On my first visit to Sancerre, which was perhaps twenty years before I first tasted the wines of Gérard Boulay, I have to confess I was unaware of the village of Chavignol. My focus was on Sancerre itself, the hill-top town that rises proudly above the gentle valleys and plains lying all around it. Sancerre dominates the region, in more ways than one. It is not just its physical elevation above the surrounding vineyards, although that is impressive enough; anybody who was walked along the Rempart des Augustins on the east-side of the town, soaking up the spectacular panoramic view across the valley to the woodlands and church spires of Tracy-sur-Loire beyond, would have to agree with this. It is also the fact that, even in just its name, Sancerre dominates; to a novice, it is tempting to believe that all its vineyards are gathered closely around it. Of course this is not true; just as there is more to Vouvray than Vouvray itself (it took me quite a while to work that one out as well, I confess), there is more to Sancerre than the vines on the slopes of this pointed hill of chalk and flint.
Indeed, Sancerre’s beating heart is probably not in Sancerre at all. I would place it in the aforementioned Chavignol, three kilometres to the west. Here, on a few of the many slopes and valley walls that twist and turn around the appellation, Sauvignon Blanc reaches its apogee. Les Monts Damnés, the steep slope that rises up behind the village (pictured below, the slope disappearing into the morning haze), is to Chavignol what the grand cru vineyards of Les Clos and Vaudésir are to Chablis. Chavignol is to Sauvignon Blanc what Chablis is to Chardonnay, or what Piedmont is to Nebbiolo; something here, in the soils and the slopes, lifts this oft-derided variety to a new level, producing wines that no longer say anything about the fruit itself, but speak only of the rocks and the soil. It is a feat rarely repeated elsewhere. Many New-World growers have certainly tried their hand with Sauvignon Blanc (as they may also do with Nebbiolo from time to time) but none come close to the finesse that can be found on the slopes of Chavignol (no matter how much exponents of this variety in New Zealand would have you believe otherwise).
Twenty years on I am prepared to forgive myself my initial misunderstanding of the wines, domaines and villages of Sancerre. After all, there was no-one writing with any authority on the region at the time. Sure, one or two writers were giving Sancerre the occasional nod, but none were giving it the sort of thorough going-over that the soils and slopes of Bordeaux and Burgundy have long been treated to. Sadly this sort of broad-brush approach still dominates, and whereas a top-class grower in Volnay or St Emilion only needs one good (and preferably good-value) vintage to break through into the wine mainstream, here in Chavignol we seem to need a generation. We all know that Edmund Vatan made great wine. We all know Pascal Cotat and cousin François Cotat are top of the class. It is only the prevailing inertia of Loire opinion that prevents us speaking of Gérard Boulay (pictured below) in the same breath. This grower is one of the Chavignol top tier. His work is akin to that of François Chidaine in Montlouis, or Claude Papin in Anjou, helping to define the appellation within which he works, stretching its boundaries, taking it onto the world stage.
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