By guest columnist Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor
Whenever I'm in France for tastings or business trips, I try to squeeze in a couple of days to explore wine regions I have yet to visit firsthand. The purpose is twofold: to gain an appreciation of the wines in their native setting and to get the lay of the land from which they come.
A couple of weeks ago, as the huge Vinexpo trade fair drew to a close in Bordeaux, tasting director Bruce Sanderson and I grew anxious to proceed on a journey to a region familiar to us only from books: the Loire Valley communes of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, best known for wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape.
We left Bordeaux early and proceeded partly on the speedy autoroutes but mostly on slower local roads. Early on, I (being the designated navigator), missed a key exit, and we had to double back almost all the way to Bordeaux. It cost us valuable time, given the fact we had a noon appointment in Pouilly-Fume with that region's idiosyncratic vigneron, Didier Dagueneau.
We drove through deepest France, past Angouleme, Limoges and Chateauroux, catching a glimpse of the great Limousin oak forest from which the staves of the famous wine barrels are lumbered. The pace on the local roads slowed, and we got in touch with Dagueneau to tell him we'd be late. Our spirits were flagging a bit from too many hours on the road until we broke out of the forest and saw our first extensive vineyards since Bordeaux. Soon, the broad expanse of the Loire River valley was upon us.
Dagueneau's winery is located in the small hilltop village of St.-Andelain, which is dominated by a medieval church spire and affords a breathtaking view all the way across the Loire to the heights of the much larger town of Sancerre, to the west.
Once we found him, it was soon clear what he wanted to show us first. "Do you want to go to the vineyards?" he asked. We quickly agreed and were off.
Dagueneau practices a completely organic method of farming, using no pesticides in his vineyards, plowing them with two Percheron draft horses and choosing manure over petrochemicals as his fertilizer of choice. He castigates other vignerons in the region for their reliance on chemicals, especially the herbicides used to kill weeds between the neatly trimmed rows of rolling hillside vineyards.
This iconoclasm comes at a price, however. Dagueneau's criticism is not appreciated by most of his neighbors. This is a fairly remote region in France, and the small-town ethos reigns. Yet the proof is in the pudding. Dagueneau made the best dry white wine from the Loire in a recent tasting report by New York bureau chief Thomas Matthews: his 1995 Pur Sang Pouilly-Fume scored 95 out of 100 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale; it is made in a ripe style like a great white Bordeaux.
In one vineyard Dagueneau is trying to grow grapes on their own roots. This is risky because any European grapevine that isn't planted with an American rootstock is susceptible, if not doomed, to infestation with the deadly phylloxera root louse. Yet Dagueneau is interested to see what type of wine the grapes will make. As we walked between these rare vines, he picked up two rocks and rubbed them together. "Smell this," he said, and I detected a faint odor of matchsticks. "Silex [flint], that is the key to my wines," he added. Indeed, his vineyards seem like rubblefields of flint, with a bit of soil mixed in for mortar.
Across the river in Sancerre we visited Pascal Jolivet, who appears more businesslike and controlled than his counterpart. His modern winery sits at the base of the small mountain that is crowned by the old fortress town of Sancerre. We could see its ramparts as we met Jolivet in the parking lot. He had just arrived from Vinexpo as well, but despite the long drive, he quickly took us to the cellar to offer a vertical tasting of his many wines.
They range from an outstanding 1995 Sancerre, which is both crisp and rich, to his top-of-the-line 1994 La Grand Cuvee Sancerre, a powerful and distinctive white that has tannins reminiscent of a red. Indeed, Jolivet eventually offered us the premier version of the cuvee from 1985. It held its age well and, while it tasted mature, it was still quite lively and flavorful. While I mostly preferred his younger wines, I was impressed by the longevity and focus of some of his older selections.
Jolivet has known Dagueneau from the days when both were teenagers. Now they are both middle-aged and, while they pursue different styles of winemaking, they are both leaders in their region. Jolivet hadn't talked much to Dagueneau since their youth, but he hopes to continue to keep in contact with him after recent conversations. Unlike some of his neighbors, Jolivet respects Dagueneau's iconoclasm and the wines he produces.
As we left the cellar, the cool, wet air was refreshing. It had just stopped pouring cats and dogs, and yet little water had pooled. I soon understood why. Jolivet took us on a tour of his vineyards, which ring the small village of Bue to the south. We drove up an embankment, and he picked up a rock. It was calcaire, a chalky limestone through which water can drain quickly.
Later that night, Sanderson and I tasted a California Chardonnay we had brought from Vinexpo. While rich and buttery, it paled in comparison to the intense Sauvignon Blancs of Didier Dagueneau and Pascal Jolivet. I realized that these wines were not only of a place, but also reflective of the men who made them. They also gave me a new standard of quality by which to judge all future Sauvignon Blancs.
Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor of Wine Spectator, is sitting in for vacationing Web columnist James Laube. Laube, a senior editor of Wine Spectator magazine, has written three books on California wine. Check this space every Monday for his views on the latest in the wine world. And if you missed a week, or want to reread a piece, back editions are available in the Column Archive.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions