Eat/Drink/Live – Sancerre, France
Recently, a friend of mine, sipping a glass of Sancerre, suggested to me that it is a “conversation” wine. She was right. Enticing aromas and flavours of pineapple, lime, pear and green apple intermingling — there was a lot to talk about. “No,” she said. “I meant that it has the complexity to keep your nose happy, yet it’s easy-drinking enough that it doesn’t take over our conversation.” Oh … of course.
Sancerre, both the place and the wine, has captured my imagination. This city-on-a-hill, lying neatly in the centre of France’s Loire Valley and casting a romantic glow over the vine-covered slopes, beckons adventure. So, here we go!
Want to get a taste of quintessential Sancerre? Take a nibble of one of its most famous local products, Crottin de Chavignol from Fromagerie Dubois-Boulay, a goat’s-milk cheese that’s so famous a festival has grown up around it. The first weekend in May is reserved for the Fête du Crottin de Chavignol, held in the Caves de la Mignonne (literally a cave, set with tables and spectacularly lit).
But let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that you’re hungering for something a little bit different. Then you should definitely take time to savour Andouille de Jargeau, a pork-and-tripe specialty that has been a local favourite for about 800 years. Benoît Roumet, director of the Bureau Interprofessionel des Vins du Centre, has lived in Sancerre since 1994. He took time out of his day to lead me through the finer points of the region’s food and wine traditions. He admits, “My personal favourite is pâté berrichon. [It’s made] from veal and pork meat [and] cooked with hard-boiled egg in pâte brisée. You serve that just a little bit hot with a glass of white wine and … enjoy.”
Time for dessert! You can’t leave Sancerre without indulging in tarte tatin. Let the sweet scent of fresh baked goods lead you along Nouvelle Place to Guillaume Gaucheron’s pâtisserie for a cup of tea and a slice of that famous, subtly sweet upside-down apple pie that originated in the Loire Valley.
eat with the locals
La Taverne du Connétable, 1 Nouvelle Place
Auberge Joseph Mellot, 16 Nouvelle Place
Auberge L’Écurie, 31 Nouvelle Place
La Pomme d’Or, 1 Rue de la Panneterie
“We arrived [at Restaurant La Tour] on a Tuesday, lunchtime, after walking up from Saint-Satur from our rented canal boat. First to arrive not well dressed and were very pleasantly welcomed. A glass of Champagne and a decision to go with the degustation menu, €60 or €80 with wine. Six courses plus amuse-bouche. Each course superbly presented and explained with accompanying Sancerre wines. Sea bass with coconut, lime and lemon grass broth to sustain many great memories. That with fresh crab and honey, prawn tartare, cod, pigeon and a great dessert to finish. Lucky to meet the chef who clearly understood how to produce great food. Service was perfect.” Trip Advisor
Courtesy of the French Government Tourist Office.
1 lb veal
1 lb slab bacon
1 lb puff pastry dough
4 hard-boiled eggs, or more as needed, cut in half
1 egg, beaten
1. Chop veal and bacon, and combine in a bowl with salt and pepper.
2. Roll out the dough into 2 rectangles, one larger and the other slightly smaller.
3. Place the meat and the halved hard-boiled eggs, round side up, on the larger rectangle of dough. Cover with the other piece of dough. Fold the sides over; wet them with a little water to make them stick.
4. Make slits in the dough, between the eggs, to allow vapour to escape as it cooks.
Brush top and sides with beaten egg, and cook in a 375°F oven for approximately one hour.
“Sancerre’s dramatically simple, piercing Sauvignon flavours of gooseberries and nettles were initially introduced into the bistros of Paris as a sort of white wine equivalent of Beaujolais, but by the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sancerre was regarded as the quintessential white wine for restaurants around the world.”
Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion To Wine
What makes Sancerre so special? This is a place that measures only about 22 square kilometres, yet it’s a city that’s able to produce up to 16 million bottles of sought-after wine every year. Most people in the know will tell you that the terroir is what makes it so. Cold winters, hot summers — it’s why Sauvignon Blanc is the main grape cultivated here, says Roumet.
The vines sink their roots into three types of soil, depending on where in the area they happen to be growing. Limestone covers 40 per cent of the area; 45 per cent is made up of a clay-limestone mix; and a flint-and-clay combination takes care of the remaining 15 per cent. “Combined with the exposition of the slopes, it gives to Sancerre a mosaic of different conditions and … a lot of differences in the wines, sometimes very small and sometimes very important,” Roumet suggests. Granted, the facts may indeed indicate that the terroir here has everything to do with producing great-tasting wine. But I can’t help but think there may well be more to it than just that. Perhaps that friendly French joie de vivre inspires great things. There’s no denying that the winemakers here, and the wine lovers that support them, know a thing or two about coaxing the best from nature.
Mention Sancerre and everyone automatically assumes one thing: “white wine and only that,” says Roumet, matter-of-factly. Actually, the region grows its fair share of Pinot Noir. Easily found in every eatery throughout the region, the red and rosé produced here have only gained an international following within the last 10 years or so. Though hard to find in Canada, La Moussière, made by Alphonse Mellot, whose family has been making wine on the southwestern slope of the city since at least the 16th century, is certainly worth a taste. You’ll find them at 1 Rue Porte César.
Domaine Sylvain Bailly Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($24.95)
Domaine des Charmilles Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($21.95)
Domaine de la Rossignole L’Essentiel Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($24.95)
“What sticks in my mind the most about the area — outside of the great wine and local food — is the landscape. The Loire Valley, at least from my vantage point, had seemed rather flat and uniform. Things changed dramatically when I got into Sancerre. It reminded me a bit of Tuscany with the rolling hills draped with vines and plunging valleys.” Tod Stewart
Anyone who knows me understands that I possess no sense of direction whatsoever. Maps? Oh, sure, they help. It must be guided, group travel all the way for me, right? Not even close. You see, I don’t actually find this trait (or lack thereof) to be a deficit. In a car or on foot, wandering around lost is the best way to explore a new place and see aspects of it that you might otherwise miss. Sancerre may be small, but getting disoriented is not impossible. The city’s streets meander and criss-cross like some elaborate cobweb.
Walk or bike this quiet city all the way to the Maison des Sancerre to learn how this now-famous wine region survived the devastating phylloxera outbreak of the late 19th century. Then, hike up to the stunning Tour des Fiefs set atop the highest part of the city. The stone tower is all that remains of a 14th century castle. Climbing up 195 steps to the summit might seem like a crazy thing to do at any time, let alone in the middle of a hot summer day. But brace yourself. The panoramic view of the city, its vineyards and the Loire River is breathtaking.
Wondering what the best part of the trip is? Rubbing elbows with the locals at Chez Gérald (Le Bar des Arcandiers) gets my vote. Here, any day but Wednesday when the bar is closed, you can eavesdrop on the local affairs as winemakers and city councillors each hold their meetings.
Paddle the Loire by canoe
Visit the Belfry of St Jean
Attend the Foire aux Vins de France festival, Caves de la Mignonne, the last weekend of August