Them Demned Slopes - Les Caves Visit Bourgeois in Chavignol
Sancerre, famous wine, almost a brand in itself. Domaine Henri Bourgeois has been a reference in this region for many years. They have built their reputation not through compromise but through passionate desire for quality. The Bourgeois family have always looked forward, whilst remaining true to their heritage: the accumulated knowledge of ten generations of wine production. I was looking forward to seeing the fabled vineyards and tasting the wines in situ...
The hardy Caves de Perennials on this expedition had to rise before the crack of lark on windowpane to catch the ferry to Boulogne. I say ferry, it was a converted Australian troop carrier and someone had forgotten to tell the catering staff that you don’t need to make coffee out of spit and sawdust any more. Shudderingly vile.
On t’other side of la manche our journey was fitful to say the least. We were eventually snared in the hellish vortex that is the Paris ring road system, sat baking in the car, looking at metal gridlock, cursing colourfully. We turned off the motorway in an attempt to find another route and were sucked through the ‘burbs. Finally, the sheer welter of traffic dissipated and we reached Sancerre two and half hours late as the sun was dipping beneath the horizon radiating Turneresque smears of tangerine and mauves. Getting out of the car, stretching our crumpled legs and inhaling the cooling air was a tonic - it smelled of pure green, of bottled hedgerows, of Sauvignon in the offing. The hotel where we lodged, called the Panoramic, sits on a spectacular bluff overlooking one of the main valleys in Sancerre towards an amazing patchwork quilt of vineyards. Needless to relate all our views looked prosaically onto the street. The hotel receptionist seemed to take curmudgeonly delight in this fact.
We repaired to a small restaurant, La Cote des Monts Damnes (chef: Jean-Marc Bourgeois), in Chavignol, a pretty village (strike up the Jean de Florette music) of 180 souls (count ‘em) and ate a lovely three course meal. Cuisine is mainly based on local classics with also contemporary dishes like “la tagliatelle géante de crottin au beurre de muscade” (pasta with goat cheese), “la crème de châtaignes”, “les beignets de magrets fumés et oeufs pochés”, “la dorade royale cloutée au jambon de Sancerre”, “jus à l’échalote” or “la crème brûlée à l’avoine”. I had the goat’s cheese tagliatelle followed by rognons (lambs’ kidneys) and a pear souffle. And cheese, natch. And rather a lot of wine, natch, natch. Apparently, it is the end of the Crottin season so all we had were some nubbly-chalky end bits of cheese. After noshing and slooshing we returned to the metropolis of Sancerre (population 2000) and went to their version of bar/nightclub where we played darts and pool and generally made merry. Then back to the hotel, where I opened the door to my room, stumbled in slightly and switched on the light. Nothing happened. I tried a few other switches. Nada. Thinking I simply had to insert my card into one of the light switches I started to ram it in blindly to anything that jutted from the wall. When these efforts floundered I resorted to stumbling and crashing around in the dark giving it the full profanisaurus of curses, after which bruised shins dictated a more circumspect approach, and, assisted by a little light from my mobile which needs became a surrogate torch, I set about my various ablutions.
Crawled into bed and woke up three hours later with all the room lights blazing. Either the hotel had had a power cut, or the lights were on a timer (why wouldn’t you have the lights working at night?) or they just plain hated us perfidious Albions (no view, no lights), surely the most cherishable explanation in the circumstances. Two of my colleagues had originally put into a room that stank to high heaven if you had the air conditioning on (and stank if you didn’t). They were given an alternative room which stank of cigarette smoke so they couldn’t smell the drains! It may have been a three star hotel (three black holes, more like) but I would award them my maximum mark of Five Warty Towels (sic).
Onto The Main Biz…
Sancerre (with its neighbour Pouilly) is the spiritual home of Sauvignon, although a hundred years ago more Pinot Noir was actually planted. How times change. Our producer, Domaine Henri Bourgeois, is the single biggest private domaine in the whole appellation with about 70 hectares of vineyards planted on a variety of soils such as Kimmeridgean clay (lit, fossilized oyster shells - you can break them open and find ammonites), chalk, limestone and silex, otherwise known as flint. Each terroir confers a signature note or accent to the flavour of juice and thus the wine. The domaine is passionate about preserving the authenticity and diversity of the vineyards, so each Sancerre that is made, despite the fact that it comes from the one grape variety, is markedly different in style and structure, to another.
