needs to breathe once opened (or at least I didn't) but maybe for the better wines this is something we should be more open to? Thirdly, hand-in-hand with this somewhat abstruse personality is the fact that - to my palate at least - the terroir characteristics are often most plainly seen when comparing the wines side-by-side. Many of my thoughts on how Sauvignon Blanc translates terroir have been formed when tasting through a vigneron's portfolio, perhaps half a dozen wines from one vigneron in a single vintage, which I acknowledge is not how many people drink Sancerre. Perhaps it is time to look at a flight of top Sancerres at the next meeting of your tasting group?
With those thoughts in mind let's move onto this week's wine, from one of the leading domaines of Sancerre. Gérard Boulay comes from a line of vignerons that have been working the soils around Chavignol since at least the 14th century. He has 9 hectares of vines, almost all on the Kimmeridgian marl or terres blanches that characterise these slopes; the cuvée in question here, the Sancerre La Comtesse from the 2008 vintage, originates from a parcel of 65-year old vines which Boulay has been renting since 2004.
A pale and clean hue in the glass, the aromatic profile of this wine is just delightful, perfumed and confident but also delicate and defined, with none of the raw varietal fruit character that you can find in so many examples of this variety. Appropriate ripeness here brings scents of peach and tangerine fruit to the fore, but these transient scents soon give way to a firmer, more solid set of aromas; stony, white fruit and fresh, lightly minerally elements. Pure, clear and intense on the palate, but with a delicious vein of citrus coming down the middle, which broadens out on the midpalate to give the wine a weight that really appeals. But around this there is a vibrant acid freshness, gentle and balanced rather than anything too aggressive, with a lightly pithy note coming through in the finish which reveals a deep, grainy substance. In terms of mineral content it seems deeply veined but not too intense, a chalky edge which adds a real seam of structure. Overall this is supple and balanced, a very engaging wine of some charm and yet also deep character and substance which surely reflects the wine's marly Kimmeridgian origins. 18/20 (30/1/12)