Henri Bourgeois Sancerre d’Antan 2011
Is Chablis a wine defined by the variety, or by the terroir? Ask any committed wine drinker this question and surely the majority of respondents would choose the latter. If there is one appellation in France more commonly promulgated as a prime example of the significance of the soil than any other, we have found it I think. Spend a few minutes reading up on Chablis and you are immediately immersed in a geologist’s paradise, a miniature universe of slopes, stones and strata. There is the ‘original’ Chablis, the Kimmeridgian seams on which sit the grand cru slopes north of the town, and many of the premier cru vineyards are similarly located on these rocks. In second place comes the Portlandian terroirs, home to a few premiers crus, and numerous other vineyards. When discussing Chablis, nobody bangs on about Chardonnay, which is relegated to the role of translator in international negotiations. It carries the message, but holds none of the responsibility, and takes none of the credit.
It has long struck me as strange that even with knowledgeable wine drinkers, and perhaps even some in the wine writing community and wine trade, we can’t view Sancerre in the same way. It’s the same terroir after all, a myriad of limestones led by the various seams of Kimmeridgian rocks such as the desirable Saint Doulchard marl and Buzançais limestone, with the younger Portlandian and older Oxfordian seams jostling for second place. There is an added complexity here, of course, and that is the seam of flint that courses through the appellation, just east of the fault line that runs north-south beneath the town of Sancerre. I see that as a bonus. And we also have the same cool climate here. The translator is different of course, being Sauvignon Blanc, and that for many is the problem I think. It is a variety that it is too easy to disregard.
I think some see it as a badge of honour to take a stance against one or other aspect of the wine world. Wine writers – who are meant to educate, entertain and inform – have been on occasion guilty of the ill-judged dismissal of varieties such as Pinotage, Cinsaut as well as my beloved Melon de Bourgogne, and even – incredible though this is – the wines of entire nations. Chile and South Africa have been the wine writer’s favourite whipping boys in the past, although the latter is now back in the fold, and the ‘rehabilitation’ of the former can’t be far behind. Sauvignon Blanc, meanwhile, is still out in the cold. It is often seen as a beginner’s wine, one dominated by varietal flavours, with a style that owes as much to the hand of man (canopy management and timing the picking in order to maximise the methoxypyrazine hit) as it does the vine and the soil. The problem is, similarly ill-aimed mud could be thrown at Chardonnay, which in simple bottles, loaded with the flavours of oak chips and tropical fruits, also serves as an entry point to the world of wine for many. I think to provide an informed opinion on Sancerre you have to look beyond this entry-level image of the variety – something any wine writer should be able to do – to get to the real Sauvignon Blanc, the one which does what Chardonnay does in Chablis. That is, translate.
Over the next few weeks I will be throwing the spotlight on Sancerre once again, with a series of new profiles for domaines in Chavignol, Bué, Sury-en-Vaux and Sancerre itself following visits I made there in June. These are all domaines which focus on terroir, and in at least one case the portfolio of wines I tasted included an entry-level wine which highlighted variety, and upper-level wines which showcased terroir, which made for some fascinating comparisons. For the moment though, having, already checked out the 2011 Sancerre Jadis from Henri Bourgeois (a year ago I see – time really does fly when you write about wine), I thought I should now take a look at the 2011 Sancerre d’Antan from the same team. This is a wine from flinty soils, the focus being low yields, fermentation and élevage in old oak, and bottling without fining or filtration. In the glass it has a typically pale, cool-climate hue, and the nose leans towards the greener end of the fruit expression spectrum, with a floral perfume first, set against a backdrop of hibiscus, box hedge and gooseberry leaf. It feels tense and energetic, and in this the palate lives up to expectations, being bright but full and textured, characteristics which it is naturally tempting to ascribe to the wine’s unfiltered and unfined origins. There is perfumed apple and greengage fruit here, with fresh acidity, an incisive minerally bite wrapped around it all (it is tempting to say ‘flinty’ but I am always cautious of auto-suggestion) and a delicious texture. Very appealing, and classic in style. For me it combines both greener varietal and minerally character, so in style it is perhaps part-translator and part-negotiator. In forthcoming profiles I will look at wines with more extreme characters, wines which are committed to being one or the other. 17/20 (17/8/15)