Off the beaten track in France: discovering Sancerre
Despite my adoration, the more time I spend off the beaten track in France, the more I find myself succumbing to the charms of France’s smaller towns and villages.
Take the picturesque hilltop village of Sancerre, which is located on the very eastern edge of the Loire Valley, as an example.
While fewer than 2000 residents call the medieval village home, Sancerre provides a taste of French culture that is well worth experiencing, especially considering the village can be reached from Paris in well under three hours. Exceptional food, wine and history are all on offer – you just need to know where to look in this breathtakingly beautiful and authentic French village.
Discovering famous French wine
For many Francophiles, their first introduction to Sancerre comes via the village’s well-known wine. Sancerre winemakers deliver elegant, terroir driven wines, with sauvignon blanc grapes used to craft the white wines, and pinot noir featured in the red wines. While there are numerous opportunities to taste the various wines within the village, a visit to the Maison des Sancerre is a must if you hope to really get an understanding of this local specialty.
Through a variety of interactive mediums, visitors to the Maison des Sancerre are introduced to the history of wine making in the area. This includes insight into the damaging impact that insect Phylloxera had on Sancerre as a wine-producing region. (Spoiler alert – Phylloxera forced vine growers to experiment with Sauvignon Blanc grapes. These grapes are now the most widely planted within the region). Watch the entertaining 4D short film, experience the sound and light show, and taste a sample of the famous wine – all within a carefully restored historic tower.
Don’t miss the sensory garden, housed within the grounds of the Maison des Sancerre. There, you can practice identifying the aromas that you find in the wines. Additionally, the boutique at the entrance of the Maison offers a great range of gifts and books if you are looking for a little something to help you remember your trip to Sancerre.
Note that the Maison des Sancerre is open seven days a week from April to November.
A special walk
While exploring the wine culture is one way to experience Sancerre’s rich history, visitors do have an alternative in the form of the Sancerre Past and Present walking tour. The self-guided tour sets out from the Sancerre Tourist Office and all you need to do is follow the burgundy line as it leads you through the winding, medieval streets of the village.
Along the way, you’ll take in the unspoilt character of Sancerre – pale stone, blue shutters (or volets in French), artisanal boutiques and ancient doorways. On top of all the beauty, you’ll find interpretive signage in both French and English, which provides you with information on 28 points of interest along the route.
One of these points of interest is the spectacular Tour des Fiefs. Built in 1380, this last remaining tower was once one of six towers that formed Sancerre’s original fortifications. For a small donation enthusiastic visitors can climb the tower. The climb is a big one but the view – which takes in the Loire River, the nearby viaducts and vineyards, and the local Château – is more than worth it.
Assuming you choose to undertake the climb of the Tour des Fiefs, the Sancerre Past and Present walking tour will take about one and a half hours to complete.
Food for Francophiles
All that learning, walking and climbing is likely to make you more than a little hungry. Luckily, Sancerre is packed with top notch eating options designed to suit every budget.
For those looking for a Michelin Star experience, Sancerre’s one starred restaurant La Tour won’t disappoint. Intimate, but not at all stuffy, La Tour uses local produce, and offers the quality and service you’d expect from a starred restaurant. If you happen to be visiting at lunchtime, I can highly recommend the three-course lunch special – which, in true Michelin style, actually contained six courses. At 29 euro per diner, this option offered exceptional value. While reservations are recommended, we were able to easily secure a reservation on the Friday we visited.
Sancerre also has a number of excellent, more casual eateries, one of which is Auberge Joseph Mellot. This restaurant, which was founded in 1882, provides friendly service and I’m happy to report that everything we ordered was simply delicious. The standout of our dishes was my husband’s poached eggs served with a red wine sauce that incorporated mushrooms and lardons.
If you choose to visit Auberge Joseph Mellot, don’t miss the rare, spectacular copper still, which is housed within the restaurant. Originally used for making Eau de Vie in the 1800’s, the still was hidden during the time of prohibition to prevent it from being destroyed.
If picnicking is more your style, don’t hesitate to pick up a round of the famous local goat’s cheese – Crottin de Chavignol. These small, white cheeses are available from the local fromagerie and are aged for various lengths of time. Choose a young cheese, a blue cheese or one of the aged cheeses; whichever decision you make, you won’t go wrong. For an extra special treat, pack some of the local ham – Jambon de Sancerre – into your picnic basket. It is a perfect match for the Crottin de Chavignol. All you’ll need then is a baguette and bottle of local Sancerre to ensure a fabulous meal.
If you are looking for a destination that’s off the beaten track in France, Sancerre is definitely worth your consideration. Small and sparkling – it is a gem of a French village.
Have you tried any of Sancerre’s special treats? Maybe some wine, cheese or ham? If so, we’d love for you to share your thoughts with us.
1, 3 & 4 © Scott Gould.
2. Sancerre, by Alain Bachellier, via Flickr.