Whites Of Their Eyes
- Monday 1 February 1999
Despite the current situation, until relatively recently red grapes ruled the vineyards of the central Loire. JIM BUDD explores the whites that now dominate the region.
It is '496 kilometres to the source, 496 kilometres to the mouth' reads the sign on the bridge across the Loire at Pouilly. This sign is a reminder of how long the river is and that the first Loire vineyard does not begin until halfway down it. Unlike in the Midi, Bordeaux or parts of Burgundy, the Loire vineyards are episodic. With the sole exception of the Pays Nantais, there are no lengthy unbroken stretches of vineyards. This is particularly true of the widely scattered appellations of Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre, Menetou-Salon, Coteaux du Giennois, Quincy and Reuilly. Of these, only Coteaux de Giennois, Pouilly, Sancerre and Menetou-Salon make a geographical entity of any size, totalling just over 4,000 hectares (ha) planted. Sancerre makes up the bulk of this with some 2,500ha, Pouilly has just over 1,000ha, Menetou-Salon now has nearly 400ha, having more than doubled in size over the last 15 years, and the Coteaux de Giennois, which was promoted from a VDQS to appellation contrôllée status in 1997, has only 154ha.
This is the land of Sauvignon Blanc; the cradle of the dry, crunchy and grassy style of Sauvignon that has proved to be so popular that it has many imitators worldwide. But Sauvignon's dominance is recent. Until the arrival of phylloxera towards the end of the last century, Pinot Noir, along with Gamay and various other red varieties, was the most planted variety in Sancerre. Before the existence of the appellation laws, Sancerre producers sold Pinot Noir to the houses of Champagne. Among the white varieties, Sauvignon Blanc shared the stage with Pinot Gris. Now Pinot Noir accounts for about a quarter of the plantings in Sancerre, while in Menetou the split is 65 per cent Sauvignon to 35 per cent Pinot Noir and the other way round in the Coteaux de Giennois. Even Pouilly, which along with Quincy, is now the sole appellation in the region to make just white wines, used in the last century to make red wines. At Pouilly, Chasselas was the dominant white variety. It was grown both for the table and to make wine. Today only about 40ha of Chasselas remain in production to keep the Pouilly-sur-Loire appellation precariously alive. It has to be said that the wine, although pleasant enough, is really now only an historical curiosity and, as it sells for two thirds of the price of Pouilly-Fumé, one cannot envisage it ever making a comeback.
Sancerre is undoubtedly the most picturesque and impressive of the Loire vineyards. Its rolling chalk hills give it a majesty that the other vineyards lack. There are many panoramic views, but two I find are particularly impressive. Stand on the edge of the Clos de la Poussie and admire the sweep of this amphitheatre of vines with the charming village of Bué nestling at its base. Or drive through Chavignol and on up to the top of the slope of the Monts Damnés. Then look east across the vineyards to Sancerre and notice how steep some of the slopes are. No wonder they got the name of the Monts Damnés. In dry years, the autumn colours of the vines on the hillsides are absolutely magnificent. The towns of Sancerre and Pouilly face each other obliquely across the Loire but the two vineyards and their growers have almost as many points of difference as there are similarities.
Administratively Pouilly is in Burgundy, while Sancerre is in the Loire. Topographically they are very different. Sancerre, perched on its hill, provides a clear focus for its appellation as the vines cover the surrounding hillsides. The town itself is a lively tourist spot even in winter. By contrast the vineyards of Pouilly run from north to south either side of the Route National. The appellation has no natural centre either at Pouilly, Saint-Andelain or Maltaverne. Now that the little town of Pouilly is bypassed by the main road, it is slowly dying. There are no supermarkets, only a few faded shops. The days when Parisians drove down to enjoy Sunday lunch in one of the town's famous restaurants have long gone, as have many of the restaurants.
Although there are certainly good producers in Pouilly, there is not quite the same spirit both of sharing and adventure that one finds among growers in Sancerre. In Sancerre the leaders of the appellation, like Alphonse Mellot Snr and Jean-Marie Bourgeois, play an important role in encouraging the other vignerons. Conversely in Pouilly, the best known producers do not lead in the same way. The mercurial Didier Dagueneau is more a born rebel, typically his business card says 'Ancien Elève des Ecoles Maternelles non diplôme'. His outspoken attacks on his fellow vignerons have tended to alienate rather than to persuade. Baron Patrick de Ladoucette with his many interests worldwide is little seen. Both, however, have done much to promote Pouilly's wines on the export market. In Sancerre young vignerons like Arnaud Bourgeois, Alphonse Mellot Jnr, Nicolas Reverdy and Jean-Dominique Vacheron have a high profile and are continually looking to improve the quality of their wines.
