Tucked away on the eastern edge of the Loire Valley, the lesser-known area of Sancerre is an unspoiled landscape of medieval villages, wildflower fields, and artisanal producers dedicated to preserving their crafts.
In the fantasy version of the french countryside, there are winding roads with storybook views, winemakers, cheese makers, and lovely guesthouses. The pace is slow and the mood is cheerful, the fields green and full of well-fed livestock.
This ideal does actually exist, just a couple of hours south from Paris by car. The small brooks and medieval hamlets of Sancerre, covering 7,400 acres of the region known as Berry, are straight out of Central Casting, without the crowds that so often accompany France’s more popular corners. Sancerre is part of the Loire Valley, but to get there, you hook east instead of west at Orléans. Historically less monied than the western Loire, Sancerre has a backcountry profile that bears little resemblance to the unesco-protected châteaux towns to the west. The area borders a cluster of hamlets—Reuilly, Quincy, Menetou-Salon—better known for their wine than great food, scenery, and hotels. I found this hard to believe once I saw the place for myself.
Wine had brought me to Sancerre, to join a vendange entre amis, or grape harvest among friends. This should not be confused with the vendange proper, a backbreaking period of manual grape-picking. The “entre amis” portion comes just after that high-stakes work is done, when a vintner sets aside a small plot for friends to pick over a weekend of light toil and drinking. I would be visiting Sébastien Riffault’s vineyard, whose natural Sancerres I had fallen for at Parisian restaurants such as Le Châteaubriand and L’Agapé Substance. Unfiltered and golden, they’re not what anyone who knows the grassy, fresh whites of Sancerre would think of as typical, which is just fine with him.
By the time I got off the autoroute from Paris, grapes were no longer on my mind. Plane trees lined the byways, and around tiny bends I stumbled upon sweet villages. Before I got to Sury-en-Vaux, where Riffault’s vineyard sits, I turned in to Sens-Beaujeu to look for my hotel, Château de Beaujeu. A good-humored tumbledown charmer, it’s one of the area’s few grand addresses, along with La Chancelière and Le Prieuré Notre-Dame d’Orsan, and it’s watched over by dogs and geese and Silkie chickens sitting on a little creek. Inside, the hotel had traditional upholstered walls and fiendish collections of everything from dollhouse furniture to gardening tools. On my way in, I had seen road signs pointing to goat-milk cheese producers nearby. As a fan of Sancerre’s other famous product, Crottin de Chavignol, a wrinkly, puck-size mound that starts fresh and tangy and ages into something more pungent and creamy, I wasn’t going to stay put at my hotel. When I pulled in to Chèvrerie des Gallands, a fifth-generation goat-milk cheese maker, I was greeted by a couple of chatty goats poking their heads out of the barn, as if I were an old friend finally coming home.
Sancerre may not have the luxe reputation of the western Loire, but despite its humble pastures, there are upscale places. Little more than a village, the town has a main square lined with stone town houses and populated by wine merchants, more Crottin peddlers, and a few outdoor cafés. The best table in town is arguably Restaurant La Tour. Country-chic and clean, with exposed beams and heavy linens, the place is run by chef Baptiste Fournier, a former acolyte of L’Arpège’s Alain Passard. He shares his mentor’s love for fresh heirloom produce, but his dishes are heartier, with local river fish and updated interpretations of grandmotherly plates like monkfish with mustard sauce. A jog to the top of the 14th-century Fief Tower is well advised to work off his lunch. It’s also a great place to marvel at the view of the countryside.
When I got to Riffault’s house for the grape picking, our small group was just starting to assemble. Thirty-two years old, with muttonchop whiskers and a bawdy sense of humor, Riffault is one of the more vocal proponents of natural wine and wine that’s made from biodynamically grown grapes. Due to the iconoclasm of its producers and the labor- and time-intensive process, “le vin naturel” has a whiff of punk-rock righteousness. You have to be a true believer to bother creating the stuff at all: it’s made almost entirely by hand, doesn’t allow for foreign chemicals or additives, and uses only the grapes themselves. The result is not just less damaging to the environment, but a more pure expression of the fruit and soil. Riffault’s neighbor, Alexandre Bain, who crafts succulent whites in Pouilly-sur-Loire, is another brother-in-arms in the movement, and the two, Riffault says, “are like Martians in the area,” dominated as it is by larger, conventional companies.
