The recent spell of inclement weather this country has been experiencing has served to undermine many a recreational plan this year. So this bank holiday I decided to hell with it and go camping on Exmoor ‘en famille’, despite weather warnings of persistent and gale force wind and rain. Fool hardy yes, but refreshing too, on many levels, not least because it meant I had the opportunity to sit under a canopy and engage in long conversations on all topics with our friends the Lawyers, who had also decided to make a stand.
So whilst the children ran around in streams, built dams and generally ignored the fact that they were caked in mud and soaked to the skin, we sat under the gazebo and made conversation and of course, being British, the topic of the weather was one of the first to be scrutinised.
If we think the weather on our blessed isle has been unkind, spare a thought for the Vigneron of France. In March, when buds were bursting, frost descended almost unilaterally over the vineyards; in May and June, at flowering time, hail destroyed up to 60% of potential crops. Across the summer, rain and humidity have brought on the worst cases of mildew seen for over a decade rendering the now nascent fruit rotten, and finally a new variety of fungal disease, Eska, is marching through the vineyards with care-free abandon. It is a dire situation and one that will mark 2012 as one to forget for many people.
Under our canvas drawing room, the flow of conversation turned to wine. Drinking, as we were a bland Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, I was asked why this, despite being £10, was nowhere near as enticing and exotic as a previous bottle of NZ SB which I had brought as a sample. This is a tough one as it is never my intention to be rude, but one quick look at the former bottle gave me my get out. This had been bottled in the UK, I pointed out, while the other was an NZ bottling.
So what? Well, wine stored in 20,000 litre ‘bladder’ packs placed in a container and transported across the seas is never likely to be the very finest. First, if you have spent your life working the vineyard, hand picking the grapes and caring for your soil, do you want to see your labour of love end up in a mass transporter? Much like seeing hand raised, 28 day aged beef being thrown into a mass market pie. Second, in order to stabilise and protect the wine through its various stages of transportation it requires careful addition of various products, and needs to completely biologically stable.
Such processes are fine, but naturally will have an effect on the end result, i.e. loss of character. This explained, my thoughts turned to fine Sauvignons I have tasted and to the home of Sauvignon Blanc, the Loire Valley and Sancerre.
On a recent visit, I met a producer who I have admired for many years and now finally had found a reason with whom to meet up. Pascal Gitton is a fifth generation Sancerrois and his understanding and execution of the wines of this region are fabulous.
Pascal Gitton and his Bewildering Array of Cuvees
His work in the vineyard and winery is frankly astounding, leaving nothing to chance, but allowing terroir to prevail. I imagined a world where he would ever need to bladder pack his wines, and a shudder fell upon me. However he has also been driven to distraction with the weather, and this led to a very interesting conversation, and a vineyard tour.
For many years I have been a great believer in organic and biodynamic viticulture. I have worked in a biodynamic cellar whilst studying in France and many of the producers I work with subscribe to these principles. By way of a brief explanation, Organic Wine requires only the use of organically grown grapes, and sulphur as well as copper sulphate can be used in the vineyard. Anything can happen in the winery. Biodynamic is more complex, and allows only sulphur in the vineyard and winery, but also the application of prepared organic sprays and a rhythm of production that beats to the phases of the moon. The resulting wine is thus a wine that ‘lives’ and may or may not taste as it should according to the biodynamic Calendar (fruit days are best, roots days the worst) and, of course, if the wine is any good in the first place.
Pascal and I ventured out into his vineyard, in Monatreal sous Sancerre and inspected the vines. His vines are planted in the original vineyard below the pretty hilltop town of Sancerre where records suggest monks running from persecution settled and planted vines in the 15th century. The domaine is not organic or biodynamic, yet takes a course of action that seems to make more and more sense to me, one of lutte raisonée, or the reasoned fight. It is not in Pascal’s interest to spray his vines daily with chemicals that will do him, his workers and his vines damage, so he effectively works organically. He does not require the use of chemicals or additives in the winery as his vines produce healthy fruit with good balance. If they didn’t he wouldn’t use them.