In 1950, the Henri Bourgeois estate consisted of a mere two hectares. Today, his sons have expanded the domaine to seventy hectares of vines, judiciously situated among the best slopes of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. The mission statement is clearly articulated: “Our passion for wine inspires us to give the best to the vine and the vinification. Our family tradition, passed through generations, is based on respect of the terroir and winemaking. At Domaine Henri Bourgeois we are committed to producing the finest Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé wines. This means using the best of tradition with the best of modernity. For example, separate vinification of individual parcels, gravity feed-based system in our cellars and close monitoring of the wines from the lees to the bottling are characteristic of the “Bourgeois quality” and our preoccupation with perfection.”
Next day we toured the vineyards, revelled in the pastoral scenery and basked in the warm late summer glow. Arnaud Bourgeois (with Frederic Sureau) was our guide, as we began atop the iconic Mont Damnés vineyard and proceed to rattle through the various terroirs in an old jalopy (okay it was a white van – not vin – van). The vines will apparently need two more weeks of this kind of weather to rescue the vintage which has been extremely difficult. A hail storm in June destroyed 15% of the crop. The way to understand wine as far as I am concerned is to look at the terrain, sniff the air and pick up the rocks and roll them about your palm and also to pop a grape or two on your tongue and taste the difference in texture of skin and quality of juice from different plots of land. It tells you the product in the bottle is the end of a very long story beginning with the geology and microclimate of the region, includes the art, the heart and the graft of the vigneron and ends with the vinification process that translates all the various elements into liquid form.
To understand Sancerre you have to understand the specificity of terroir. The main ones are as follows:
Caillottes (pebbly limestone soils) are composed primarily of chalk with a very small amount of earth. Grapes grown on these soils produce very aromatic wines with floral, fruity, boxwood and citrus notes. Soft when young, they are lively and often the first wines of the vintage ready to drink.
White Soils are made up of clay and limestone. These soils slow down the maturation of the grapes permitting a later harvest and healthier grapes. The wines also evolve more slowly. Discreet and nervous for the first few months, these wines begin to express themselves the summer following the harvest. Aromas evoke floral, fruity or at times vegetal nuances. Gradually the palate rounds and the wines gain body with age. The best vintages have remarkable aging potential. Balance and refinement are the foundations of these wines.
Flint, locally called “cailloux”, is characteristic of the vineyards alongside the Loire River. The stony soil (round pebbles) acts as a kind of storage heater accumulating the sun’s heat and radiating it to the vines thus quickening the grapes maturation. The spicy aromas, at times quite strong in young wines, diminish after several weeks. While young, the closed character of the wines lend themselves well to aging and they develop particularly interesting expression after a year in the bottle. Like gun-flint, these wines are powerful and cutting.
Kimmeridgean Marls are an original and interesting feature of the Sancerre terroirs. Thanks to its unique soil composition (fossilized oyster shells), the “Côte des Monts Damnés” is one of the most famous slopes of the Sancerre appellation. Only a dozen or so wine makers out of four hundred have the privilege to possess a parcel of this soil. Bourgeois owns 40% of the vineyard holding – this will increase to 60% after another parcel has been purchased. Having a strong personality, the wines require a little patience and will only fully express their character after a few years in the bottle. Well-balanced, soft and round, they provide a delicious cornucopia of exotic fruit aromas.
How do the Bourgeois wines fit in with Les Caves de Pyrene pur vin approach? Well, the winemaking is driven by the desire to evoke terroir and vineyard expression and the idea is to capture the fragrances and flavours of the juice and not allow oxidation or anything to happen that will “funk” the wine up. The vineyards are tidy; in a natural vineyard you would expect more vegetative growth, but having said that grass is being sown gradually between the vines (fescue, clover, alfalfa, meadow grass and even rye seeds). This helps to restrict vine growth naturally and reduce yield, protects the vineyard from erosion and promotes organic life. Philosophically speaking, the quest for perfection or balance is perhaps at variance with natural wine which does not profile wine by its aromatic appeal. Bourgeois wines accurately deliver the nuances of the Sauvignon grape within the milieu of each terroir. Sebastien Riffault’s Akmenine” is also terroir-specific “but the Sauvignon is liberated from its interpretive role in proceedings by the non-interventionist wine-making. This makes for wild, frisky, risqué, unaccommodated wines, perhaps liberated, as Nicolas Joly would have it, from the onus of being “correct” or “good.”
