“Simplicity Is Luxury”
In parts one and two of our Loire Valley travelogue, Jing Daily visited seven wineries located throughout central France’s Loire Valley, a lush area whose weather, wildlife, and wine have, for centuries, attracted everyone from French monarchs to wine tourists. With French wine finding new converts in emerging markets like China, the Loire Valley and other lesser-known wine-growing regions in France are looking to follow in the footsteps of their much larger counterparts in Bordeaux and Burgundy. For Loire Valley winemakers in particular, an anticipated shift in drinking habits in China — from massive, bold Bordeaux-style reds to sparkling and still whites, rosés and more subtle reds — may work out very much in their favor. In the final installment of our three-part series, Jing Daily visits one famous town known for its white (and, increasingly, red) wines both in France and globally: Sancerre.
With regulations barring the import of wines with higher residual sugar being relaxed in China one year ago, high-end “brands” like Château d’Yquem expect their wines to catch on among well-heeled drinkers. So will the growing number of fashionable Chinese turning to sweet and dry white wines benefit winemakers in places like Sancerre? On the last day of our trip to the Loire Valley, we look to answer that question.
Day Four: Sancerre
On the last day of our trip to the Loire Valley, our group departed the small town of Beaugency for Sancerre, winding through picturesque country lanes and passing communities that have been producing wine on a small, local scale for generations. With an enviable diversity of terroir, owing to soil that varies from chalky to flint-rich, cooler temperatures and rolling hills, Sancerre and its surrounding areas have been synonymous with lively, punchy Sauvignon Blanc and taut, mildly acidic Pinot Noir since the United States was a provincial backwater. Bypassing fog-shrouded towns like Bracieux, Lamotte-Beauvron and Vailly-s-Sauldre, we arrived in Sancerre and snaked through streets obviously built only wide enough for horse-drawn carriages, finding our way to the Maison des Sancerre, a museum of sorts dedicated to educating visitors about the history of the town and its famous wines.
At the Maison des Sancerre, we learned that the region’s preference for Sauvignon Blanc was originally tactical, as the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century virtually wiped out the Pinot Noir grapes for which Sancerre was originally known. With much of the area replanted with Sauvignon Blanc vines, and Sancerre white wines receiving AOC status in 1936, the city was closely linked with white wines, though its reds gained in both quality and favor throughout the 20th century. In the postwar years, Sancerre wines rose in popularity primarily in the Paris restaurant scene, and by the 1970s, the pairing of Sancerre white wine with Crottin de Chavignol goat cheese from the nearby town of Chavignol achieved near ubiquity on France’s more fashionable tables. In more recent years, the area has increased its exports to overseas markets like the United States, northern Europe and the UK.
Now, with Asian demand rising, Sancerre winemakers are looking to get on the radar screen of Chinese, Korean and Japanese wine lovers, promoting to these drinkers the “food-friendliness” of their wines.
Leaving the Maison, heads full of new knowledge, we traveled down country roads to the northern outskirts of Sancerre, passing vineyards perched upon precarious cliffs — “They need special machines to pick their grapes,” Guillaume told us, pointing at one particularly angular example — and winding down narrow lanes into the small village of Sury en Vaux. A blip on the map, with less than 1,000 inhabitants, Sury en Vaux outwardly resembles any other provincial central French town, with its 19th century church and flocks of sheep, but the town hides one of Sancerre’s best-kept secrets, the family winery Domaine Raimbault-Pineau.
Founded in 1991 by husband-and-wife team Jean-Marc and Sonia Raimbault — the former a 10th-generation winemaker — Domaine Raimbault-Pineau produces around 1,800 hectoliters (48,000 gallons) of Sancerre per year on its 20 hectare (49 acre) estate, buying another 2,000 hectoliters (53,000 gallons) worth of Sauvignon Blanc grapes from surrounding farms and vinifying it on site. As Sonia Raimbault told us, wines currently produced by Domaine Raimbault-Pineau include Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Rosé and Sancerre Rouge, and the company exports about 80 percent of its production to Europe and the United States. Asked for more detail, Sonia said her top three export markets are currently Switzerland, Germany and the U.S., with the U.K. a distant fourth. Whereas Domaine Raimbault-Pineau sold as many as 70,000 bottles per year in the U.K. before the financial crisis, Sonia sighed, they sell only around 10,000 there now.
