Just before I left for my recent vacation, I sat down with Pascal Jolivet. The Loire vintner wanted to show me a small vertical of one of his top single-vineyard bottlings of Sancerre, Le Chêne Marchand.
The soft-spoken Jolivet, a young-looking 51, has helped bring Sancerre greater recognition here in the U.S. market—his wines are prominent in many restaurants. As a young man, he broke away from his father’s Loire-based Champagne marketing company, buying a rundown négociant business for just 15,000 euros in the late 1980s. Counting the late Gérard Jaboulet as well as François Faiveley among his mentors, Jolivet slowly built up his business, buying his first vineyard in 1992.
"I went in reverse," said Jolivet. “Starting as a négoce and buying juice, and then eventually buying vineyards. Most people do it the other way around.”
Today, Jolivet owns 30 hectares of vines and has contracts for an additional 50. In total, he produces 900,000 bottles a year of consistently very good to outstanding Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, as well as a very good value-priced Sauvignon Blanc from neighboring Touraine, called Attitude.
I, probably like most people, prefer my Sauvignon Blancs on the young side, with rare exceptions. It’s a point Jolivet agrees with. “That’s true for 80 or 90 percent of Sauvignon Blancs,” he said, but he feels a few examples shine with age.
Jolivet counts his wines among that smaller percentage, saying that he doesn’t even enjoy his own wines for the first six months or so after bottling. It’s a trait he connects to his vinification method.
“When the grapes are healthy, we don’t use sulphur before the fermentation. There’s no clarification and of course we use just natural yeast. So that, combined with long lees contact and a long fermentation, and we are a little on the reductive side,” said Jolivet of his methods, which have remained virtually unchanged over the years.
Jolivet has just 1.02 hectares of vines in the Le Chêne Marchand vineyard (the most prominent bottling comes from Lucien Crochet, who is the largest holder with 4 hectares). Jolivet’s 30-plus-year-old vines are planted on chalk soils that face southeast, and on average he produces 500 cases a year of this cuvée.
It was an enlightening vertical; none of the wines were outright tired or showed any overt oxidative notes (the wines were provided directly from Jolivet’s cellar and were not tasted blind). And furthermore, several of them actually benefit from time in the glass, unwinding from taut herb and mineral notes into more inviting lemon curd and verbena hints, lending evidence to Jolivet’s theory that his slightly reductive methods help preserve the wine through the aging process.
Jolivet's Le Chêne Marchand currently retails for about $35. I formerly rated the current 2006 and 2007 vintages 90 and 89 points, respectively, in previous issues of Wine Spectator.
Sancerre Le Chêne Marchand 2004
Shows some sharp herb notes up front, but quickly turns slightly creamy on the palate, with a stony finish that lets chamomile and citrus notes linger. Still slightly crisp in the end.
Sancerre Le Chêne Marchand 2002
Shows a whiff of smoke, with a range of chamomile, flint and citrus peel notes that are very long. Lovely floral, lingering finish, with excellent balance and precision. Drinking beautifully. The wine of the flight, and “The best balanced vintage of the last 10 years,” said Jolivet.
Sancerre Le Chêne Marchand 2001
Still bright, with floral, fleur de sel and thyme notes that linger persistently on the finish. Fleshes out nicely in the glass.
Sancerre Le Chêne Marchand 1999
Quite ripe, this stands out with a hint of petrol and quince on the nose, followed by creamy lemon curd and verbena notes. Tied with the 1995 for second place in this flight. Jolivet noted he hasn’t tasted this vintage in a few years, and its ripe profile surprised him. “1999 was a rather warm year,” he said.
Sancerre Le Chêne Marchand 1995
Plumpest of the flight, but still well-defined, with quince, grapefruit, persimmon and verbena—echoes of a Chenin Blanc almost—all backed by nice, nervy underlying acidity.
Sancerre Le Chêne Marchand 1994
Light, with paraffin texture pierced by a citrus peel note, and a bony profile winning out on the finish.
Sancerre Le Chêne Marchand 1993
Prominent herb and purple asparagus notes, with taut acidity and a long, almost salty finish. The boniest of all the wines in this flight, and perhaps a bit too lean in the end. A tough year, and the first bottling for this cuvée.