Goats are said to outnumber humans in the village of Chavignol in France's Loire Valley. Most of the bipeds in Chavignol are engaged in one of two endeavors: making goat cheese or making wine.
Both local products are justly renowned in their own right, but the combination of the two can be even more extraordinary. Indeed, if there can be a perfect wine and cheese match, this may be it: Crottin de Chavignol cheese and Sancerre wine from Chavignol.
The secret to this match is almost certainly found in the chalky, limestone soil of the region. It imparts to the wine a distinctive herbal and mineral tang. The same gout de terroir ("taste of the soil") is also found in the cheese. Under the French appellation controlle'e law, all cheese labeled Crottin de Chavignol must be made only from the milk of goats raised in Chavignol that have been fed on grass and other vegetation growing in the region's soil. Presumably, the distinctive gout de terroir is imparted to the cheese through this milk.
Finding, Selecting and Serving the Cheese
Though it once virtually had to be smuggled out of France, Crottin de Chavignol is now available in the United States at many cheese specialty shops. Locally, the cheese is usually stocked at Sutton Place Gourmet and Calvert Woodley, though other cheese shops also carry it from time to time.
Selecting a Crottin de Chavignol at its peak of flavor is something like popping the cork of a wine at its peak of maturity. It's a matter of timing and personal preference.
According to Roberto Brian, the cheese buyer at Sutton Place Gourmet in Washington, the ideal Crottin de Chavignol should have a dry, almost chalky texture. When the three- to four-ounce balls of Crottin de Chavignol arrive at his shop neatly packed in what look like little wooden wine crates, the cheese is creamy and soft with a light, almost mold-free rind. Sometimes it is sold this way if the customer desires, but Brian prefers to age it in his cold room (about 33 degrees) until it has developed a full bloom of white and blue mold around the rind, generally after about three weeks. By then, the flavors of the cheese have concentrated and taken on the distinctive taste of Crottin de Chavignol.
Before serving, Brian recommends taking the Crottin de Chavignol out of the refrigerator about an hour ahead of time. Each Crottin de Chavignol should be cut in half, and the bitter rind should be discarded. Typically the Crottin de Chavignol is lightly spread on French bread to be consumed between sips of wine. Because of its concentrated flavors, a little bit of Crottin de Chavignol tends to go a long way at tastings. Unused or leftover cheese will keep well for about a week in the refrigerator. It should be loosely wrapped in plastic or kept under a wet cloth so that it neither dries out nor perspires excessively.
Selecting the Wine
Chavignol is one of 14 villages that produce wine with the Sancerre appellation controlle'e. While it is particularly interesting to try Crottin de Chavignol with a Sancerre from this village, Crottin de Chavignol can match equally well with other Sancerres, particularly those produced on a similarly chalky limestone soil.
Crottin de Chavignol also makes a pleasant accompaniment to non-Sancerre Loire wines made from the sauvignon blanc, but the match is not nearly as striking. Indeed, some aficionados claim that the best way to tell a Sancerre from a Pouilly Fume', which is made from the same grape but on the opposite side of the Cher River, is to taste them with some Crottin de Chavignol.
Listed below, in order of preference, are the Sancerres presently available in Washington, including those from Chavignol, marked with an asterisk. You may find that Cretin de Chavignol goes best with Sancerre from Chavignol; then again you may not -- but that's part of the fun. Your retailer can order from the wholesaler listed in brackets. (Virginia and Maryland distribution may vary.) Prices are approximate.
Lucien Thomas 1988 Sancerre "Clos de la Cre~te" ($13): Full floral and herb bouquet with classic asparagus notes. Fresh, solid, and deep sauvignon blanc fruit with a hint of spiciness on the long finish. Excellent structure and balance, but also vibrant. (Robert Kacher Selections, Washington Wholesale)
Jean-Max Roger 1988 Sancerre "Le Che~ne Marchand" ($16): From one of the finest terroirs in Sancerre, marvelously lively and herbal on the palate and in the bouquet. (Christopher Canaan Selection, DOPS)
Hippolyte Reverdy 1988 Sancerre "Les Perriers" ($14): Fruity, softer style, but still plenty of structure and lively acidity. (Kermit Lynch Selection, Wine Source)
*Henri Bourgeois 1989 Co~tes des Monts Damne's ($15): Tantalizing preview of the opulent and exciting (if atypical) 1989 Sancerres. Bursts with fresh, grapy fruit. A 1987, also available, is more herbal and classic. (Laurent Selections)
Roblin 1988 "Cha~teau de Maimbray" ($16): Easygoing, fruity style; charming. (Robert Chadderdon Selections, Spencer Graham)
*Francis Cotat 1988 Chavignol "Les Culs de Beaujeau" ($10): Well balanced and flavorful. Many consider Cotat to be the best producer of Sancerre; look for the Mont Damne's and Grand Cotes bottlings, which were unavailable for tasting at this writing. (Hand Picked Selections) Please note also that the Chavignol of Vincent Delaporte (Forman Brothers), another top producer, was unavailable for tasting.
LaDoucette 1987 "Comte La Fond" Sancerre ($16): Formidable power and depth, fine maturity. (Forman)
*Henri Bourgeois 1988 Sancerre "Les Baronnes" ($12): Round and full, nice spicy notes. (Laurent Selections)
Robert Crochet 1988 Sancerre ($13): Pungent and full, but still tight. Needs some time. (Robert Kacher Selections)
Alphonse Mellot 1988 Sancerre "Domaine La Moussie`re" ($15): Less assertive than most, but considerable elegance. (Forman)
Michel Redde 1988 Sancerre ($14): Traditional style, but too closed on the nose. (Forman)
The Maurice Barbou 1989 Sauvignon "Domaine des Corbilliere`s" from neighboring Touraine captures most of the appeal of a good Sancerre from between $7 and $8 a bottle. With respect to cheeses, the following Loire goat cheeses are also fine matches with Sancerre or Pouilly Fume', and are generally priced somewhat lower: Selles Sur-Cher; Valencay; Cre`zancy; Santranges; Gracay; Sainte Mauray (Touraine).
Ben Giliberti is a Washington freelancer who writes regularly about wine.