Sonia next produced a range of bottles from beneath the tasting area at Domaine Raimbault-Pineau’s 75-year-old, chalk-hewn cellar (built by Jean-Marc’s grandfather). Thick with the acrid scent of fermenting wine, the cellar stores finished bottles as well as the oak-barreled Sancerre Cru that currently comprises only around 10 percent of the domaine’s white wine output. Tasting Sonia’s 2010 Sancerre — the winery’s flagship wine, accounting for nearly 75 percent of total output — we noted commonalities seen among many wines in the Loire Valley. With vines grown on a mix of clay and chalk (much like Guillaume’s Anjou at Chateau Midouin), Domaine Raimbault-Pineau’s Sancerre is both fruity and slightly mineral and acidic, with restrained residual sugar and a hint of sourness. Guided in the tasting by Sonia, we began to understand why Sancerre has, for generations, promoted its wines as a perfect companion to a meal with friends. We mentioned that Domaine Raimbault-Pineau’s Sancerre wouldn’t seem out of place served alongside Cantonese or southeast Chinese cuisine. “Maybe,” Sonia laughed.
Next we tasted Sonia’s delicious Pouilly-Fumé, a dry white wine made from grapes grown in a nearby town, which displayed lower acidity and a more melon-forward nose, and a 2010 Pinot Noir Rosé, less fruity or acidic than the Rosé we tasted at Pierre & Bertrand Couly one day prior. Next, we sampled Domaine Raimbault-Pineau’s unbarrelled Sancerre Rouge, a clear and mildly tannic red, and their terrific 2009 barrelled Pinot Noir, aged one year in new oak barrels and in the bottle for another year. This dual aging, Sonia said, ensures an equalization of the oak and fruit notes, producing in the end a smooth, surprisingly crisp and smooth red that wouldn’t seem out of place served at a light lunch.
Finishing the tasting in high spirits, we asked Sonia if Domaine Raimbault-Pineau plans to increase its exports to new markets like China, given that previously reliable markets like the United Kingdom have turned more to lower-priced South American and Australian wines. “Of course,” Sonia smiled, adding the caveat that she — like many Loire Valley winemakers — thinks it’ll take time for Chinese wine drinkers to look beyond marquee labels and seek out boutique producers.
Departing Sury en Vaux and driving north towards Paris, we began to reflect upon our experience in the Loire Valley — the new friends made, wines never before tasted, and experiences never before enjoyed. Passing through forests previously used by the French royalty, and now by its elite, for hunting, we began to notice the chalky white and slate grey houses that typify the Loire Valley gradually transitioning to red brick and timber, a shift that our guide Guillaume Roussy said was more than simply aesthetic. Whereas the winemaking areas we visited on our trip were generally characterized by flavors and aromas influenced by soil heavy in slate, clay, silex and chalk — chalkstone being the preferred house-building material and, as the result of mining, the walls of the typical Loire Valley underground cellar — the towns north of Sancerre sit upon land higher in flint, an unsuitable stone for construction.
Just as the minimalistic and monochromatic exterior of the average Loire Valley home transitioned into the busy, brick-faced houses in towns like Fontainebleau, and we approached the hovering chaos of Paris, we began to reflect upon the distinctly different nature of the Loire Valley’s people, its wines, its history. People in the Loire Valley are, as Christian Chabirand of the Prierure La Chaume told us, balanced above all else — rarely temperamental, never extreme, much like their weather and their wines. As the green small-town scenery flying by became the grey of a bustling metropolitan capital, with all the honking and traffic that this entails, Christian’s words rang even truer. The beauty of the wines and winemakers we encountered during our four days in the Loire Valley stemmed not from their flamboyance but from their lack thereof: their absence of pretense, their honesty. We mentioned this to Guillaume, at this point occupied with navigating thick Parisian traffic in the driver’s seat.
“Luxury is simplicity,” Guillaume said, smiling widely. “That’s something you can tell your readers in China.”
Special thanks to Soriya Jamet, Guillaume Roussy of Château Midouin, Christian Chabirand of Prieuré la Chaume, Georges Verdier of Château de l’Oiseliniere, Florent Baumard of Domaine des Baumard, Bertrand Couly of Pierre & Bertrand Couly, Richard Desouche of Château de Chaintres, Frederik Wilbrenninck of Moulin Touchais, and Sonia Raimbault of Domaine Raimbault-Pineau.