All Roads Lead to…Sancerre

All Roads Lead to…Sancerre
Once a hilltop fortress and protestant stronghold, Sancerre remains the sauvignon blanc capital of the world A “lousy” experience If all roads lead to Rome and, as the saying goes, France is criss-crossed by just such major Roman highways.  One of them lies in the heart of the Berry region, at the foot of the picturesque winemaking village of Sancerre.  The hillside town’s vineyards are said to have been cultivated by the Gauls even before Roman times.  As for the Romans, Sancerre is first mentioned by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century.  Who knows, maybe some of those succulent grapes Cleopatra is so often seen eating actually came from Sancerre’s “herbaceous, citrus flavoured” chardonnay vineyards? Actually, it’s the work of the local Augustinian monks which first brought its renown to Sancerre.  Sancerre’s wine was already on Royal tables in 12th century France and Guillaume le Breton, naturalist and biographer of King Philippe Auguste (1180-1223) classed the Sancerre vineyard as “one of the finest in France”.  Notwithstanding, the Sancerre production wasn’t always today’s Sauvignon blanc.  The present day vineyard actually owes its existence to a tragic accident.  During Victorian times a small number of British botanists delighted in collecting a maximum number of different varieties of grapes.  In doing so the well-known and equally deadly phylloxerae louse migrated over from its North American habitat and, slipping unnoticed into 19th century European vineyards, flourished, quickly wiping out most of the unsuspecting vines and all of those belonging to Sancerre.  American winemakers came to the European’s rescue by providing their counterparts with a partly resistant grafting stock that saved the day and brought the new, stronger strain of Sauvignon blanc to the region. Navigating the Berry Originally from the vineyards of California’s Sonoma County where Chardonnay is a staple, when my teaching  job removed me from the Sancerre region in 1996, after over twenty years of residing there, and moved me on to a village a few miles north of Chablis, I was convinced that these same Chablis vineyards were the Chardonnay capital of the world. It was only recently that I discovered that both Sancerre, but also nearly a third of the Champagne production, also come from white Chardonnay grape stock.  Note that, s lightly drier than Chablis, the Sancerre “terroir” makes Sancerre’s Sauvignon blanc  a perfect match for accompanying the local Chavignol goat cheese, especially when the cheese is “repassé”, that is to say, laid to rest under a damp dishtowel for a week or so in the bottom of the fridge, both products originating from the same flint laden soil.   The village of Ménétréol, the lateral canal and the Loire River as seen from Sancerre Force is to admit that even after many years of having lived in the Berry, the drive to Sancerre, along the plane tree lined roads and local landmarks, is still just as beautiful.  But, of course, you can also reach Sancerre by way of the lateral canal, built in 1835. Renting one of the fully equipped boats called pénichettes or “little barges”, and cycling off to local stopovers, is both a relaxing and leisurely way of visiting the back country of France for a week or so, especially if you decide to join up with another couple or couples.  You don’t need a permit and manoeuvring through the locks is a once in a lifetime experience.  You’ll find a map and an example of a virtual trip here. The “lateral” canal, once used by commercial barges, runs parallel to the Loire.  The barges are gone now and traffic is mostly limited to family boating.  The rental point begins in the town of Briare, with its remarkable canal-bridge built by Eiffel, the one of tower fame.   For those who choose the southern route, the canal winds through the nearby village of Rogny-les-sept écluses, with its small, historical locks dating back to the 1597 and King Henry IV.   If you’re interested, you’ll find out quite a bit about daily life in France in Jeffrey Greene’s delightful book “French Spirits”, where he tells of his time living in Rogny and the characters that popped into and out of his experience there.  To get a little idea click here.  After Rogny the canal continues on through the picturesque village of Ménétréol-sous-Sancerre, where you can dock overnight and walk or bike up to Sancerre, stopping by the local supermarket for eventual supplies on your way back. History and drama in Sancerre To understand why Sancerre is unique beyond both its wines and its architecture, it’s worth taking a moment here to tell its story.  In the years before Henri IV finally signed the famous Edit of Nantes in 1598 according, once and for all, amnesty to Protestants all over France, the teachings of Jean Calvin, (1509-1564), a French theologian who had broken with the Catholic Church and begun publically criticising its rites and rituals, caused religious violence to rage between growing numbers of affluent Protestants and equally stubborn Catholics.         Sancerre circa 1657 After completing his law studies in the city of Bourges, some 25 miles south of Sancerre, Calvin began vociferously expressing his criticism of the Catholic Church’s non-individual centered rites and riturals.  His new religious philosophy spread across the region like wildfire. But on August 24th, 1575, Saint Bartholomew’s Day, disaster struck.  Charles IX, urged on by his mother, Catherine de Medici, called on all Catholics to prove their allegiance to the King by revolting against Calvin’s followers.  The result was a massacre in which thousands of French Protestants were murdered at the hands of local Catholics.  Of those who survived, many fled to Sancerre and when control of the city of Bourges was lost to the Catholics, they retaliated by killing several local priests and monks. Charles’s soldiers, with support from Bourges, immediately occupied Sancerre in November of 1572, but were forced back and ended up holding the townspeople in siege that lasted for over seven months. Warfare…

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