A distant glimpse of the hilltop town of Sancerre is sufficient to have many a painter reaching for easel and palette, immediately entranced by its fairytale-like charm. It is easy to forget that this was once a fortified town, its narrow streets and tunnelled cellars surrounded by huge defensive walls and six great stone towers which rose high above Sancerre’s rooftops and the surrounding countryside. Today only one such tower still stands, on the eastern edge of the town, the iconic Tour des Fiefs. The others were all destroyed during the 16th century, following an eight-month siege of the Huguenot-controlled town during the Wars of Religion.
Today the town of Sancerre is rather more welcoming to outsiders, especially if you approach it from the southwest, perhaps after a long drive up from the lower parts of the Loire Valley. The road up to the town cuts through the French countryside like a laser beam, the tarmac running towards the horizon with an admirable determination. With time the fields of wheat and copses of trees are replaced by vineyards, and you realise Sancerre must at last be near. Suddenly, after two quick bends in the road, you find yourself on a long avenue lined with trees.
This is no simple archway or gateway to the ancient streets of Sancerre though; this avenue of trees stretches on through open countryside and vineyard for two kilometres, and as you continue the town itself comes into view, a distant hilltop just off to the right, spotted through the gaps between the trunks. The road bends towards the town, and although the fields of vines are soon replaced by suburban dwellings the trees stay with you, until they finally peter out on the Avenue de Verdun. The last few trees sit outside the cellars of Domaine Fouassier, one of the town’s most overlooked winemaking families. It is curious that, despite its rather prominent position on this route into Sancerre, the domaine’s remarkable history, and the huge extent of its vineyard, that so many visitors to the region seem eager to pass it by. Perhaps it is the draw of the town, its ancient tower and those tunnelled cellars beyond?