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Destination: Sancerre

On the trail of Sauvignon Blanc and chèvre in France's Loire Valley

William Echikson
Posted: May 17, 2000

About an hour and a half due south of Paris, traveling by car, the landscape turns flat and featureless. Many of the villages have emptied, their buildings decaying, as the inhabitants have left to search for jobs in the cities. Small farms, with a few cows, chickens and cereals, are shutting down. The land isn't rich enough to support modern, intensive cultivation. This is France's lonely heart. * But suddenly, a dramatic hill looms ahead. There are ramparts, beautiful buildings and a town square full of hustle and bustle, with bars and restaurants. From on high, the view spreads across chalk ridges covered with vineyards, while in the distance, goats graze in fields beside the lazy Loire River.

This is Sancerre--home to some of France's tangiest, most thirst-quenching white wines, made from Sauvignon Blanc, and some of its tartest and tastiest goat cheeses, known as crottin de Chavignol. Though still a small town, Sancerre packs a gastronomic punch with its raucous bistros and romantic outposts of haute cuisine. Most of the restaurants in town and in the nearby villages offer numerous specialties that pair local wine and goat cheese.

Restaurant de la Tour, on La Nouvelle Place in the center of town, has long been Sancerre's top spot, sporting beamed roofs, elegant decor and tuxedoed waiters. Yet with a three-course menu for only $25--a half-bottle of wine included--La Tour is a bargain. During my Saturday lunch, the ground-floor dining room was filled with contented-looking customers, a happy mix of locals and tourists.

Judging from the surrounding tables, sticking to the local products was the best way to eat. I ordered goat cheese croquettes and was pleased to receive a salad dressed with a hot chestnut sauce and topped with snapping hot, golden-fried morsels filled with creamy goat cheese. Heaven. The crisp, fresh white wine from Henri Bourgeois, one of the region's best producers, added a bracing counterpoint. The Sauvignon Blanc, with its grassy bite, matched the creamy yet tangy cheese. Although this was close to wine-and-cheese nirvana, my investigation had only begun. I still needed to find the best raw ingredients, yet untouched by a chef's hand.

At the top of Sancerre's imposing hill stands the elegant Chteau de Sancerre. During the 16th century Wars of Religion, Sancerre became a Protestant redoubt, and Catholic troops razed the fortress. Today, the rebuilt 19th century castle, complete with elegant turrets and towers, is a full-blown winemaking operation which includes more than 70 acres of vines owned by the producers of Grand Marnier liqueur, the Socit des Produits Marnier-Lapostolle.

"There are 380 producers in the region, and we are the largest single grower," said chief winemaker Gerard Cherrier, a trim, smiling man dressed in fashionably rustic English Barbour. Thanks to the wine trade, he explained, Sancerre's population is holding steady at about 1,800.

Cherrier opened his impressive cellar and let me taste his 1999 Sancerre, still fermenting in large steel vats. I found it rather lean and tart, due perhaps to its youth or to the quality of the vintage. Perhaps, I hoped, a smaller operation would do better.

Friends had recommended winemaker Alain Gueneau in the hamlet of Sury-en-Vaux, only about 3 miles from Sancerre. I drove down the small departmental road, over a range of chalky hills. A number of signs beckoned in front of me. Gueneau's was the smallest. My hopes soared.

The handsome, tanned 40-year-old vintner greeted me in a workman's outfit of blue jeans and a denim work shirt. He told me that his domaine began with only 7 acres of vineyards; like most other Sancerre winegrowers, his father kept goats, cows and chickens and planted some of his fields with corn and wheat. "Our wine didn't have much value until recently," he explained. "So the philosophy was that you needed to produce a little of everything."

Parisian journalists and restaurant owners discovered these rough-hewn country wines during the 1960s, and Gueneau's father gradually moved toward becoming a full-time vintner. (The last goats were gone by 1981.) The son has now expanded his wine production to 35 acres. "We have to specialize," he said. Because wine is a more lucrative product than cheese, there's not even a single farmer still producing goat cheese in Chavignol, the village that gave its name to the product.

Before the phylloxera vine louse hit the region in the late 19th century, most Sancerre vineyards produced high-yielding, low-quality red wines. In recent years, these Pinot Noirs have become popular again. Gueneau opened a bottle. It was weak and reedy. "I agree that we produce much better whites," he said.

He uncorked a 1998 Sauvignon Blanc. It had a tangy, tingly bite, with a pleasant, grassy aftertaste. This affordable bottle (costing only about $7) would go well with goat cheese--and Gueneau called for his daughter to bring an aged round crottin.

