Pascal et Nicolas Reverdy Sancerre Rouge à Nicolas 2007
I think most people interested in wine, and certainly those interested in the wines of the Loire Valley, are already aware that white Sancerre is something of a modern phenomenon. The traditional view is that the domination of Sauvignon Blanc came about in the early 20th century, when this variety was favoured over Pinot Noir when the vineyards were re-established following the devastation of phylloxera. Curiously, I have never heard a good explanation for why Sauvignon Blanc was preferred to Pinot Noir, a variety that had been tended here probably since the 12th century. Most people with an opinion on the subject suggest that Sauvignon Blanc was better suited to the climate and the terroir, but if this is the reason why did it take 700 years to suddenly realise this? Is there more complexity to this story, perhaps?
The planting of Sauvignon Blanc can be traced back to monks working the Cul de Beaujeu (a name which has, I believe, been derived from Clos de Beaujeu), a slope overlooking Chavignol. Traditionally this vineyard is regarded as having been the only vineyard to produce a white wine before the advent of phylloxera, a wine that was reserved for the use in the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne in Bourges, not far to the west. This tale seems to me to be somewhat apocryphal though. First, it seems unlikely that a previously rare grape variety, one that was restricted to one vineyard in an otherwise expansive region, should suddenly come to dominate so comprehensively. Secondly, and more significantly, writers from the 19th century tell us unequivocally that there were white wines, surely Sauvignon Blanc, being made at this time. Writing in Histoire de la Ville de Sancerre (Chez Gourdet, 1826), Abraham Malfuson states that the best white wines of the region come from Bouffans, Chavignol, Boisraffin, L'Épèe, Saint-Martin and Chassvigne in Sancerre, La Perrière in Verdigny, Chêne Marchand in Bué and Le Bois and La Roche in Crézancy. Not all of these names are familiar but both Chavignol and Le Chêne Marchand are still very favoured sites today. Malfuson wrote of the wines, "les vins blancs particulièrement sont excellens", which even I can translate; the white wines are "particularly excellent", in his opinion. Regardless of Malfuson's expertise (he was more a historian than a wine writer) it seems as though Sauvignon Blanc was widely planted in the region even in the early 19th century, and it had a well-established reputation.
Perhaps the story of how white wine came to dominate Sancerre needs some reappraisal? I do wonder whether the shift wasn't more gradual, and phylloxera was merely a turning point in the story, a watershed when replanting was forced upon all the growers at once, at a time when many already favoured the local white variety over red. Perhaps this was the moment the scales were tipped, rather than the whole scale shift from red to white we are led to believe. My research along these lines will continue.
Happily such research is always best when a little inspiration comes my way, and this weekend's wine was as good an inspiration as any. The domaine of Pascal and Nicolas Reverdy is well known to those who enjoy Sancerre and who also have an eye for a well-priced bottle. The domaine is located in Maimbray, always marked as Mainbré on maps, and not to be confused with another village named Maimbray in Beaulieu-sur-Loire, about 15 kilometres downstream. It is not a particularly famous name when it comes to Sancerre - it is certainly not on the same level as Chavignol or Bué, both mentioned by Malfuson nearly two centuries ago, nevertheless it is well within the boundary of the Sancerre appellation, in the commune of Sury-en-Vaux (one of fourteen eligible communes) which lies north of Verdigny and Chavignol, north-west of Saint-Satur and Sancerre itself.
The story of this particular bottle is a particularly tragic one, as 2007 was the year Nicolas Reverdy was killed, after he was hit by a falling branch as he and Pascal were felling a tree. In his honour Pascal changed the name of the domaine's top red cuvée from Evolution to à Nicolas. This is, obviously, the first vintage under the new name. Most of the terroir around Maimbray is Kimmeridgian limestone, the village sitting on a broad band of rocks including marls peppered with Exogyra virgula (fossilised, comma-shaped oysters), Calcaires à Astartes (fossilised bivalve molluscs) and Calcaire de Tonnerre. Despite this the wine is made using 100% Pinot Noir grown on caillottes (which doesn't relate to a specific era, but is fractured limestone, and which can be Kimmeridgian calcaire but can I think also be Portlandian or Oxfordian). The fruit for the 2007 Sancerre Rouge à Nicolas was destemmed and fermented in wood, with twelve months in demi-muids before bottling. I have tasted it once before, with Pascal, back in 2010, and I thought the wine had really good potential. Today, four years on, I feel the wine has performed as I had hoped. In the glass it has quite a dark hue, showing freshness, still possessing plenty of youthful pigment, and only a little suggestion of the matt fade of age. The aromatics are pure and expressive, full of black cherry stone, with wisps of smoke, and a seam of coffee grounds. It makes a very good impression on the palate, which has a supple and gently silky texture, with light tannins in the background but a nice sense of grip and acid freshness to carry along the fruit. This is a wine that shows substance as well as balance. A very fine composition, and this has continued potential for the future too; although giving plenty of pleasure this is still tasting like a young wine, on the way up. Lovely wine, and a domaine I need to follow more closely than I already do, I am sure. 17/20 (23/6/14)