From Goats to Wine

When you visit Sancerre, the locals are quick to extol the match between the wine and the famous goats’ cheese, the Crottin de Chavignol. Staying just outside Sancerre in the village of Chavignol on a recent visit, I was struck by the fact that I could not actually see any goats. When I asked about this, the first answer was that the goats were on the tops of the hills. But when I went back and checked, the hills were covered with vines right up to the summits. Pressing the question further, my informants grinned and explained that vineyards have become so much more profitable that they have entirely displaced the goats. A striking demonstration of the change is the situation on the outskirts of Chavignol: the new Bourgeois winery stands where goats used to roam.

Goats1

Goats used to walk along the road leading out of Chavignol

Bourgeois1The Bourgeois winery is a splendid facility at the top of the hill

There’s more than one metaphor in this. The nearest goats are to be found in Cosne-sur-Loire, a few miles to the north – but the cheese hasn’t changed its name: it is still AOP Crottin de Chavignol. In fact, the AOP was granted in 1976, right around the time when the goats began to be displaced (they were pretty much gone by the eighties). That seems somehow indicative of the way INAO (the body in charge of the appellation system) operates.

A more significant point, perhaps is that the expansion of the vineyards has been matched by major change in the style of Sancerre. Sancerre used to be punishingly acid and positively herbaceous., Today it still usually has good acidity, but vegetal qualities go no further than grassiness. Fruits range from classic gooseberries to citrus, and even in many cases to stone fruits. Some wines are positively unctuous and exotic. This is partly because of the trend to later harvesting, aided by global warming, and partly due to the increase of concentration that has resulted from lower yields. Sancerre producers don’t admit to any direct influence from the success of New World Sauvignon Blanc, but they do concede that the modern consumer wants to see more upfront fruit in the wine.

When Sancerre was very acid and herbaceous, it was a perfect match for the sharp tang of the cheese. But is that still true: do wines where stone fruits are at least as evident as citrus really match the cheese? You can still get Sancerre in the classic idiom with enough of a grassy tang to match the cheese, but most have achieved a ripeness level that has substituted a new typicity. The perfect match has disappeared along with the goats.

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3 thoughts on “From Goats to Wine

  1. Alas, the sum and substance of your text makes it abundantly clear that you’ve not read any of my books on Loire wines. In my first book, A Wine & Food Guide to the Loire (1996 Henry Holt), I pointed out that there were no goats left in Chavignol as the land had become much too valuable as vineyards. I did, however, note that there were goats closer to the town of Sancerre than Cosne. I also observed, at that time, that the style of Sancerre was changing and introduced readers to the vignerons initiating such changes. In my most recent book, Earthly Delights From the Garden of France/ Wines of the Loire: Volume I/ The Kingdom of Sauvignon Blanc — Sancerre, Pouilly Fume and the Sauvignon Satellites, I discuss at some length the evolution in the style of the Sauvignons being made now as well as the factors that brought about that (ongoing) evolution.

    • Actually I am a great admirer of your books and have read both of them on the Loire, but twenty years later I don’t remember all the details in the first one! I certainly didn’t see any goats anywhere near Chavignol, except a small herd just off the motorway near Pouilly-sur-Loire (Crottin d’Autoroute, perhaps?) and the people whom I asked said that the goats were basically now to be found in Cosne-sur-Loire. More seriously, it’s an interesting insight into the changing economy that vineyard land has displaced most other uses within the area of the appellations. As for the change in style, I plan to address this in more detail in the future, but the only point I really want to make here is that it casts doubt on the traditional wine-food pairing. Indeed, one might make the same point about other regions: the slightly herbaceous quality of Bordeaux used to go marvelously with Pauillac lamb, but I’m not so sure that blackurrent fruit-driven Cabernet is such a good match: it might go better with Boeuf Bourguignon perhaps? Which leaves the question of what food the wines of Burgundy should now be paired with…

      • Funny you should mention food and wine pairings. I’ve been thinking about that too, particularly when it comes to tomato sauce or any dish in which tomatoes are an informative presence. It’s hard for me to think of pairing them with the sleek and/or succulent contemporary reds tasting of raspberries, cherries, et al. (And I’m not talking about “fruit bombs.”)

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