At present the quality in Sancerre is more homogeneous than in its neighbour. I have the impression that there are too many growers of Pouilly who are content to rest on the appellation's reputation. Like the rest of the Loire, the central vineyards have had a series of good vintages since 1994. The best wines from 1995 and 1996 should last another three to five years, while 1997 with less acidity, ought to be drunk sooner. In spite of a wet vintage the 1998 seems much better than initially feared. Certainly a hot August and 15 days of fine weather just before the harvest helped. The wines are aromatic and quite low in acidity, so this is another vintage to drink early.
The reds from good producers show promise, although they are unlikely to be of the same quality as 1996 and 1997. On the whole, Loire Sauvignon Blanc is best drunk within four to five years of the vintage. Indeed many are best drunk within the first two years. With age the Sauvignon Blanc can sometimes become unpleasantly vegetal, with aromas and flavours of stewed asparagus and cardboard. Curiously, minor vintages can keep better than those of riper years. In mid-December I tasted a remarkably good 1984 from Château de Favray (Pouilly). The wine had developed a honeyed character and the vintage's high acidity had kept the wine fresh. It was more impressive than the Favray 1988 and also several 1990s that I tasted at other properties in the area. Poor vintages do not, however, always come good. A remarkable tasting at Vacheron concluded with a 1972, the worst vintage of the last 30 years. That year the grapes came in with an acidity of 12 and a potential alcohol of six degrees! The wine was still truly awful: one shudders to think what customers of The Wine Society, who imported it into the UK, made of it!
With the present demand for Menetou-Salon, Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre, old vintages are academic. Many producers have already sold out of 1997 and some will have to bottle the 1998 early to supply their clients. (This is not ideal as these wines generally benefit from a little more time before bottling.) After a period of declining sales in the first part of the decade, following the 1991 frost, sales picked up in the second half of 1996 and have increased strongly ever since. Many producers in the four appellations now make either a prestige cuvée or a series of cuvées that either reflect the different types of terroir or the age of the vines. Also, in fine vintages like 1996 and 1997, there is often a small amount of late harvest wine made. This is either blended in to give the other wines more richness or is bottled separately. Rather than being an innovation this is a return to tradition. Charles Walter Berry of Berry Brothers & Rudd visited the region in 1934 and the following year published 'In Search of Wine'. In it he reported that Pouilly-Fumé 'ripens late, and the proprietors desire to see a touch of 'pourriture noble' in order to make a perfect wine. The vintage, on average, commences about the first of November.'
Nowadays the harvest starts at the end of September or beginning of October. Even so, Sauvignon Blanc from this region should not have an aggressive 'cats' pee' character. Citrus flavours, in particular grapefruit, are more characteristic, with exotic fruits in rich years. A short journey southeast of Pouilly are the vineyards of the Coteaux de Charitois, a recently revived vineyard classified as vin de pays. At the beginning of the 20th century the vineyard was quite extensive with around 800ha planted. However, the arrival of phylloxera just before the First World War caused the Coteaux de Charitois to virtually disappear. New plantings during this decade have revived the tradition and there are now some 40ha under vine. The Cave des Hauts de Seyr is the leading producer, making attractive Chardonnay as well as some Pinot Noir. There is also the small vin de pays of Nièvre on the margins of Pouilly-Fumé with the Domaine des Granges in Sully-la-Tour making a good Sauvignon.
The Comité du Centre is putting together a route touristique for the central vineyards and there will soon be a Maison des Vins opening in Sancerre, which will give visitors general information about the appellation and then encourage them to go out and visit the various communes and their vignerons. The A77 motorway will soon open, making the region only 90 minutes drive from Paris, so the number of visitors is likely to increase. Unfortunately there are few decent hotels in the region. The renovated Relais Fleurie (+33 (0)22.214.171.124.99) on the outskirts of Pouilly is probably now the best, followed by the Relais de Pouilly (+33 (0)3.86.39.03.00). Le Vieux Relais (+33 (0)126.96.36.199.21), an old coaching inn in Cosne-sur-Loire, is worth considering. Sancerre has the Hotel Panoramic (+33 (0)188.8.131.52.44), but its splendid views do not compensate for the cold welcome and dreadful breakfasts. However, Sancerre has the better restaurants. In the town itself Pomme d'Or (+33 (0)184.108.40.206.30) and La Tour (+33 (0)2.48.54.00.81) are the best, the former being more consistent, while the latter is good when the chef is present. The excellent La Côte de Monts Damnés (+33 (0)2.48.54.01.72) in Chavignol is run by Jean-Marc Bourgeois while Le Caveau in Bué is simple and charming. The cooking in small Le Sevigné (+33 (0)220.127.116.11.50) in Cosne is fine. All of these restaurants have good local wine lists.