Learning about wine has been (and continues to be) an interesting journey. I think I developed my initial tastes in wine based on what people I knew were drinking, so I can remember exactly who introduced me to oaky, buttery California Chardonnay, white Burgundy, and Sancerre. (All women I fancied, funnily enough.) It would be years later that I came to understand anything about those respective wine, such that white Burgundy is also Chardonnay. I remember a real revelation though when I encountered a bottle of red wine that had Sancerre on the label, and my mind was opened up to the fact it’s a region, not a grape. And with that memory in mind, today it’s a bottle of the more familiar colour from there, the Domaine Roger Champault Sancerre Le Clos du Roy 2008.
So yes, Sancerre is a region. I have personally verified that with a visit last July, and it’s well worth the trip. At the far eastern end of the Loire Valley, it’s arguably the best known of its subregions. The region stretches out to the north, west and south around the walled town of Sancerre itself, which sits atop a hill overlooking the surrounding area. To the east is the river, and across it is Pouilly-Fumé. The climate is continental, though slightly mitigated by the river, and the hillsides can provide favourable aspects. The soils are generally grouped into three classifications – the vineyard to the west are situated on clays and limestone, those near the town are on flinty soils, and in between is gravel and limestone.
As I alluded to earlier, Sancerre as a region produces more than just white wine – it covers the spectrum with reds and rosés as well. White wines, which constitute the vast majority of production, are varietal Sauvignon Blanc, while reds and rosés are made from Pinot Noir.
Most of my experience with Sancerre (in terms of drinking it) is in the context of eating shellfish. For me, there is something about facing a heap of crustaceans and bivalves atop a pile of crushed ice that makes me thirst for white Sancerre. This is strange for a few reasons. First, while many of the white wines from Sancerre have a flinty, minerally character that goes very well with the aforementioned heap of tastiness, some of the Sauvignon Blancs of Sancerre see oak treatment, which makes the pairing less obvious. Second, of all of the regions in the Loire, Sancerre is nearly the most distant from the sea, meaning any salt-water shellfish would be on a truck for hours before making it to a plate in Sancerre. And finally, the only time I actually had a picture postcard plateau de fruits de mer in France was in Nantes at La Cigale, at the opposite end of the Loire Valley and of course when in Nantes, one drinks Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine. (It was a wonderful meal, complete with a table full of locals who were happy to act as grandparents to my then eight month old daughter while my wife and I ate.)
I have in fact written up a Sauvignon Blanc recently, the Astrolabe, and I did talk a bit about the variety so I won’t repeat myself so quickly. However, as varietal Sauvignon Blancs from Marlborough and Sancerre are often held up as examples of how a grape can be very different depending on the terroir and the treatment, it’s worth having a quick compare and contrast, though in general terms, not of these wines specifically. For white wines of Sancerre, Jancis Robinson uses terms like racy, pungent, delicate, and perfumed. While not exactly austere, fruit is not the main thrust of the wine. Rather, people claim to be able to taste the limestone of the soil. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, can have much more evident fruit, with gooseberry, grass, bell pepper and cat piss being more common descriptors. Of course these are very broad strokes, and there are certainly winemakers in Marlborough expressing the terroir through their wines as there are those in France who strive to ride on the success of Marlborough with greater expression of fruit in their wines.
This producer was founded (at least in its current form) by the namesake, Roger Champault, though he was the fifth generation to work in the family business of growing vines and more recently producing wine in the Sancerre region. Now succeeded by his two sons, Laurent and Claude, who in turn are assisted by three workers, production is based on roughly 20 HAs of their estate. They produce nine wines – four each whites and reds, with a rosé rounding out the mix. This wine is made from vines based on limestone soil, and after fermentation spends some time on fine lees. I can’t tell from research if that time is spent in tank or barrel, but my notes suggest barrel.
In the glass this wine is clear and bright, pale gold with quick legs, with a fully developed character and medium plus intensity. It started out with a bit of yoghurt on the nose, which opened up into oak and mineral notes. On the palate it has notes of lemon, mineral, and more oak. It’s dry, with medium plus acid, medium plus flavour intensity, medium body, medium alcohol, medium plus length, and an oak finish. It has a very nice texture.
This is certainly a good wine in that it’s of good quality and well made, but unfortunately I’m drinking it a bit past it’s prime. As I was tasting it, if I had to guess the variety I would have started thinking it was Sauvignon Blanc but as it opened up it turned into a Chardonnay. I’m not sure which I liked more. While I certainly enjoy wines with a bit of age on them, and I don’t shy away from older whites, I’m fairly certain this was better a year or two ago and I wish I had been able to enjoy it then. So a bit of a shame to be drinking it when I was, but I wouldn’t hesitate to try a younger version in the future.