When experience counts
Wine has a 2000-year tradition in the Upper Loire
The baron is out but the count is in when we visit the ancient winemaking village of Pouilly, in the upper reaches of the Loire Valley.
Baron Patrick de Ladoucette, the region’s best-known vigneron, runs his empire from Chateau du Nozet, a neomedieval, neo-Renaissance number with slate turrets that lend it a fairytale flourish. The baron makes very good wine, guide Laure Juvet assures us as we admire his castle and impeccable vines, but visits are by appointment and we don’t have one here. Ours is with the count.
A short drive through the oak forests of the d’Arcy woods brings us to the only-slightly-less-fanciful Chateau de Tracy, 15th-century seat of Comte Henry d’Estutt d’Assay. Despite his lofty title, Count Henry is a smiling, avuncular man with a penchant for bowties and the pleasures of the grape.
“I am going to try and convince you that we are making good wine,” he grins while setting out four wines for us to sample in the stone-walled cellar door.
All are superb but the star is Chateau de Tracy’s namesake Pouilly Fume, a sauvignon grown on very old vines and blended and bottled at the chateau. Each year the count assembles a blind- tasting panel, which includes his master of the cellar and master of the vines, to decide which parcels of sauvignon to blend for this special wine. Samples are graded from 1 (“not good”) to 3 (“the wine is excellent”), with fractions between. The final selection is done by the count and two respected wine advisers from Bordeaux, who help to put the process in perspective. “I know how to make wine,” the count explains, “but this is an outside look to your work, which is important.”
Unlike the hallowed wine houses of Burgundy, outsiders are welcome at the vineyards of the Upper Loire. Pouilly is, technically, in Burgundy, but its wineries are mostly family owned so visitors can drop by and meet the maker.
Access is even easier with an escort like Juvet, who has built trusting relationships with local producers. Armed with degrees in oenology and art history, she proves an able guide to this area where wine has been made for 2000 years. (Pouilly was founded as Pauliacum by the Romans, who arrived bearing vines.)
The most useful information she shares is the distinction between Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre wines. It’s the same grape, sauvignon blanc, grown on opposite banks of the Loire so the character of each is different. The Right Bank soils produce the distinctly smoky, flinty PouillyFume sauvignons.
After farewelling the hospitable count we cross the river and climb to the hilltop village of Sancerre for one of the finest lunches I’ve had in France. Les Fossiles is essentially the private cellar of owner David Malan, a man who likes to share his collection with strangers while plying them with delicious things he’s whipped up in the kitchen. After settling us at a shaded table on the cobbles, he treats us to excellent, interesting wines — including a local pinot he likens to a good Burgundy — and a gathering feast. The chilled tomato zing of Malan’s gazpacho is a perfect antidote to temperatures in the high 30s; Sancerre’s endemic ham, smoked over vine cuttings, is paired with a terrine of chicken, tarragon and pistachio; a bruschetta-style toastie arrives with chargrilled vegetables and melted creamy, acid crottin goat’s cheese, made nearby in Chavignol.
Then the cheese course proper — an individual coulommiers, a Brie-like cow’s milk cheese that Malan has stuffed with sliced truffles. Incroyable.
On a post-lunch stroll around Sancerre, Juvet gently educates us about its history, its idiosyncrasies (the circa 12th-century hilltop castle is today privately owned by “the Grand Marnier family”), and its characters, such as Alphonse Mellot, who makes very good, Burgundy-style wines. The Mellot family has made wine here for 500 years, so they know what they’re doing.
Later, in the hamlet of Maimbray, we visit Domaine du Pre Semele where third-generation winemakers Julien and Clement Raimbault produce an exceptional red Sancerre from pinot noir grape; it’s called the Camille and it is a thing of beauty — all red berries and cherries and fairy floss, with “a very nice structure, and very supple tannins”, suggests Julien.
The wine is named after their great uncle, Camille, who famously declared: “In Sancerre, it is impossible to do a great wine.” The brothers set out to prove him wrong. And they have, convincingly. The Camille is now Sancerre’s highest-priced red, Juvet says, and further proof that, in wine country as old as Sancerre, tradition isn’t everything.
• chateau-de-tracy.com • lesfossiles.com • rjc-raimbault.com
Kendall Hill was a guest of Vinitour Centre-Loire.
Clockwise from above: Pouilly, viewed from one of its vineyards; Chateau de Tracy; and Les Fossiles with David Malan, centre, and Laure Juvet, left, in the Loire Valley