We crossed the Loire River as the rain came. A surprisingly cool rain for summer, but very welcome after the past few weeks of blistering heat Europe had had to endure. Ahead, the village of Sancerre perched on a butte, just as it had been for centuries, looking over the undulating hills, slopes and valleys where 2 000ha of vines, including the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world, pushed their verdant leaves forward to take-in the fresh wetness of the drizzle bucketing down from above.
This was Operation Sancerre, launched by Thys Louw, proprietor and winemaker of Diemersdal Estate in Durbanville, and arguably South Africa’s leading exponent of Sauvignon Blanc. The aim was to immerse his winemaking team in Sancerre and Sauvignon Blanc, let this get into their heads and their soul, inspire them to further share Thys’s fervour and devotion for the wines of this part of the world.
“You can’t make good wine if you don’t know what good wine tastes like,” says Louw, who has visited Sancerre a good number of times. “Seeing that I have been for so long enthusing on all things Sancerre to my colleagues, I decided to bring my team to the place which, for me, is the heart-beat of Sauvignon Blanc. Let them experience it and buy into the Diemersdal vision of making the best Sauvignon Blanc possible.”
The team for this visit comprised Diemersdal winemakers Mari Branders, Juandré Bruwer and Janeke Beck, with marketing supremo Steffi Layer and Natasha de Villiers from the Durbanville Wine Vally hauling along to allow the atmosphere of the local wine culture to broaden minds and feed the spirits. Diemersdal’s consultant on all aspects vinous, Dr Carien Coetzee, came along to handle technical details that required explaining.
The Sancerre region is known as the “central vineyards” of the Loire Valley, not because it lies in the centre of this long river, but because Sancerre is pretty much in the very middle of France. In fact, if the country was a dart-board and you wanted a bull’s eye, one would be aiming for Sancerre. The region is located north of the city of Nevers and 35 kilometers northeast of Bourges. To the northeast, the Burgundian wine region of Chablis is only 97 kilometers away and Sancerre shares the same line of chalk soil that extends all the way to the White Cliffs of Dover in England.
With the Pouilly-Fumé wine area on the eastern side of the river and Sancerre on the west, the region makes up the eastern extension of the Loire Valley. Sancerre is more than 480km from the Atlantic Coast and this distance from the sea gives it more of a continental climate than typical of the rest of the Loire with short, hot summers and long, cold winters.
Entering the region of Sancerre, it is obvious that despite the magnificent presence of the vineyards, the village after which the region is named stands out for attracting the attention and capturing the imagination. It is situated at 310m above sea-level and looks out across most of its kingdom of vines, which lie at between 200m to 400m above sea-level. The history of Sancerre town goes back to the 11th century when it was in the feudal possession of the Counts of Champagne who built a chateau with six towers on the hill. And through the ages it has been at the heart of the traditional mixture of wars and sieges to make it a place of historical authenticity.
For an introduction to the Sancerre wine region, Team Diemersdal paid a lengthy visit to Domaine Henri Bourgeois in the village of Chavignol, which aptly set the scene for the few days’ stay here. Jean-Christophe Bourgeois, co-proprietor and vigneron, is also a good friend of South Africa by way of marriage to a lady from the Free State.
Walking with Jean-Christophe through his vineyards we were given a brief 101 on Sancerre terroir – which is complex due to the fluctuation in topography on which the ocean of vines appears to drift. It is a dramatic variation in hills, slopes and flatland creating hundreds of microclimates of varying temperatures and sunlight exposure that help determine the individual growing environment for each vineyard. And the ever-present Loire River flows broad and gentle, a mass of water whose physical presence helps to keep some of the severest cold air away.
“The vineyards on the south-facing sides of the region have more clay and limestone soil, while the north-facing slopes comprise largely of flint – what we call ‘silex’ here and is such a typical part of the geography of Sancerre,” says Jean-Christophe.
