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Over the past decade, Edmond and Anne Vatan’s Sancerre “Clos la Néore” has gone, from virtually unknown outside the Loire, to becoming a top prize among sommeliers, merchants and connoisseurs worldwide.
What they realize is that, from this small plot within Les Monts Damnés—Sancerre’s greatest vineyard—and through methods little-changed from those used by their family since the French Revolution, the Vatans fashion transcendently complex, very long-lived Sancerre that is among the world’s most riveting white wines.
In fact, in how extraordinarily it develops with age, Vatan’s Clos la Néore has more in common with a Raveneau or Dauvissat Chablis than with most Sancerres. As View from the Cellar’s John Gilman has written, “In many regards I find that the wines of the Raveneau brothers and Monsieur Vatan are quite analogous in terms of evolutionary cycles and their potential for profundity with sufficient bottle age.”
The awakening of the wine world to Clos la Néore’s brilliance has coincided with greater understanding that noble wines require noble terroirs, and that technology can’t compensate for a mediocre site.
Great terroir and dedication to minimalist traditional methods are what the Vatan domaine has in spades. The Loire’s longest-lived, most complex Sancerres come from the famed terres blanches soils in the neighboring villages of Chavignol, Amigny and Verdigny.
This “white earth” is the southwestern-most extension of the same vein of Kimmeridgian rock that gives great Chablis its hallmark minerality and nerve. What makes Chavignol’s Les Monts Damnés rise above all other Sancerre lieux-dits is its ideal south-through-southeast exposure and its nearly vertically-steep slope of pure terres blanches that gives the site its “damned mountain” name.
And the Vatan monopole of Clos la Néore is arguably Monts Damnés’ finest parcel, located in the sheltered heart of the slope. Thirteen generations of Vatan have tended vines here, dating back to when the family purchased the land in 1789.
Not only is the Clos particularly well-placed, but also boasts vines nearly fifty years of age, as Edmond’s first task upon taking charge of the domaine in 1959 was the staggered replanting of the vineyard, which he completed a decade later. Their naturally low yields, enhanced by ruthless pruning to half that of the appellation norm, organic viticulture and late harvesting produce a highly-concentrated, complex essence of this great site.
Edmond’s—and since his retirement in 2007—his daughter Anne’s, instinctive approach with this perfect fruit has far more in common with that of the preceding generations of Vatan than it does with modern winemaking techniques.
The Vatan méthode ancienne begins with the late harvesting of the low-yielding old vines, for complete development of Clos la Néore’s famed depth and complexity. The native-yeast fermentation takes place in neutral 600-liter wooden foudres that are at least a century old, followed by aging in the same ancient barrels.
The wine is racked off the lees 2-to-3 times until sufficiently clear for its unfiltered bottling in May, when the barometric pressure is perfect. So sure is Edmond’s feel for the wine that, as he told The Food and Wine of France author Edward Behr, “he had never checked the temperature of the fermentation with a thermometer. He went by his nose, and if he smelled fruit in the air, he knew that the fermentation was too warm and he must leave a door or window open overnight to cool it.”
Vatan’s Sancerre is also allowed to go through the malolactic fermentation in its own time though, as Edmond said to Gilman, “he honestly did not know” if it did so! And the Vatans use almost no sulfur, the only application the burning of a sulfur candle in the empty barrels following bottling.
Through this highly-instinctive approach, the Vatan family continues to make extraordinarily rich, complex and long-lived Sancerre, with the singular character of its terroir on full display. But with the Vatan holding having dwindled down to a single-hectare and demand greater than ever, what Gilman calls “by any stretch of the imagination one of the world’s greatest white wines” has become exceedingly hard to find.
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