Sancerre, Chablis and Champagne – the top glasses
At the end of a wine tour, it’s good to stand back, review the experience as a whole and pick a few favourite glasses. There were 89 to choose from by my count.
Of course one wouldn’t want to give the impression it was all tasting and drinking. There was lots of eating and talking too. Away from the gastronomic for the moment, the most memorable parts were the land and the townscapes:
- the sharp slope on which Sancerre sits surrounded by its vineyards
- the mixture of cultivation and abandoned vines around Auxerre
- the beautiful town and grand cru vineyard at Chablis
- and, finally, on the way home, the prominent hills of the Côtes des Blancs in the Champagne region
- the channel tunnel immigration point perhaps does not make the grade, nor the worn streets of south London on the way to Victoria.
Some of the top glasses on this wine tour have already been commented on. Chateau de Tracy’s Haut-Densité with a bit of bottle age would certainly be one of them, as would the Jean-Marc Brocard’s Grand Cru Chablis Bougros 1998 with its rich apple and honey palate and dairy aromas. Then there were some wines we were able to taste in restaurants, opening up a much wider choice than just the wineries we visited.
Domaine Vacheron, Sancerre
Sancerre Blanc 2008, Domaine Vacheron – this domaine has one of the best reputations in Sancerre and tasting these wines you could see why. However, the wine may have been improved by being tasted during a supper which had begun in a state of high tension:
Were we as a group of 16 slightly weary wine travellers expected at the restaurant? Yes
Here are our choices from the short menu we had been told to have in advance. No, we are not doing that menu. But you did ask us to have it. OK let’s see … long negotiations, OK, yes.
But there was one portion short of the prescribed dishes. So can we have something else off the full menu? No, you have to choose from the short menu. Why?
Even longer negotiation in the sanctity of the bar area … finally agreed.
Then like a flash, after all the delays, the first courses appeared and this first wine, and was met with major relief all around. This is the ‘ordinary’ wine of the domaine, the product of biodynamic agriculture. It has fine citrus fruit, no oak but something perfumed or close to balsam. Some yeasty complexity. Very good indeed.
Sancerre Rouge 2008, Domaine Vacheron – good spirits restored by food and a good white, we also tried the stable-mate Pinot Noir. Not many of the reds here are that special. There is a large demand for them both locally (the only thing better than a splendid glass of white wine is the glass of white followed by an equally good red one) and in the Paris bistrot trade. But this one shows good Pinot Noir fruit, red berries and some farmyardy complexity, better extraction than many examples without overdoing it, very good. It just shows that, as so often, it’s the quality of the producer that matters, not the appellation on the label.
La Chablisienne, Chablis
The co-operative movement in France and elsewhere has on the whole been a real contribution to quality and fair prices to smaller growers and drinkers alike. And certainly the Chablis co-operative, now with a smart new glass-panelled HQ, is exemplary. At our final dinner we were able to taste a properly aged Grand Cru – no doubt chosen for its reasonable price even in a Michelin starred restaurant. I don’t normally go in for ‘creative’ manipulation of my photographs, but this I hope a fair exception. My excuse is that again I was using the trusty iPhone.
Chablis Grand Cru Les Blanchots 1998, La Chablisienne – a nice pale gold in colour (OK, not quite as startling as in the picture), honey notes, some richness on the palate, some characteristic stoniness, perhaps a bit lean on the finish. The wine was very good but not a perfect match for the spectacular ‘foie gras three ways’ dish accompanying – but that’s not the wine’s fault and the Chablis region is not famous for botrytised sweet wines which would have been perfect.
Vincent Dauvissat, Chablis
Again, an opportunity to try one of the great names of a region, this time in the town in Chablis.
Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2002 – barrel fermented in new barrels and using very low yields, this excellent wine had a mild vanilla outer layer over refined fruit with a fine palate to follow.
AC Irancy Rouge, Dauvissat 2005 – living proof that not all Irancy Pinot Noir comes in a rustic style. Superb nose of cloves and mid to dark cherry fruit, lively acidity, excellent.
Champagne André Jacquart, Vertus
As already touched on, the vineyards of central and northern France are very well arranged for the UK traveller, with Champagne a brilliant stopping off point for the otherwise lacklustre drive back home. Mind you, on a clear day, the sheer space and emptiness of the French countryside is a treat in its own right. André Jacquart, a family-owned and run firm, not to be confused with the large Jacquart brand, offers fine examples of producers’ Champagne. They may only produce three sparkling wines but the two white Champagnes we tasted here were among the most exciting wines we tasted on this whole trip.
Marie Doyard, the granddaughter of André Jacquart, also makes a superbly clear presentation. In 2004 she and her brother joined up the two companies from the two sides of the family and developed their plan. With a good-sized 24 hectares of top quality vineyard, they sell half the produce as juice to other winemakers while developing their own owner-producer wines, 100,000 bottles a year. There are no long term contracts for the juice they currently sell. As a result, they can decide from year to year how much to sell after harvest and how much to make into wine to their own standard. It’s a great plan – they want to create a niche product from their greatest asset, the top-quality Chardonnay vineyards in the villages of Mesnil and Vertus.
The new generation has taken three key winemaking decisions.
- Long ageing The minimum ageing for non-vintage Champagne is 15 months, here they keep the wines for four years. Three years’ minimum ageing for the Grand Cru similarly becomes five and a half years. But as she says, this means they are sleeping on euros. However, the wine will be that much better, the drinker will benefit and in time the name of the house will benefit.
- Make a proportion of the wine in old oak barrels. This is a decision to show the quality of the fruit, not to smother it in new oak flavour, to gain some complexity in the basic wine, rather than just ferment in stainless steel. You have to have absolute confidence in the quality of your fruit.
- Low dosage. One of the many decisions the Champagne maker is faced with is the amount of sweetness to add at the last minute before bottling. This is northern France after all and the base wines are high in acidity and, if they are going to be refreshing, ageable wines, they need all that acidity. So virtually all producers add some sugar at the last moment and the question is, how much. André Jacquart has gone for low amounts, between 4 and 5 grams per litre. Again, you have to have superb fruit to carry this off; otherwise, you will end up with a mouthful of fizzy lemon juice. The other benefit of low dosage is fine, tiny, bubbles.
And what are the resulting wines like?
Brut Experience, Blancs de Blancs Premier Cru, non-vintage but in fact 2005, mainly from the Premier Cru village of Vertus but with some Grand Cru grapes from Mesnil. 30% fermented in 2–4-year-old ex-Burgundy barrels. The picture shows rather well the lively, fine mousse. It leads on the nose with appetising yeasty, oak and sharp apple and citrus notes, in the mouth these are accompanied by some fatness and by excellent acidity. Fine long finish. Tasted at 9° C, that is, not too cold, this does everything you could hope for in a vivacious glass of Champagne.
Brut Grand Cru Mesnil Experience 2004 – from 20-year-old vines, 70% fermented in barrel, five years of ageing, four grams of dosage. Richer both on the nose and the palate, a subtler yeastiness offset by more powerful fruit, subtle in the mouth, white flowers and citrus. Can stand up well to quite rich food – which we tested more than adequately.
The company also produces a decent Rosé Experience (80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay), all fermented in oak but I didn’t think it shone in the same way – pronounced strawberry/raspberry fruit, good palate, fair. They also sell wine from Bordeaux where they have another winery altogether, extremely good value Merlot-based wines from Château Cantegrive. But the real excitement here is the two Blanc de Blanc, great examples of producer Champagnes and just the thing to take the edge of our heading back to the Channel tunnel.