Sancerre & Francois Cotat -The Other Kimmeridgian
Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Kimmeridge. It's a village in Dorset in southern England, and very picture postcardy - thatched roofs and sandy beaches. But to any wine lover, it's real claim to fame is not the cliff walks or the oil deposits offshore, but the fossileforus marine clay from the late Jurassic, classified by a French geologist right here nearly three centuries ago. In poor layman's terms, fossilized oyster shell limestone. But just like the chalk of Hampshire and Wiltshire, it dives under the Channel and reappears in France, most famously in Chablis. Nowadays there are Kimmeridgian cuvees and marketing brochures all over Chablis, and 'oyster shell' is one of the most frequently seen tasting notes, not that I have ever chewed on one and notwithstanding the fact that much of the expanding terroir of lesser Chablis is no longer situated on the famous marl. But what many people forget is that Chablis is not alone in having a deliciously austere mineral streak thanks to those marine creatures crushed a few eons ago. It's just that whilst Chablis and its chardonnay is perhaps the best example of the much overused description 'mineral' nowadays, Sancerre and its sauvignon blanc generally do not fit the bill.
The similarities are numerous. If you cross the mighty Loire and leave the hilltop perch of Sancerre behind you and head into the hills to Chavignol, you find a crumpled landscape of rounded hills and slopes all covered in vines, the village nestled in between them and under a major south facing slope where some of the most famed vineyards are found (les Monts Damnes, Culs de Beaujeu etc). The village is old, sleepy and now rather affluently spick and span, just like Chablis, which also sits under the renowned south facing grand cru slopes. Both need a certain amount of huffing and puffing if you wish to clamber up to the top for the view. The most iconic domaines are also supposed to be impenetrably closed. A visit to Raveneau in Chablis is a rare privilege, just as it is to Domaine Francois Cotat in Chavignol. Whilst you can find his wines in Paris or London without too much difficulty, a tasting with the man himself is seemingly impossible. The sign on the wall has said FERME (closed) for the last 25 years after all.
We have some Norwegian friends who visit every year, and love their wine. Indeed, the last time I set foot in Chavignol was with Andre a decade ago. But this year, with Covid lockdowns and borders closed, he was stuck in Bergen whilst his allocation of Cotat was sitting in Sancerre. It seemed the decent thing to do to offer to pop down and collect it for him. It's only a two and a half hour drive. June had been hot, 36 degrees in Sancerre the day before we headed off. But as we watched the traffic on the A6, the clouds seemed to start from the ground and sheets of rain scudded across the windscreen. Yuck. Branching off to the A77, the number of cars vanished and, happily, so did the rain. The Loire looked grey and cold, but as we wound our way up the hill we could at least see the tops of the 'damned mountains'. It was then that I realised that the email from Mme Cotat had been short (a date and an hour), that the internet address had no street name and that the 4G network neatly gave up as we approached Chavignol. And that reputedly recalcitrant domaines don't advertise their whereabouts. As the clock rushed towards our appointed time, I did that thing that men most hate to do and got out of the car, put on my Covid mask and walked into the nearest cafe to ask for directions. We parked the car and walked up a narrow street, small plaques with winery names all around us. We walked past the other most important thing in town, the cheese shop which specialises in the local goats cheese crottin de Chavignol (little poos or droppings) and the even better named seins de nounou (nanny's breast - the shape leaves little to the imagination). The cheese is excellent and, of course, a perfect match or the local wine.
Finally a small sign on a wall, but no sign of a door or entrance. My wife Kathy and I stood a bit bemused until a jovial man behind us asked whom we were looking for. The man himself. With a cheery smile he asked if we'd like to load up the car first and then perhaps a little degustation? Just like chez Raveneau, you enter a small door under a small house and walk into a wonderfully unkempt little paradise. Dusty bottles were everywhere, a few wines names chalked on a blackboard and there, on a bar, some nicely labelled glasses and bottles with the classic letters on them, MD, GC, CB. If you don't believe in global warming, go to Sancerre or Chablis. This year they may start the vendange in August, When I picked grapes here in 1979 it was mid to late September. Everything seems to be 2 or 3 weeks early. In Chablis this can be fatal as year after year the precious buds set too early, at the end of April rather than middle of May, and in France they say you are not safe from frost until the 15th. So when the frost hits before that and the buds are already out, your crop for the year is frozen and withered before it even starts to set. Time and again.
Chavignol sits beneath the Monts Damnes Chavignol though has been spared. 2017, 18,19 and now it looks like 20 are all sunny vintages. 2018 had 3 months without rain, and 2019 was even worse, 4 months on the trot. Indeed, though it seems counter-intuitive, the best wines in 2019 were made by the growers who held their nerve and picked later, as the rain did finally come in september and rebalance the juice and lower the alcohol levels which otherwise were in the 14% range. Not good - I have tasted/seen too many 2009 hot year wines at 14.5 and even 15% at which level for my palate they become too heavy and slightly hot, even if the abundance of fruit might partly mask the high alcohol. In 2018, itself a hot year, Cotat's wines come in at a refreshing 13.2%. Asked why his wines tasted so different from the more normal version of Sancerre, he just said no fining, no filtration, indigenous yeast and minimal intervention - winemaking learned from his father and little changed. It's a recipe, matched with prime vineyard sites (5 hectares, alas not more), that gives wines of elegance and remarkable ageing potential. The 2008 Monts Damnes is just lovely now, and I was wondering whether I could say that it reminded me very much of true Chablis when he said it for me - an austere vintage that meant that the Kimmeridgian soil seemed to take the upper hand over grape variety. In general, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are miles apart, but not here, not always.
They make rose too...
The 2019s were just bottled and still pretty closed, only the Monts Damnes (at 13.8%) showing any sign of the hot vintage. The 2018s were just a joy to drink now, though I'd put them in the cellar for a decade. Back when I was a student grape picking, I remember oddly well the taste of the grapes and free-run juice. Since being introduced in 2005 the Caillottes cuvee (on pure limestone as opposed to clay-limestone) is the wine to drink first, and takes me back 40 years. It's fresh and just very grapey, with a tight mineral edge. Throw some clay into the mix and the wines seem to put on weight, adding a gram or so of sugar per cuvee as we tasted Les Monts then Grande Cote then Culs de Beaujeu, each wine a little more rounded, with white flowers and that distinct mineral streak. They taste nothing like the average Sancerre and are built to age, true wines of their terroir, made by a modest and charming man who underplays his obvious winemaking talents. Long may they remain within the reach of mere mortals as opposed to some of the more speculative labels in Chablis. A top Cotat cuvee is in the 40 euro range, whereas Raveneau grand crus in a shop (not at the domaine) are five or six times that... There is also a very small production of pinot noir, a red that I have only tasted once and a rose that is far from the sweet or boringly mass-produced stuff you so often find in the summer. I am not a fan of rose, so for me the whites are undoubtedly the kings here, and probably the only wines available anyway. If you head a bit up the hill from the domain you walk into the vineyards and a lovely panoramic view over the rooftops of Chavignol looking up to the steep south facing slopes, and to your right the neat rows of vines stretch in endless undulations, interspersed by red roses, until finally hitting the great hill on top of which is perched Sancerre itself. It's very pretty, and surprisingly steep. No machine harvesting up there! Back in the village itself is the home of goats cheese (and local honey) and a couple of restaurants, one run by the Henri Bourgeois domain with a nice terrace outside and very good food.
It was a long time since I first took a train here as a teenager to lug grapes around, and in between times I have spent a lot of time in Chablis, but here you can find a different chapter under the same book, and sauvignon blancs in a different league. Just don't be in too much of a hurry to consume them...