But I was in for a surprise. "I have a more interesting wine," Gueneau insisted. He picked up a 1998 Vieilles Vignes and poured. Its color was golden and its taste rich and round, closer in character to the great white wines of Bordeaux than to a classic Sancerre.

"I use my best fields, cut my yields and use new oak barrels to ferment," Gueneau said. "Unfortunately, most customers still prefer the classic, sharp Sauvignon, so I produce only a little." What a shame, I thought. His Vieilles Vignes cost $10, but, in my mind, it had a complexity and finesse that made it easily worth the extra cost.

Was there a wine Gueneau preferred to marry with the local cheese? "Yes, my Vieilles Vignes with the aged, 3-month-old cheese." His rich, oak-aged wine possessed a lot of body, and so did the well-aged cheese. A younger cheese, he suggested, would go better with a younger, fresher wine.

These suggestions in mind, I turned my attention to the cheese factor of the Sancerre equation. The first mention of goats in Sancerre dates to 1573. The region's thin grass, forage and cereals are the perfect nutrition for the animal. In the Loire Valley, the French government has granted five different goat cheeses Appellation d'Origine Contrle status. The crottin de Chavignol is distinguished by its cylindrical shape and minimum of 10 days of aging.

"There are 350 certified producers in the region, and about half produce the cheese themselves, and the other half sell their milk to fromageries," explained Fabienne Atakpa of the Syndicat du Crottin de Chavignol.

My first cheese stop was at the Domaine des Garennes, just outside Sancerre on the road towards Bourges. A group of vintners had stopped making their own cheese, so they pooled their remaining goats and hired a young couple, Batrice and Patrick Peruchot, to produce the cheese and run a small snack bar. The Peruchots are friendly, and their cheese seemed fine. But their snack bar, overrun by busloads of tourists, was noisy, uncomfortable and unappetizing.

Surely, I thought, there must be a more authentic cheese farm. Madame Atakpa suggested that I visit Jean-Franois Blain, about 8 miles away in the village of Savigny-en-Sancerre. Blain, a soft-spoken, silver-haired 36-year-old, is a third-generation farmer, but he is the first in his family to concentrate almost entirely on cheese production. He has invested about $50,000 in a shining new fromagerie that meets strict European Union sanitary standards.

I caught up with Blain in the barn, feeding his 150 goats. "Come here, my girls," he said affectionately, encouraging the herd to line up to be milked by a modern, automatic machine. Blain milks twice a day--in early morning and late afternoon. The fresh, raw milk--never pasteurized--is poured into a large container, where it coagulates with the help of juice from animal intestines. After 24 hours it is poured into cylindrical molds.

Blain produces only about 615 rounds a day and sells them at the farm for a mere $1.25 each. Not long ago, Blain said, goat-cheese farmers were much wealthier than the local winemakers. No longer. Sancerre wine has gone up the value chain, but cheap, pasteurized goat cheeses have flooded the market. "Consumers need to taste the authentic product," Blain said. So he's opened his farm to visitors and built a small tasting room.

We began by sampling fresh cheese, only 24 hours old. It was creamy, almost like a yogurt. But a true crottin de Chavignol requires a minimum of 10 days of aging. Every morning and evening, Blain's mother-in-law turns the cheese by hand. After 10 days, the cheese becomes almost beige on its crust. "This is good for cooking," said Blain.

Then he picked up a blue-colored round, saying, "Here's the real crottin." Its color comes from bacteria that begin to appear after 15 days. "Too many people cut off the crust, but you need the mold to give it taste," he remarked. He picked up a knife and cut a piece. I tasted. The cheese was crunchy outside, smooth inside, and the blue crust gave it a strong, forestlike aroma.

Before we could continue eating, Blain interrupted: "We need some wine." The farmer rushed out and grabbed a bottle of 1998 Sancerre. We toasted. We ate some more cheese.

And we began discussing the best possible matches. The fresh wine seemed to go best with the fresh cheese. The richer, aged cheese needed an oak-barreled, richer wine such as Gueneau's Vieilles Vignes. But Gueneau sold only recent vintages. Blain suggested that Sancerre, usually thought of as a fresh wine, could age. I took a round of his cheese and went off to see a grower named Pascal Thomas, who opened bottles of rich, golden elixir dating from 1990. The wine was even richer and rounder than Gueneau's. "It could be even older," Thomas insisted. I bought half a case.

When I returned home, I opened one and paired it with Blain's bluest, oldest round of cheese. Perfection. Sauvignon Blanc and crottin de Chavignol are not just young lovers running off for a quick fling. They are a gastronomic marriage made to last.

