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.
Goats used to walk along the road leading out of Chavignol
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.