Friday, 14 September 2012

Sauvignon de St Bris - a hidden gem?

Anyone who claims to know all of France’s wine appellations (or PDOs as we should now learn to call them) is either a liar or has an extraordinary capacity for memorising lists.  There are literally hundreds of them, ranging from the world-famous (Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Chablis) to the vanishingly obscure.  Wines labelled Irancy, to name but one, are hardly household names, even in their own neighbourhoods.

Others, while obscure, stick in the mind.  Sauvignon de St Bris is one such.  The area of production is titchy, yet it’s a micro-region that I’ve known about ever since cramming for my Wine Diploma years back, learning that this is the only part of Burgundy where Sauvignon Blanc is grown.  I memorised that single fact as a way to avoid a trick question in an exam, then promptly moved on, content never to know more about this renegade Chardonnay-shunning corner of Burgundy, let alone know what the wines might actually taste like.

This summer, however, I finally set foot in St-Bris-le-Vineux, an attractive and typically deserted village in the valley of the Yonne river in a northern corner of Burgundy, which is the centre of production, such as it is.  St Bris is much closer to Chablis than to the Côte d’Or, so while yes, technically it is part of Burgundy, it is a long way from the heartland of the region.

When you ignore the administrative boundaries and just look at a map of France, it becomes clear that while St Bris may be next door to Chablis, it is also only a short drive from the Loire Valley and those twin powerhouses of Sauvignon Blanc:  Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre.  Why they grow Sauvignon and not Chardonnay here begins to make more sense.

St Bris shares the same Kimmeridgian and Portlandian soils as those found in Chablis, thereby giving a tantalising hint of what Chablis might taste like, if it was made with Sauvignon Blanc instead of Chardonnay.  You've never wondered this?  Oh, just me then.

What I hadn’t learned as part of my Diploma studies, was that this area also makes red wines from Pinot Noir, in line with Burgundian orthodoxy.  These are pleasant oddities, light and lacy versions of an already light style of wine – the kind of thing to chill and sip in the garden on a sunny day. 

And, to my surprise they also make wines from Chardonnay here (so much for my Diploma studies), though these Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are entitled only to the generic label of “Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre”, a designation used to mop up various little vineyards around the town of Auxerre and which fall outside the Chablis area.  Sauvignon de St-Bris can only be used for, well, Sauvignon.

In St-Bris-le-Vineux (the clue is in the name) I hopped out of the campervan and decided to try some wine.  British tourists abroad often cite the difficulties involved in visiting wineries in France.  It is true that the willingness to knock on the doors of places which look resolutely closed and the ability to speak at least some French are pre-requisites.  I took the sign “cave ouverte” on a wine press outside one producer’s house as an encouragement.

Despite the “ouverte” claim, all looked deserted.  Having managed to disturb the lunchtime semi-siesta of an elderly lady, I was pointed in the direction of a bell to be rung.  In the manner of the shopkeeper in Mister Benn, a man emerged, as if by magic, from an ivy-camouflaged door that I had not noticed and I was welcomed into a cool tasting cellar.

Alert, perhaps, to my intention of tasting the Sauvignon de St Bris and then scarpering, having ticked it off my mental list of wines to taste before I die, Monsieur Goisot of Domaine Goisot Anne et Arnaud insisted that I start by tasting his Chardonnay.

Chardonnay-shmardonnay.  Was it really possible that this lowly Côtes d’Auxerre Blanc could have something to contribute to our understanding of that noble variety that its illustrious neighbours in Chablis and the mighty Côte de Beaune had not already done more emphatically, elegantly and eloquently? 

In a word, no.  Dear reader, Côtes d’Auxerre Blanc is no undiscovered gem.  M Goisot’s Chardonnay was perfectly decent with some peachy, floral aromas and a nutty, savoury palate.  But no scales dropped from my eyes; I was not moved to forsake Grand Cru Chablis or Chassagne-Montrachet forever more.  I moved on to the main attraction.

And what is it like?  St Bris Sauvignon may not have the depth and concentration of the best wines from Sancerre and Pouilly, but it does have distinct fragrance and a gentle, stony persistence in the mouth.  There is a softness, allied to the characteristic crisp acidity of the variety, that makes for pleasant holiday drinking. 

I bought some of M Goisot’s wines, along with another Sauvignon from a neighbouring domaine, Philippe de France, on my travels, so I will be able to find out if this is one of those wines that tastes perfect as part of a carefree sunny holiday, but that loses something in the move to a greyer, cooler UK, with work and family concerns to contend with.

I think you are more likely to trip over a black cat while on your way to redeem a winning National Lottery ticket than you are to stumble across any Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre, Rouge or Blanc, in mainstream wine outlets in this country - or in France for that matter.  However, you do stand more chance of happening on a bottle of Sauvignon de St-Bris.  The two domaines I visited do not seem to be imported into the UK, but there are a number of others that you can search out – so you can tick this wine off your list too.

French specialist merchants Nicolas list a Sauvignon de St Bris from the excellent Chablis-based co-operative, La Chablisienne, Les Vaux Sereins at £9.99.  Waitrose has Simonnet-Febvre’s version for £9.99.  Highly regarded organic producer Domaine Goisot’s Sauvignon de St Bris 2009 is available from at £10.49 a bottle.

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