Travel guides: Sancere, France

  • Friday 1 August 2003

Life in the villages of Sancerre ticks to the rhythm of the vine. The names of famous domaines line the streets of Chavignol, Bué and Verdigny, and every second building is a cellar with wine for sale.

It's enough to make a wine lover delirious. But there is more to Sancerre than its classic Sauvignon Blancs and light Pinot Noirs. Rising from the west bank of the River Loire, 13km of hills fold into one another like double cream. The valley floors are streaked with yellow and gold – mustard in the spring, sunflowers and wheat in the summer. In the outlying fields, Charolais cattle graze beside the goats that produce the region's other great AC, Crottin de Chavignol cheese.

The hilltop town of Sancerre looks across to the River Loire snaking idly by. The medieval Tour des Fiefs is a reminder of centuries of military struggle to control such a strategically significant location. Today, restaurants, cafés, galleries and wine shops jostle for attention in the main square. In the steep, cobbled streets, shutters and wrought iron gates reveal glimpses of winemakers' cellars dug deep into the hillside.

Sancerre is not merely about the wine though. Follow a lunch of classic French cuisine with a woodland walk or sip on coffee beside the canal in Ménétréol; visit a cheese-producing farm; or explore the host of nearby châteaux, or the cathedral city of Bourges.

Before you go

For a rewarding visit, plan ahead. Visitors are brilliantly catered for by a two-part Vineyard Escapades brochure, which is available in English and can be ordered online at www.loirevalleytourism.com. It contains introductions and maps for the wine regions of central France, plus addresses and contact details for more than 300 wineries and all the restaurants in the region.

Where to stay

Sancerre is not blessed with great hotels. Le Panoramic, with its magnificent views over the vineyards to the north, is the best bet in town.

Directly below Sancerre in St-Satur is Le Laurier. This ivy-clad restaurant with attractive blue shutters has seven spacious rooms. Courtyard rooms are best: the road outside is busy. Otherwise, drive 16km up river to Pouilly-sur-Loire. Le Relais Fleuri is another restaurant-hotel, with a large garden leading down to the river and a good-value suite.

Le Panoramic, Rempart des Augustins, Sancerre. Tel: +33 2 48 54 22 44

Le Laurier, 29 Rue du Commerce, St-SaturTel: +33 2 48 54 17 20

Le Relais Fleuri, 42 Avenue de la Tuilerie, Pouilly-sur-Loire Tel: +33 3 86 39 12 99

Eating out

If Sancerre falls down on accommodation, it is justifiably proud of its restaurants. Largest and most comfortable is La Tour, which takes pride of place on the town square. There are two dining rooms – one beamed and old fashioned, the other more modern with a huge window overlooking the vineyards. The wine list includes 60 bins of white Sancerre.

Vying for the accolade of best wine list in the region is La Côte des Monts Damnés in Chavignol. This offshoot of the Henri Bourgeois empire lays special emphasis on the wines of the village. Chef Jean-Marc Bourgeois' cooking is modern and the service is friendly in the small dining room.

Two other restaurants have a reputation for classic French food – the homely Pomme d'Or and the grander Laurier (see Where to Stay). On a simpler note, Le Jardin specialises in fresh fish from the river.

Restaurant de la Tour, 31 Nouvelle Place, Sancerre. Tel: +33 2 48 54 00 81

a Côte des Monts Damnés, Chavignol. Tel: +33 2 48 54 01 72

Auberge La Pomme d'Or, Place de la Mairie, Sancerre. Tel: +33 2 48 54 13 30

Le Jardin, 7 Rue des Ponts, St-Satur. Tel: +33 2 48 54 12 28

Visiting the region

Sancerre is two hours' drive from Paris. Alternatively fly to Tours and follow the N76 to Bourges. Ryanair flies to Tours daily from Stansted.

Once in Sancerre, the signposted Route des Vignobles du Coeur de France is a reliable guide to the best views of the region. The section from Sury-en-Vaux to Sancerre via Verdigny, Chavignol and Amigny is the highlight of the tour, including the infamous Monts Damnés, a slope so steep that only the hardiest vignerons cultivate family plots here.

Some of the bigger names have swanky shops to promote their own wines. Vacheron, Alphonse Mellot and Joseph Mellot make their presence felt in the centre of Sancerre, while in Chavignol you will find Hubert Brochard and the mighty Henri Bourgeois.

The huge, modern winery at Bourgeois towers over the village. Tours, laid on by appointment and for a small fee, finish with a tasting of wines and cheeses in the original cellar.

Other cellars particularly worth visiting include the cave-like warren of Alphonse Mellot, right under the centre of Sancerre, and Domaine Vacheron down the hill in the old quartier des vignerons. Château du Nozay near Ste-Gemme is a delightful old house with chickens and geese running loose on the lawns and possibly the world's most colourful tasting room.

The only independent wine shop in Sancerre is L'Aronde Sancerroise, which sells wine from 17 notable producers, including Serge Laloue, François Cotat and Vincent Pinard.

The enlightening tutored tastings held here are an excellent way to get to grips with the region. The shop can also arrange tailor-made, guided tours for groups of six or more.

Henri Bourgeois, Chavignol. Tel: +33 2 48 78 53 20

Alphonse Mellot, 1 Rue Porte César, Sancerre. Tel: +33 2 48 54 07 41

Domaine Vacheron, 1 Rue du Puits Poulton, Sancerre. Tel: +33 2 48 54 09 93

Château du Nozay, Ste-Gemme Tel: +33 2 48 79 30 23

L'Aronde Sancerroise, 4 Rue de la Tour, Sancerre. Tel: +33 2 48 78 05 72

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