It is soil that defines the heart-beat of the wines made in Sancerre, where vines are rooted in three different types of earth. These are ancient soils. The Kimmeridgean marl is a limestone-clay sediment laid down 150 million years ago and runs from southern England through France to the Chablis region. Then there are the caillottes, stony limestone clods – pale and white – covering Sancerre’s vineyards, making these soils as visually distinctive as the wines they help produce.
This mixture of hardy, old and physically robust soils plays a large part in distinguishing Sancerre wines. With the term “minerality” today a ubiquitous description for crisp, dry and fresh wines showing tension and zest, it is surely a fact that the notion and concept of minerality began with the Sauvignon Blanc wines of Sancerre which still today are the reference point for wines wishing to achieve the status of what is called minerality.
“There is a big difference in our approach to Sauvignon Blanc compared to you guys in the New World and other countries making this wine,” says Jean-Christophe. “Here we make Sancerre, not Sauvignon Blanc. If the wine tastes too much like Sauvignon Blanc, there is a problem.”
At an extensive tasting of Henri Bourgeois wines, Jean-Christophe’s philosophy on this was evident.
Although difficult to point to any specific highlight, there were wines that underscored the distinctive origin of place. Take Henri Bourgeois Les Ruchons Sancerre 2017 made from vineyards set in those mythical flinty silex soils.
Just as I vividly recall my first Meursault as a lightbulb moment screaming “this is Burgundy Chardonnay”, so the Les Ruchons took me by the scruff whispering “Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc” in my ear.
The wine is made from vineyards planted in 1970 on tough flint soils and one can hear the crackling gun-shots of lightning as you sip it, taste broken shards of rock electrifying the palate. But after the initial attack, lovely flavours of citrus, wild-flowers and loquat drift to the fore, with a charming and comfortable grace exuding purity and class. Yes, there is oak here – one-third being fermented in 600l barrels to add depth and complexity.
From the Henri Bourgeois winery, one looks out on the Monts Damnes vineyards, achingly steep slopes that are among the most revered sites in all of Sancerre. This is where vines have grown since the 11th century, the soil comprising Kimmeridgian marls made from millions of oyster-shells that remained when the oceans drew back millions of years ago.
Henri Bourgeois La Côte des Monts Damnés gets ninth months’ maturation in 600l barrels, and while remaining true to the mineral terroir thrust of Sancerre, spills out into a medley of fruit and floral notes that would have one – in a contemplative moment – aligning the wine with a white Burgundy. It tastes chilly and frigid, for sure, but a nutty yeastiness and fathomed depth creates for one hell of a formidable white wine.
Jean-Christophe’s trump-card, however, was opening a Henri Bourgeois from vintage 1982 to celebrate Thys Louw’s birth-year and prepare him for his 40th in a few weeks’ time.
This was everything one could expect from a great wine. After four decades in the bottle, it poured clear and bright, and not showing a breath of oxidation or fatigue on the nose. On the palate it was crisp and sweetly tuned, an ocean breeze coupled with fresh green herbs, lemon-zest and clear water gushing along a steep mountain stream. Arguably my finest white wine experience in a long time.
Other visits included Jean-Paul Balland and Domaine du Nozay, as well as a tasting with proprietor Benjamin Dagueneau at Domaine Didier Dagueneau across the Loire from Sancerre in Pouilly-Fumé, the latter to be discussed in a follow-up missive.
According to Juandré, who has visited Sancerre before, he remains fascinated by the fact that Sancerre is in the middle of France, yet 300m years back this was all beneath the ocean – which today is 480km away. “No other region I have visited has such a visceral expression of terroir,” says Juandré. “When one is among the vines with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from that vineyard, you can taste the soil, the air and the soul of the place where you are standing right in the glass. Much is written and spoken of terroir. But in Sancerre you truly taste it.”
And this we did. For days. Mostly paired with the region’s legendary goat milk cheese, which further helped create timeless memories of a place lost in time, yet one that continues to stand firm and true in the hall of wine greatness.
Enjoyed this article?
Subscribe and never miss a post again.