20 May 2014

sancerre bike trip: domaine vacheron, sancerre

Half our group missed the visit to historical Sancerre standard-bearers Domaine Vacheron. They decided to spend the morning by the pool. Later they rejoined us for lunch in Sancerre, where I admitted they hadn't missed much. 

A strenuous, rushed ride up the town's nearly vertical hillside, and then a fairly perfunctory tour of the facilities in the company of some visiting Alsatian winemakers. Our guide was Denis Vacheron, President of the Union Viticole du Sancerrois, uncle and father, respectively, of current winemaker Jean-Laurent and vineyard manager Jean-Dominique. 

I hadn't expected more, of course, as I'm neither an accredited journalist nor any sort of buyer. Domaine Vacheron are big business, with 48ha planted, of which 46ha are in production. They export 60% of their 200,000 bottle production to 45 countries. But they're also certified biodynamic since 2004, and the domaine has a history of ecological production practices. (Denis says they've never used fertilisers or chemicals in the vineyards.) I find the universally-acclaimed Sancerres to be reliable fallbacks on otherwise conventional wine lists. Vacheron wines also usefully illustrate some practices that separate biodynamic wine from the more fugitive concept of natural wine. 

Nothing forbids a biodynamic estate from making very considerate gestures to the tastes of the contemporary marketplace. Vacheron filter for tartrates and have nothing against sulfur use. Stylistically, the wines taste very determined. The flint-soil lieu-dit "Belles Dames" is one of the most appropriately named wines I know: the 2008 we tasted at the domaine felt, for all its rosey finesse, a little maquillée. It sees 1 year in barrique, 1 year in foudre, and 1 in bottle before release.

A useful criterion for a domaine to be considered natural is a certain aesthetic posture that prioritises the rigorous expression of terroir over a wine's market potential. If that expression of terroir is phrased in such a way as to go over the heads of certain drinkers, so be it.

With this in mind, what counts is the sincere intention to limit sulfur use, to avoid fining and filtration, etc. Domaine Vacheron do not have these intentions and for the moment do not need them. 

Vacheron's reds see about 40 days' maceration, under a system of pneumatic pigeage. All grapes are hand-harvested; the Pinot Noir is also hand-sorted. Denis Vacheron offered a nice adage for the benefits of the labor-intensiveness of biodynamic agriculture : "You can't do biodynamics without getting down from your tractor." 

The Vacheron approach - which is to say, the quality-conscious, contempory mainstream approach - does yield outright successes. Vacheron's 2011 Sancerre blanc "Les Romains" is gleamingly refined, rainfall-fresh, distinguished by a supple, smokey fruit. 

And I should rush to say that I'd by no means disqualify Vacheron wines from inclusion on a 'natural' wine list. I'd prefer a wine list be good first, natural second, and a good wine list ought to include a few precise, user-friendly selections like the wines of Domaine Vacheron. I particularly enjoy the pressurage direct rosé, which clocks in cheaper than the domaine's basic white while often outshining it. 

And hell, some wines seem to need filtration, for whatever reason. To take an example from Mâcon, my friends Isabelle and Bruno Perraud's 2012 Aligoté is a vast improvement over previous vintages, which had suffered from oilyness and a leaden opacity. It's the first year they've practiced light filtration for this one cuvée. 

Domaine Vacheron
1, rue du Puits Poulton
Tel: 02 48 54 09 93

Sancerre Bike Trip: François Cotat, Chavignol
Sancerre Bike Trip: Sebastien Riffault, Sury-en-Vaux

A video interview with the Vacheron by my friend Josh Adler at Paris Wine Company

La Revue du Vin de France on Domaine Vacheron
A 2011 piece on Domaine Vacheron at Bon A Manger Bon A Penser
An uncharacteristically dull piece on Vacheron's basic '12 bottling at The Wine Doctor

No comments:

Post a Comment