When my wife and I began living in France in 1979, we were both ready to begin an exploration of the alluring universe of French wines, without a clue as to how extensive and intricate it might be. We were open to everything and we instantly were seduced by the forthright appeal and affordability of wines made from the white sauvignon grape. We especially loved its expression in the Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé appellations. Their refreshing qualities appealed to us enormously, and at that time the mantra was: DYA, drink the youngest available.
Part of our plan for getting to know France was to travel to the regions that produced the wines that we liked, and meeting, if possible, some of the best producers, hoping to learn why their nectars were different from others. Numerous times we drove to the region of Sancerre and visited producers in the Sancerre and Pouilly appellations, which face each other on opposite sides of the Loire River.
In that way, we visited vintners such as Michel Redde, Serge Dagueneau, Jean-Claude Dagueneau, Ch. De Tracy, Ladoucette, Crochet, and Mellot. There was no shortage of superb producers, but among them there was one that we quickly recognized as unique, wonderful and reliable, no matter how often, or soon, or when we had the good fortune to open another bottle of their wines, those of the Henri Bourgeois establishment in Chavignol.
In that spirit, we descended, without an appointment, on them and we were welcomed warmly and graciously. At that time they were on the cusp of 2 revolutions in the world of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé wines. The first was to eliminate the DYA constraint. By paying minute attention to the soil content of each parcel, they were aiming for wines that would develop complex flavours, something that until then had been expected of other varieties of grape, such as chardonnay, in other appellations.
They were just getting that idea off the ground, so it would be a few more years before we would see the tangible results. The conventional wisdom at that time was that white sauvignon does not lend easily lend itself to the development of complex flavors and aromas. HB decided to push that wisdom and see what was possible.
The second revolution was the realization of the HB family that it possessed something unique and irreplaceable, an ensemble of parcels doted with unique terroirs that could not be reproduced anywhere else, at least not without great difficulty. That realisation led them to conclude that, if they invested more in what they possessed, they could produce wines of immense quality, and that would put them in a position to control their marketing. In a few words: supply directly to the consumer, as much as possible. That is why you are more likely to find their wines at superb restaurants and dining establishments than anywhere else, such as wine shops, and never in super markets.
We will be posting an article in these pages that will discuss the ethereal concept of terroir in the near future. For now, let me summarise what it means in the context of producing an agricultural product: it is the remarkable synergy that can result from the inter-action of climate, the innate potential of the land’s soil composition, and the know-how of the cultivator in finessing the agricultural product. In the case of HB, we are talking about white wines made from the white sauvignon grape or red wines derived from the pinot noir variety.
Our first visit at Henri Bourgeois took place in what is now one of their cellars for ageing red wines. Subsequent visits took place in their new winery, which is located further up the hill on which Chavignol nestles. It is a very modern gravity-driven winery where the grapes arrive at the top, are sorted, pressed and the juice flows by gravity into the tanks, and where mechanical movement of the components that finally becomes wine are eliminated as much as possible. Today HB exploits the 72 hectares of vineyards that it owns, and it vinifies the grapes of each of its 120 parcels separately.
Pretty soon a new infrastructure for visits was opened, where visitors are welcomed today. I have been there at least a dozen times and I look forward to each visit, which is always an occasion to re-stock my own cellar. You can order directly from them, if you wish, but I always appreciate the ability to taste on the spot what I am about to buy.
Another incentive for visiting the Henri Bourgeois establishment is the opportunity to discover some of their other expressions of wines made from white sauvignon in other appellations, such as IGP Val de Loire, Quincy, Menetou Salon, and Coteaux de Giennois, as well as their Clos Henri which is produced in Marlborough, New Zealand. They are each a treat and available at prices that are amazingly low. Some of you may complain that I am giving short shrift to HB rosés and pinot noirs. That is true, and it reflects my quirks. I have never been a big fan of rosé, and I love sturdier reds, such as shiraz (syrah). Pay no attention—you may love them.