Call them old school, call them luddites, call them crusty old throwbacks, but whatever you call them you’ve got to love the winemakers that see no reason to fuss with all the trappings of modern high-tech winemaking. After all, some of these old farts (and their children, or even their children’s children) are making some of the most profound, unique wines in the world. Perhaps more so than the younger generation of passionate prodigy-winemakers, it is the grizzled old poet-winemakers that evoke the romance of wine more than any other.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are a lot of these folks in France (it is, after all, the Old World, no?). Wander your way into the Loire Valley and you’ll find more than a few, and strangely enough you’ll find two of them that answer to the same name.
The story of Domaine Cotat is the story of one family, two wines, and several generations of winemaking and winegrowing on the limestone hills of the Loire. The family goes way back, but for the purposes of this story, we can begin with the two brothers Francis and Paul Cotat. Starting in 1947 these two made wine as a dynamic duo of the Loire — a cooperative of two separate winegrowers who shared the same name, the same region, and the same philosophy. Each year for over four decades, eventually involving their sons in the business as well, they would pool their grapes and make several wines together. As the whim struck them, they would put one or another’s name on the label. Some years Francis. Some years Paul. Perhaps they decided based on whose grapes were better that year. Or maybe the just alternated. In any case, all was idyllic until the French Government figured out what they were doing, and then the days of idyll came to an end.
It was simply wrong, said the government, for two separate winegrowers to make blends of their grapes in a single cellar and then bottle them willy nilly. How would the world know where they really came from? How could Francis put his name on the bottle when some of the grapes inside were Paul’s? It was far too confusing for the poor government regulators, so down came the hammer of regulation, and around 1990 the world would have to contend with the existence of two Cotats. Domaine Francois Cotat (Paul’s son) and domaine Pascal Cotat (Francis’ son).
Francois got to keep the family cellar, while Pascal built a new facility down the road. No longer allowed to share their grapes, the two brothers continue to generally share their fathers’ philosophies and camaraderie when it comes to making Sancerre.
Pascal’s property has vines that are a bit older than Francois’ and he tends to harvest them just slightly later than his brother, though both pick later than all the other producers in the region, yielding in some hot years a Sancerre that is actually not entirely dry. In keeping with the iconoclastic approach, Pascal (and his brother) barrel ferment their Sauvignon Blanc grapes in ancient oak barrels that are crusty with tartaric acid crystals from decades of use. Barrel fermentation of Sancerre is, of course, nearly unheard of, but luckily the government regulators haven’t decided (yet) that such practices are obscene. It probably goes without saying, if you know winemakers like this, that the wines are fermented with native yeasts for as long as “nature intends” them to be fermenting, whether that be weeks or months. The grapes are lovingly and painstakingly pressed by hand in a century-old wooden hand press that is capable of pressing only a few kilograms of must at each go.
Did I mention the phrase old-school? As you can imagine no fining or filtering ever takes place in these cellars.
One of the most charming things about this particular wine is its name. “Those Damned Mountains” just doesn’t have the same ring as “Les Monts Damnés” but it’s still as lovely a name in English as it is in French. The Cotats grow their grapes in one of the steepest parts of the limestone hills of the Sancerre appellation. And one of their vineyards is so steep that it is impossible to negotiate on foot in the downward direction. When harvesting or pruning, to get out of the vineyard you have to slide down on your ass, unless you want to risk a broken neck. This incline has given rise to both the name of the wine, as well as a unique contraption now used by all the vineyard workers which involves strapping a cushion to your rear end so you can hold your bucket and shears in front of you while you carefully scootch your way down the hill.
Apparently this is fun enough that volunteers show up every year from all over Europe to work this damned vineyard. I know I’d certainly love to give it a try. But for now I’ll just have to settle for drinking the wine.
Light gold in the glass this wine has an alluring nose of wet slate, chalk, smoke, and a faint hint of fruit that most closely resembles white cherries. In the mouth it is silky and weighty — much thicker than usual for a Sancerre — with the lush body you expect from Chardonnay not from Sauvignon Blanc, but with enough acidity to avoid flabbiness. Flavors of lime, lime zest, and apples mix with a mineral undertone and a topcoat of light creaminess and nuttiness that lasts through a surprisingly long finish. This is Sancerre singing a very different tune. The damned mountains have made a wine with the stout stature of a Greco Roman wrestler that happens to be very light on his feet, or very swift on his rear, as the case may be. Unique and outstanding, and apparently (no personal experience here) these wines have incredible aging potential.
I’d love to pair this wine with a goat cheese souffle, and if I wanted to get fancy, I’d make sure the cheese was from Chavignol. Crottin de Chavignol is perhaps the most famous cheese of the Loire Valley, and one of the top goat cheeses of the world, but might be a little pricey (and refined) for making into souffle. Let’s stick with a nice raw chevre, shall we?
Overall Score: 9.5
How Much?: $42
This wine is readily available for purchase on the Internet. Imported by North Berkeley Imports in Berkeley, CA.