RESTAURANTS

For its size, Sancerre has a surprising number of good restaurants. As an added bonus, they offer good value. Even at the top-rated La Tour, meals go for $20 to $30 per person. Appealing bistros and auberges serve regional specialties for much less. Most have extensive lists of the local wines, and almost all offer many variations on the local goat cheese. In Chavignol, the Cte des Monts Damnes came highly recommended, but it was closed for renovation during my visit.

RESTAURANT DE LA TOUR

Nouvelle Place, Sancerre Telephone (011) 33 2 48 54 00 81 Fax (011) 33 2 28 78 01 54 Open Lunch and dinner, daily Cost Entres $11$17 Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express

This is Sancerre's most elegant restaurant. Chef Daniel Fournier's cooking is light and inventive, not fussy or over-elaborate. The wine list offers regional specialties, mostly from larger merchants rather than small growers.

AUBERGE LA POMME D'OR

Place de la Mairie, Sancerre Telephone (011) 33 2 48 54 13 30 Fax (011) 33 2 48 54 19 22 Open Lunch and dinner, Tuesday, Thursday to Sunday Cost Entres $13$34 Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

This homey little auberge rivals La Tour for its cooking. Tucked on a side street away from the town hall, it's run by husband-and-wife team Didier and Veronika Turpin. Didier Turpin trained in France and England before deciding to return home, seven years ago. The wine list includes regional stars such as Didier Dagueneau and also has appealing choices from outside Sancerre.

LE CAVEAU DE LA MOUSSIERE

Nouvelle Place, Sancerre Telephone (011) 33 2 48 54 15 01 Fax (011) 33 2 48 54 36 30 Open Lunch and dinner, daily Cost Entres $7$10 Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

This bistro is the place to be seen in Sancerre. Young owner Yvan Fleuriet serves as matre d'htel and bartender. Both the menu and the wine list are basic; their chief virtue is their low prices. Also, the kitchen is open until midnight.

AU FIN CHAVIGNOL

Chavignol Telephone (011) 33 2 48 54 20 63 Fax (011) 33 2 48 54 19 22 Open Lunch and dinner, Wednesday to Sunday Cost Entres $7$14 Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

This traditional restaurant, run by Raymonde and Pascal Thomas, is rustic, with dark wood beams, chairs and tables. Pascal Thomas is a full-time vigneron and helps out his wife on busy weekends. The cooking is simple. The wine list offers some nice choices from Thomas' own vineyards and from his friends in the village.

LODGING

HOTEL PANORAMIC

Rempart des Augustins, Sancerre Telephone (011) 33 2 48 54 22 44 Fax (011) 33 2 48 54 39 55 Rooms 57 Suites 2 Rates $41$124 Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Lodging is a problem in Sancerre. There are four hotels in town; none will rival the Ritz any time soon. In three of them, the rooms are sad, with dark rugs, hideous wallpaper and worse.

Fortunately, the Htel Panoramic makes an acceptable base of operations. Its concrete 1970s construction is not charming, but the hotel is clean and comfortable, with a nice-looking swimming pool, and half the rooms have spectacular views overlooking vineyards. Breakfast, for an additional $8, is excellent, featuring fresh croissants.

CHEESE

Most goat-cheese farmers welcome visitors for guided tours and tastings and to buy their products. Usually it's not even necessary to call ahead, as somebody has to be at the farm anyway to take care of the animals.

FROMAGERIE DUBOIS-BOULAY

Place de l'Orme, Chavignol Telephone (011) 33 2 48 54 15 69 Open Monday to Friday, Nov. to March; daily, April to Oct. Credit cards None

The Dubois family has been producing goat cheese for three generations. Gilles Dubois, the present owner, is passionate about cheese. He doesn't have his own goats; rather, he collects freshly made cheese from producers such as Jean-Franois Blain and ages it in the cellars of his fromagerie. The shop offers other fine cheeses as well as the local crottin. There's also a small museum on the first floor explaining the history of crottin de Chavignol.

WINE

Most Sancerre growers allow visits to their cellars and offer free tastings, even on Sundays. It might be best to call ahead to make sure that the vintner is there. Most winegrowers don't have facilities for payment by credit card and accept only cash or French checks.

LA MAISON DU VIGNERON

Place de l'Orme, Chavignol Telephone (011) 33 2 48 54 24 24 Open Saturday and Sunday, Nov. to March; daily, April to Oct. Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

Cheese-maker Gilles Dubois has opened a small wine shop across the street from his fromagerie on Chavignol's main square. He is a connoisseur of Chav-ignol's best wines, and the shops features excellent, hard-to-find choices from growers such as Franois Cotat and Pascal Thomas. The shop also has a wide array of Riedel wineglasses, corkscrews and other wine accessories. Shopkeeper Chantal Marcilly is extremely friendly.

William Echikson has lived in Europe and written about food, wine and travel for the past two decades.

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