Siobhan Lowe is recently back from Loire with a few thoughts on Philippe Raimbault and Sancerre.
Sancerre has become a brand of wine, kind of like saying Kleenex as a catchall for tissue. So it may come as a surprise that the town of Sancerre is a sleepy, medieval hilltop town with a population of under 2,000. I asked some locals whether the town had become overrun in recent years with wine tourists and they shrugged, not really.
Checking in to Le Panoramic hotel in Sancerre you get the distinct impression, again, that the brand hasn’t really gone to the locals’ heads. The hotel lounge offers impressive views down the hillside and worn vinyl banquettes that would feel distinctly more swingin’ were the lighting not blindingly fluorescent at all hours. One of the only restaurants open for lunch on a Thursday, by contrast, was a dim basement serving pizza as well as, confusingly, Alsatian regional specialties. All this is to say that things in town are pretty low profile. Somehow because Sancerre has become the go-to beverage of many high maintenance New York City residents one might expect some of that to reach back to the source.
So, that brings us around to Philippe Raimbault. Philippe is a 9th generation winemaker who has been at it himself for about 20 years ever since he and his brother split up the land that they inherited from his father. With a total of 16 hectares, Philippe is one of the only non-negociant winemakers to make wine in all three appellations of Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre and the Coteaux du Giennois.
Philippe is known locally as The Fossil Man. He has an extensive collection of all of the fossils that he has found on his property, many of which were discovered when he dug in to build his own cave. Fossils are common in the soil all over Sancerre and are useful to remind us that while Sancerre is part of the Loire Valley it is geographically closer to Chablis than to Chinon. The Kimmeridgian soil that is famously found in Chablis is also found in Sancerre, here called Terre Blanche. Limestone, clay and fossils give that flinty minerality that is associated with both regions.
Philippe and his wife Lynne are at the helm of their small operation with 5 employees helping them. They are members of Terra Vitis, certified sustainable viticulture. They are committed to minimal intervention farming and winemaking and, most importantly, transparency.
The cave and most of their vineyard holdings are located in Sury-en-Vaux, just Northwest of the town of Sancerre. In this area, as in Chablis, many of the best vineyard sites are south-facing and rich in Terre Blanche soil.
2015 will be a vintage that, according to Philippe, will be low in quantity but high in quality. They suffered a drought in July but the grapes that were harvested were very beautiful – perhaps lacking the acidity that he typically finds, but he will take no measures of correction in his winemaking. The harvested fruit will be the expression of the vintage. He believes other winemakers in the region will acidify, but Philippe will not.
After tasting the 2014 wines we tasted samples of the not-yet-bottled 2015 Apud Sariacum Sancerre – meaning ‘the place we are from’ in Latin, which was the name of this village in the Roman era. It is a fitting name as it is an assemblage of 20-25 parcels that Philippe owns around the village. The soil of these parcels is mostly Terre Blanche (rich in Kimmeridgian clay) and Caillottes (limestone rich and rocky). Next on to a sample of the 2015 ‘Les Godons’, a Sancerre from a south-facing, bowl shaped single-parcel – also a combination of Terre Blanche and Caillottes soil that exhibited more richness and texture. Then a sample of the 2015 Pouilly-Fumé ‘Les Lumeaux’ – chalky and rocky Caillottes soil and a more grassy and herbaceous counterpart to the more austere minerality of the Apud Sariacum. The 2015 wines still had some maturing to do before bottling but were already expressive and energetic.
After we inquired about how his wines fare after a bit of age in the bottle, Philippe brought out a 1998 ‘Les Godons’ Sancerre and a 1999 ‘Les Lumeaux’ Pouilly-Fumé. The Sancerre had petrol and interesting pine qualities while the Pouilly-Fume was even more intensely evergreen. Both had amazing texture and it was a treat to see how these wines uniquely evolve.
Philippe Raimbault is a man of few words. He met his English wife Lynne when she moved to Sancerre and opened a small bar to escape her life as an advertising executive in London. She tells amazing stories and, in French or in English, is a vibrant spokesperson for her husband and his wines. Their relationship is a fitting metaphor for a humble winemaker in a brand-name region: let someone else do the talking while he gets down to work. In Philippe’s case, it’s the wine doing the talking.