It is a fine line. The delivery of faultless juice is the paradigm of one winery; the happily uncertain and natural congress of grapes and their environment is the objective of the other. The Bourgeois wines might be characterized as cool, delineated, focused and fine, whilst the wines from Riffault are individual, rustic, sulky, on the edge. In terms of purity how can one not love the expressive minerality of Antan and Jadis, the concentrated fruit of MD and the feminine elegance and purity of the La Demoiselle de Bourgeois? Beauty can derive from enlightened technique or from raw talent and to me the Bourgeois Sancerres arrive at their purity from a different angle.
One should admire the passion of a domaine with a proud tradition. The Bourgeois family never stands still. On the one hand they are trying to rediscover vineyards in Sancerre and styles of winemaking, on the other there is a commercial imperative to hit consistent quality. “Above and beyond all the technology and its refinements, the magic of our profession still rests predominantly with the human senses”. For the size of the operation one can identify clearly the human element. This is, after all, a family enterprise – and there is a restlessness to improve combined with sheer pride in the region.
Petit Bourgeois Blanc
Now bottled in screwcap on the space age bottling line “chai Bourgeois”. This was almost new world in its fruit expression with lively flavours of pomegranate and passionfruit and a zesty pink grapefruit edge.Petit Bourgeois Rouge
Pure Cab Franc. This red wine develops the harmonious notes of red fruits so representative of the Loire vineyards. Aromas of ripe strawberries, redcurrants, and cherries “sweeten” the hints of red pepper spice. A wonderful freshness and absence of tannin makes this wine delicate and easy to drink.Sancerre Blanc, La Vigne Blanche aka Les Baronnes
The hills and ridges separating the village of Chavignol from Sancerre are composed of clay and limestone chalk (65% clay and 35% chalk). “Les Baronnes” comes from this terroir so long planted with vines. Fermentation in thermoregulated stainless steel tanks at 15 - 18°c then aged for 5 months on its fine lees preserves the aromatic potential of this fine wine.Sancerre Blanc, Domaine Gerard Fiou
The Fiou Sancerre is grown on flint. The 07 has fine nervous citric acidity, although less weight than the Bourgeois wines. A lovely contrast though.Sancerre Le MD de Bourgeois
“Le M.D.” is a very steep south and south-east facing slope in Chavignol composed of Kimmeridgian marl (a soil made up of fossilized seashells and clay).Since the 11th century, noblemen would outbid one another just to possess a small parcel. During the harvest, only the very ripest grapes are hand-picked and carefully transported to the cellar where they are gently pressed to release their aromas. The must is cold-racked to naturally clarify, and fermentation takes place in thermoregulated stainless steel tanks at 15 to 18°C. The wine is then allowed to slowly mature on its fine the lees. The delicate tropical fruit aromas (a proof of ripe Sauvignon grapes) and clean mineral and fruity palate testify to Le MD’s pedigree as an exceptional wine from one of the finest slopes in the Sancerre appellation. The 2007 has an intense nose, the fruit is structured and fine, and the evolution in the mouth is excellent.Pouilly-Fume, Domaine Henri Bourgeois
This wine is from 25-45 year old vines grown on the chalky-clay soils of St. Andelain. This special parcel of vines is one of the last to be harvested in Pouilly-Fumé and the long maturation of the grapes gives the wine incomparable structure. After a gentle pressing and 24 hour settling of the juice, the wine ferments in stainless steel tanks at 15-18°c. This is followed by 5 months of maturation on its fine lees. The aromatic, floral and smoked nature of the Sauvignon grape variety is the most dominant aspect of this charmingly understated wine. It displays its elegance, fruitiness and roundness and is very persistent in the mouth.Pouilly-Fumé, La Demoiselle de Bourgeois
Made from a strict selection of the best Sauvignon grapes, La Demoiselle is harvested on the Kimmeridgean marls of Saint Laurent l’Abbaye, where the first vines of this AOC were planted. 85% of the wine is fermented in stainless steel vats at 15 to 18°c with the remaining 15% fermented in not bottled until the beginning of summer. From a plot of vines which is one of the last to be harvested. 10% in barrel – 1/3 of which is new; 1/3 one year old; 1/3 two year old. More feminine wine with delicate, tightly-wound shimmering acidity and a whiff of stoniness in the background.Sancerre Blanc, La Bourgeoise
