The town of Sancerre is a bright, windswept agglomeration of medieval belfries and tasting rooms atop a hill with views for miles around. It is precisely what wine tourists want of a wine town.
Cosne-sur-Loire, where we stayed, is where people live and eat kebabs. It is known mainly for being a low-cost upriver alternative to staying in Sancerre itself. Our b'n'b was separated from a graveyard by an autoroute.
But Cosne-sur-Loire has Le Chat, a relatively modern bistrot run by Paris-trained chef Laurent Chareau in the rather isolated southern outskirts. It was the unanimous - and, I'm afraid, only - regional restaurant recommendation of every wine guy I know. A rare balance between rural charm and contemporary sophistication, it puts the whole town on the map.
The menu at Le Chat is wholesome and gently inventive; the construction of just about every dish hit the sweet spot adjacent to tradition, beyond novelty.
Even a tiresome verrine of far-too many ingredients (mozzarella ! crab ! aubergine ! kumquats !) was redeemed by a texturally delightful layer of lardon-breadcrumbs.
But most impressive was veal tongue prepared with a confit lemon gribiche, a brilliantly piquante and refreshing summertime main course.
The restaurant's natural-leaning wine list doesn't match the scope or regional specificity of the grander restaurants in Sancerre. But there's nothing not to like on it.
In the interest of tasting a regional benchmark we splashed out on a bottle of Didier Dageneau's 2005 Pouilly-Fumé "Pur Sang."
I pretty much missed the boat on Dageneau. A legendarily exacting Pouilly-Fumé winemaker and media darling, he died in a light aircraft crash in September 2008, at which time I was still buying exclusively Italian wine in LA. If my efforts at catch-up have been kinda half-hearted, it's because the wines' fame has rendered them luxury items. Wines made by Didier himself are still relatively available on the Paris market in pleasantly outmoded places like Caves Legrand or Julhès Paris. But the energy has moved elsewhere, and for the price I'd usually rather drink two bottles of Alexandre Bain (who we were unable to visit on this trip because he was bottling).
Dageneau's is lauded as an iconoclast for disavowing all winemaking philosophies save for the relentless pursuit of quality. He horse-plowed but used selected yeasts, etc. The '05 "Pur Sang"'s smoky, thyme-toned nose yielded a rich but reticent palate and a nice crystalline finish; by the time the bottle was almost gone it had begun show a honey-dew / new leather accord.
At a certain point, however, the descriptors begin to sound like new-car features: heated seats, sunroof, direct fuel injection, variable valve... I guess the question I'm left with is: can wines be made to say too much ? And are some feature of complexity just luxury signifiers?
Happily, there weren't many other signs of luxury at Le Chat. The restaurant's décor looks like it was all purchased in the commercial park south of Cosne.
But décor that would be unforgivable in Paris is unremarkable in the countryside, for the simple reason that where the hell else are you going to go? Better décor in a place like Cosne would probably have no more effect than to scare off a percentage of locals.
It was, indeed, our loss. We took the town's lone taxi back to Cosne proper, because everyone was knackered after the day's travel and no one felt like biking in the mosquito-flecked darkness with a bellyful of Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
42, Rue des Guérins
Tel: 03 86 28 49 03
Sancerre Bike Trip: François Cotat, Chavignol
Sancerre Bike Trip: Sebastien Riffault, Sury-en-Vaux
A 2009 piece on Le Chat by Alec Lobrano in France Today.
Le Fooding was also an early supporter of Le Chat, although that site's new English version is blitheringly unreadable, which I guess means it is a very faithful translation of the French original.
Joe Dressner's moving homage to Dider Dageneau at Louis Dressner.