The Vineyard of Mont Damnees and Chavignol
However, if the conditions are terrible and there is call for it, he will use a chemical to eradicate the immediate threat, and in 2012 there have been plenty of those. One look at his vines sees healthy, if slightly uneven, bunches of fruit (caused by the hail earlier on in the year) on luscious green vines. His yield will be down 25% but at least he will have a crop of early drinking healthy wine that he can sell and keep his cash flow fluid.
By way of comparison, the vineyard to the right of Pascal’s is in dire straits. This belongs to one of the great organic producers in the commune and is bereft of fruit. The image shows one of the vines with black berries and little foliage. This is the same across this producer’s vineyard, and they will make 20% of total production as a result. Bear in mind they have sprayed sulphur almost constantly throughout the summer and had many hands in the vineyard to help protect the fruit yet the end result is catastrophic. Organic vs conventional? I know what I would take.
Vines suffering the effects of Organic Viticulture in the Vineyards of Sancerre
It is interesting to note however, that this organic producer will not close the doors for a year and hide under the duvet, they will buy fruit from other producers and make a wine which, because of the name, will sell. Is this ethically correct? Who’s to say, but it sits uncomfortably with many other producers. If you are organic and sell yourself as such you must live and die by your creed.
So what of the wines of Sancerre? Having toured the vineyards we tasted the wines, 48 of them from tank barrel and bottle. This was a masterclass in terroir and although I have tasted many producers in this beautiful region, none were so extensive as this. There are three main soil types in the estate which mirror most of Sancerre. Silex, or flint, chalk and clay. The cuvées made by Pascal reflect differences in those grown on Silex and those found on chalky clay soils. Within these there are further distinctions that add unique nuances to each cuvée. Silex gives the wine a steely, floral character, sometimes peachy, whilst chalk gives the wines a powerful citrus character and mineral back bone.
Healthy Grapes on a Sauvignon Vine in Sancerre
It is fascinating to note the difference in style between two vineyards that are literally one row apart and yet so unbelievably different. On reflection I cannot think if a time when terroir is so obviously influencing a set of wines, even in Burgundy, where differences can be very subtle to the casual observer. This really is a place to appreciate how great Sauvignon can be, even with the weather.
These wines will soon be available to purchase in the UK, but as a rule of thumb, if you wish to taste the true terroir of classic Sancerre, find a decent independent wine merchant and engage them on the subject. They will hopefully have something to show you that represents the essence of the variety and region, proving why this once great region still is great, and not a slave to the more commercial, factory produced wines that can be bought for under a tenner (I would say £14 to £20 per bottle will be the right sort of price).
Ben Llewelyn has worked in the wine trade since 1997 with a stint at Oddbins in Manchester. He quickly built knowledge around a frame of passion but learnt that to get on, you needed to be working for the importers, if not one’s self. He started working for Enotria Winecellars in London in 1999 and built up a client portfolio that consisted of many of the greats; River Cafe, Fifteen, and Hush, as well as handling the accounts of Carluccio’s and Strada. This work allowed him the opportunity to work and travel extensively in Italy, working alongside the finest winemakers in Barolo, Friuli and Tuscany, many of whom are counted as friends, and eating in the country’s finest restaurants, thus fuelling his other passion; food. He went on to became the youngest director in the 35 year history of the company.
Having learnt the ropes at Enotria, Ben was integral in establishing a small independent wine wholesaler in London and after two years undertook a significant life change both at work, by starting the MW program, and with the family, by moving to France. Here he gained more detailed insight into the intricacies of winemaking and vineyard management whilst working with biodynamic and organic producers in the south west of France. Biodynamic viticulture has always held a fascination, although he is wary of the ’emperor’s new clothes’ effect of recent years.
He adores wines made by people who connect with their terroir and is yet to be convinced that great wine can really be made without passion, and is still not weary from the fight to convince people of this and all that is great about hand-crafted wine.
He was brought up in Wales, enjoys fishing and now lives in Hampshire with his lovely family.
If you would like more information or to receive a pre-shipment offer of Pascal Gittons wines, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carte Blanche Wines
0044 7738 566880