La Bourgeoise is made from fifty year old Sauvignon vines growing on flinty slopes first worked by the monks of Saint Satur. A portion of the wine is fermented in tanks and the other portion in French oak barrels from the famous Tronçais forest. Patiently aged for 7 - 8 months on its fine lees in the oak barrel with periodic hand stirring of the lees (“batonnage”), La Bourgeoise is only bottled after achieving one year of tank and barrel maturation. The bottling is then followed by several months of additional aging in the Bourgeois cellars. Gun-flint aromas and spicy bouquet greet you, subtle wood flavours take over followed by an exotic spiciness. The richness and intensity of the flavour linger long and harmoniously on the palate. This Sancerre will age very well; you sense it requires both a period to integrate the various components and some top-notch nosh.Sancerre Blanc, Cuvée Jadis
Made from Sauvignon rose cultivated on 50+ year old vines on Kimmeridgean marl (on the Monts Damnés). After pressing, the juice is allowed two days of natural clarification by sedimentation. Next, the juice is placed in barrels and tanks. Alcoholic fermentation converts the natural sugars into the wine’s soul while the aromatic flesh of the grape creates its rich bouquet. Sancerre Jadis is racked and bottled in accordance with the lunar cycle and is a wine of great charisma; very aromatic and concentrated. The bunches of grapes are small and the berries well-spaced and not compacted. This morphology limits the development of rot and exalts the terroir. Complex and well-balanced the wine reveals aromas of exotic fruits (pink grapefruit, passionfruit) and honey.Sancerre Blanc, Cuvée d’Antan
Antan means in the old style and the objective is to make Sancerre that older generations would recognise. The wine is unfiltered, unfined and aged in old barrels. The grapes come from a 65+ year old vineyard first planted in 1936 where the soil is predominantly flint. Very small yield – around 35hl/ha, Fermentation in 4, 5 and 6 year-old oak barrels followed by maturation on very fine lees. Only two rackings are carried out (according to the lunar cycle) before bottling. This wine is full of aromas with delicate mineral nuances thanks to the intense fruitiness of the grapes. Concentrated, full and fine, equally excellent when young or when bottle aged up to six to eight years. Bourgeois recommend the following dishes as matches for the Antan: Roast lobster, turbot in meat sauce and spit-cooked sweetbreads with truffle sauce as well as Vacherin cheese from Mont Dore with dried pears.Sancerre Blanc, Cuvée Etienne-Henri
The Etienne Henri cuvée comes from the 60 year old vines on flinty-clay slopes. Thanks to his love for wood, ancestor Etienne (known as Henri) was the first in Sancerre to make a wine in new oak barrels.Such a method of vinification requires top-quality grapes for a successful marriage of wood and wine.Alcoholic fermentation is exclusively in oak barrels followed by 12 months of maturation on fine lees. The last vintage of this wine was 2003. The balance and complexity
is terrific for such a warm year.
With age many of the Bourgeois wines acquire an extra dimension – or several, shedding their austerity, swallowing the wood and filling out on the palate. Interestingly, it is often the lesser vintages that provide the best wines for ageing. We tasted the following memorable wines:
1999 La Bourgeoise
1998 Pouilly-Fume La Demoiselle
1997 Etienne Henri
All were excellent but the Pouilly-Fumé was a thing of beauty, lithe and silken, with lovely tension. The Etienne Henri had hints of truffle and honey. The Jadis was very citrussy but still tightly wound. La Bourgeoise was more yielding, revealing the trademark smoke and spice. Still plenty of bones in this wine.
After shovelling some delicious rillettes, terrine, pate and sausage into our diverse gobs and being generously presented with magnums of La Bourgeoise by Arnaud, it was time to crawl back into our various cars to Blightyland. A great trip, thanks to famille Bourgeois, highly informative and professional, but also friendly and fun.