When ex­pe­ri­ence counts

Wine has a 2000-year tra­di­tion in the Up­per Loire

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KEN­DALL HILL

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

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