In June 1993 lightning killed the oldest tree in the Saint-Palais oak forest in central France. The oak, 435 years old, was one of the greatest in the country. It was six metres in circumference and the trunk weighed 35 tonnes.
The Henri Bourgeois family in the Loire region outbid companies from America and Japan at a special auction, and almost two years later the tree was felled as television crews recorded the event for the national news.
Some years later cooper Jean Vicard created 40 barrels. The barrels are the 228-litre Burgundy style rather than the 225-litre size favoured in Bordeaux. An average oak tree yields about two barrels. The Bourgeois family believes this great oak bestows its wines with special power or an “invisible energy”.
One of their flagship wines is Le Chene Saint-Etienne (chene means oak in English). The wine is released a dozen years after vintage. The 2000 edition is sold out, the 2002 is currently available, and the 2003 will be released later this year.
Sancerre is known for its magnificent whites made with sauvignon blanc. Le Chene is made from old pinot noir vines on the chalky slopes of Chavignol, the Sancerre village where Henri Bourgeois is based. These slopes are known as “griottes” though some locals prefer a harsher name discussed later.
The 2003 Le Chene is magnificent – soft and silky with flavours of leather and cherries, and a range of red and black fruits plus hints of spice. Malolactic fermentation takes place in the famous barrels, as did ageing for 18 months.
The Bourgeois family have been making wine in Sancerre for 10 generations. In the Oxford Wine Companion Jancis Robinson MW describes Henri Bourgeois as “meticulous growers, producing the best of Sancerre”. Indeed, most critics acknowledge that Henri Bourgeois is consistently one of the best wine estates in France. They make beautiful, even spiritual, wines.
The family started with two hectares in Chavignol in 1950 and today farms 72 hectares of premium vines, on the best slopes of Sancerre on the left bank of the Loire and Pouilly-Fume on the other side of the river. The company is highly regarded globally and exports 65 per cent of its wine to 80 nations.
Most vineyards are planted on south-facing slopes on three different soils. Around Menetou-Salon “white soils” of clay and limestone dominate. In Chavignol the soil includes Kimmeridgian marl, and around the town of Sancerre we find flint soils, known as silex, that add a distinctive mineral note.
Arnaud Bourgeois is the company’s director general and his cousin Jean-Christophe Bourgeois the winemaker. Decisions about wines are usually made by the pair plus other members of the family.
Almost 20 wines were presented at a tasting earlier this month in Chavignol. We have insufficient space to mention all of them, wonderful as they all were. Some of the most memorable included the 2012 Jadis Sancerre, made from sauvignon blanc grown on Kimmeridgian marl.
Jadis means “old times” and is simply luscious, with aromas of tropical fruit laced with a hint of honey. It remains on lees for 11 months and has the most extraordinary length of any white wine we’ve tasted in years. The Jadis is racked and bottled in accordance with the lunar cycle, a reflection of the family’s commitment to bio-dynamic and organic principles.
Tasting Henri Bourgeois wines is almost a spiritual experience – that combination of excellence and commitment to produce something special that perhaps comes from the dedication only a family estate can offer.
Arnaud Bourgeois showed me how vines are organised to avoid the development of rot in humid times of the year. Vines are tended meticulously. One can smell the vitality in the soil. One feels alive among such vines.
Some of the slopes around the estate are extremely steep. The area is known locally as MD, an abbreviation of “damned mountain” because many locals believed the slopes were too steep to work. One suspects that stronger words than “damned” have been used on hot and sweaty summer days.
The 2012 Le MD de Bourgeois feels sweet yet is bone dry. Made from sauvignon blanc from Kimmeridgian soil, it has excellent ageing potential and offers a range of tropical aromas and a complexity that sauvignon blanc from other nations cannot replicate. Again, the length was quite amazing.
The Etienne Henri sauvignon blanc is named after winemaker Jean-Christophe Bourgeois’s grandfather, and is only made in the best years. It was not made between 1990 and 1995. The 2009 edition is simply magnificent, and spent a year on lees. Jean-Christophe described the wine as an attempt to express the “supreme harmony between the grape variety, the flinty soil and the [old] wooden barrels”. Ideally it should be cellared for about seven to 10 years.
The Vendage de la St-Luc, also from sauvignon blanc from Kimmeridgian soils, is even rarer than the Etienne Henri. About two vintages are made each decade. The most recent is the 2008, which is a remarkable wine.
Grapes are left for several weeks after the traditional harvest to obtain optimum sugar content. They are harvested by hand to avoid damaging the grapes, followed by slow and careful pressing before fermentation in Tronçais oak. The wine spent 15 months in barrel before bottling.
Jean-Christophe said when winter arrives and the fermentation stops, the residual sugar gives this wine a unique delicacy. It tastes of slow-cooked quince and white truffles, and has a distinctive freshness and length — a wondrous wine that shows what masters can do with sauvignon blanc from the best terroir.
The Bourgeois family encourages people to sponsor new oak trees. These are named after sponsors and planted in the same Saint-Palais forest from where the famous oak originated that started this story.