To kick off the day in the right spirit, Riffault hitched one of his shaggy Ardennais plow horses to an open-air carriage for a tour of a vineyard a few minutes away from the cottage he shares with his Lithuanian wife, Juraté. As we pulled up to the sun-soaked plot we were to pick, he explained to us how the tufts of wildflowers that threaded his vines help create the terroir. Gently hilly, the land was alive with butterflies and bees, and the town of Sancerre was just visible over the horizon. Juraté armed us all with clippers, and we pried away mounds of Sauvignon Blanc grapes, wrinkled and moldy with noble rot from their late harvest. After filling up a vanload, we went to deliver the day’s labor down to Riffault’s hydraulic press. It sat in a massive shed, and Riffault’s father, Étienne, a retired traditional grower who let Sébastien start the conversion to biodynamic in 2004, was there to forklift the bushels down the hatch. The juice that trickled out was heady, with a gray-greenish cast. Though Riffault doesn’t work with set recipes, this one would certainly be a dessert wine.
We stuck to table wine that night, though, as we ate under Christmas lights and stars, on a picnic table strewn with flowers. It went best with the heaps of sausage grilled on Sébastien and Juraté’s enormous barbecue, and there were seconds and thirds to be had before we all went our separate ways.
T+L’s Guide to Sancerre
Château de Beaujeu Overlooking the Sauldre River, the 16th-century country house has six intimate, light-filled rooms. Sens-Beaujeu; chateau-de-beaujeu.com. $
La Chancelière This elegant hotel dates back to the 1500’s and has eight rooms that look out onto the Sancerre countryside. Sancerre; la-chanceliere.com. $$
Prieuré Notre-Dame d’Orsan Going deeper into winding country back roads is a 12th-century monastery that became a boutique hotel and pilgrimage site for garden lovers in 2001. Its seven acres have multiple labyrinths, espaliered fruit trees, trellises dripping with grapes, Cubist topiaries, and roses. An on-site chef cooks up fresh lunches and dinners sourced entirely from the grounds, and the décor inside has a Scandinavian simplicity. Maisonnais; prieuredorsan.com. $$$
C’heu L’Zib Just off a hillside square in the town of Menetou-Salon is this classic restaurant and inn with copper pots dangling from the ceiling and rough-hewn wooden walls. The food is classic, and the house specialty, pike in cream sauce, comes garnished with sides like tomatoes à la provençale and sautéed mushrooms. Desserts have the same comfort-food philosophy: custards; chocolate mousse—the more, the better. cheulzib.com. $$$
Restaurant La Tour In Sancerre’s main square, this Michelin-starred restaurant serves classic French dishes. latoursancerre.fr. $$$
Restaurant Le Chat A pub turned bistro, Le Chat was given a fresh coat of paint and a menu makeover by Laurent Chareau, a former sous-chef to Iñaki Aizpitarte of Paris’s Le Châteaubriand. Chareau turns out regularly changing dishes such as pork cheek with lobster bouillon and lemon confit, or a melted beef cheek with red wine and anchovies. Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire; 33-3/86-28-49-03. $$$
Most vineyards in Sancerre have daily wine tastings, which don’t require advance booking. If you’re looking to join a vendange entre amis, contact T+L A-List agent and culinary expert Bonnie Brayham Herman at Purple Truffle.
Chèvrerie des Gallands On this goat farm, owner Elisabeth D’avril produces the region’s popular chèvre fermier. Crézancy-en-Sancerre; chevrerie-des-gallands.fr.
Domaine Alexandre Bain In Pouilly-sur-Loire, Alexandre Bain began cultivating biodynamic grapes on his 27-acre vineyard six years ago. domaine-alexandre-bain.com.
Domaine Gérard Boulay The Boulay family has lived in the Sancerre region since the 1300’s. Their crisp whites are a high-quality example of the classic style. Chavignol; 33-2/48-54-36-37.
Sébastien Riffault Swing by Riffault’s vineyard for tastings of his unfiltered natural wines, including the standout Les Quarterons. Sury-en-Vaux; zrswines.com.
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Appeared as "The Other Loire Valley" in T+L Magazine