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More than Rock Solid - - Gérard Boulay's single-vineyard Chavignol

Given the Boulay clan have been tending the vines of Chavignol since at least 1380, I think it’s a given that they know a top vintage when they see one. So when the humble, quietly spoken Gerard Boulay – who is usually coy on such matters – call the vintage one of the most beautiful he has experienced, it’s worth getting excited. In short, 2014 is a star-studded year for this address. The single-site wines from La Grande Côte, Cul de Beauje, La Cote, and Chavignol’s mineral generator par excellence, Les Monts Damnés, are simply stellar; they’re pristine and lucid, bustling with energy, yet at the same time are seductive and textural. 
Forget Sancerre, these are some of the purest, most articulate white wines of France, and will age as well best of them. How well? On our recent visit, Gerard Boulay opened a 1997 Clos de Beaujeu. It had aged a like a dream - a thrilling, earthy white with beautiful texture, great cut and with fennel, liquorice and nectarine fruit along with a long, saline close. Few Burgundies of similar age would be in such great shape! We expect the ‘14s would age just as well but who cellars Sancerre these days? No matter, the wines below are already brilliant drinking.   
“To my palate, Gérard Boulay is undoubtedly on the top tier of producers in Chavignol. His wines have a vibrant purity, evident ripeness, feel devoid of any raw varietal character and reflect the soils from which they are born. Indeed, in terms of purity and daringly racy, I do wonder whether he shouldn't be placed at the very top of the tier. I certainly find his wines sufficiently exciting, breath-taking in their assured poise, to suggest this might be the case.” Chris Kissack,
Chavignol. Just like any other well-known region in France, Sancerre has its own vineyard hierarchy (officially endorsed or not) and there’s no doubt that Sancerre’s greatest sites, barring an exception or two, are concentrated around the hamlet of Chavignol. Chavignol’s steep, south and southeast facing limestone slopes – home to historically revered sites like Les Monts-Damnés (within which lies the famed Comtesse lieu-dit), La Grande Côte and Le Cul de Beaujeu – offer, without doubt, the greatest terroirs of Sancerre. It’s also no fluke that the top wines from this village regularly draw comparison with the finest wines of Burgundy. In the world of Sancerre, Chavignol plays by a different set of rules. Chavignol rules. The wines are more fleshy, more opulent, and less Sauvignon. When Didier Dagueneau decided he wanted to grow Sancerre, he waited years until a slice of Chavignol became available—he wouldn’t settle for anything less. Dagueneau also wanted to call his wine simply “Chavignol”, to differentiate it from the rest of Sancerre (this was in fact the historical label for the region’s wines pre the AOC of Sancerre being formed), but this was not permitted by the regional authorities. The Boulay family have been working this soil a little longer than the Dagueneau clan (since the 14th century at least!) and it shows in both their remarkable holdings and the quality of their wines.
Clos de Beaujeu

After Les Monts-Damnés and La Grande Côte, Le Cul de Beaujeu is Boulay’s third blue-blooded site. Boulay’s parcel lies within the original Clos of this vineyard, established by the monks of Beaujeu in the Middle Ages. The walls of the Clos are no longer standing as they were originally built from clay and hay, and have not withstood the test of time. On this slope of exceptional Kimmeridgian limestone and clay, right beside the village, Boulay farms a small parcel of 30 to 60-year-old vines where the soils are pebbly, lime rich and strewn with fossils. Along with the 60% gradient, the rocky soils make this the parcel very difficult to farm. Clos de Beaujeu is the dark heart of Boulay’s vineyards; the source of some of its deepest, most structured wines (it's no surprise that Delaporte still farms some Pinot Noir here). Naturally fermented in large, upright cuve, then aged in three and four-year-old 300-litre barrels, this is a more savoury, spicier, inkier example of Chavignol. The 2014 is remarkably well balanced and drinkable for a young Beaujeu, yet it certainly has the stuffing to age.


Les Monts-Damnés       


Monts-Damnés (pronounced mon-dannay) is perhaps the best-known vineyard in Chavignol. Drinking some great juice from this site leaves you in little doubt that Chavignol is where, as a general rule, the most textural, mineral, uplifting and sublime whites in all of Sancerre come from. Boulay’s bottling comes from 45-year-old vines in one of the steepest inclines of this majestic vineyard, a 40° south facing plot on terres blanches (a white soil of chalky limestone over Kimmeridgian marl), directly adjacent to Edmond Vatan’s Clos la Néore parcel. It's a parcel of vines that gives not only a complex set of aromas and flavours (as you can read below), but also radiates boundless energy. In difference to the wine above, Monts-Damnés is vinified in three to four-year-old Tronçais oak casks, before finishing its élevage in upright wooden cuve before bottling. 2014 is a linear, intense Chavignol, a distillate of its site, with a radiant yet pulpy mouthfeel - the layers of texture underpinned by racy, mineral energy.

La Côte                       

First made as a single parcel in 2010, La Côte comes from the majestic La Grande Côte vineyard, a south-southeast facing hillside on the outskirts of Chavignol, between the town and Amigny. La Côte has quickly become one of the stars of Boulay’s range. It’s Boulay’s coolest terroir, and the last to be picked. The site’s pure Kimmeridgian limestone and late season harvesting deliver resounding density and absurd precision on the palate. Vinified and aged in three and four-year-old barrels, this offers great breadth and texture on the palate yet with a filigree elegance. Still a pup, yet, like all of the 2014s, it is already remarkable drinking.


Pierre Bréjoux, when Inspector General of the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée board, noted that there are some wines of Sancerre that “…one would like to have a throat as long as a swan’s neck so as to taste them better.” Boulay’s Comtesse, a wine as profound and seductive as Sancerre can get, is one such wine. This rare bottling comes from just 0.40 hectares of 70-year-old vines in the Comtesse lieu-dit (place name) at the chalky epicentre of Les Monts-Damnés. For hundreds of years or more, this vineyard has been widely considered locally to be the finest single terroir of Chavignol. The soil composition is pure Kimmeridgian limestone with a 30/40 cm layer of topsoil over solid limestone bedrock (bringing a lot of minerality and warmth as the rocks absorb the sun) while the position on the slope ensures full ripeness. Full ripeness plus intense minerality – a combination that all of France’s greatest vineyards share.  Here they combine to provide Boulay’s most powerful and hedonistic wine. As is often the case, the 2014 of this wine incorporates the best elements of all the cuvees above. It has more seductive texture and hedonistic fruit, yet also greater line, mineral clarity, purity of fruit and general precision. It’s an achingly delicious, highborn Sancerre. The quality and rarity well justify the asking price. Alea iacta est; the die has been cast.

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