Clos Rougeard Loire Valley, France.
After 14 generations of continuous ownership (from 1664) passed down through successive generations by the one family this small 10 ha estate has changed ownership following the death of one of the two Foucault brothers. Charly Foucault, who was responsible for both the vineyard work and the wine-making, passed away in late December 2015 and following a long and difficult process the domaine is now owned by one of France’s wealthiest families, the Bouygues. The Bouygues family own several food and wine related interests including Château Montrose in St Estephe and Château Tronquoy Lalande in Bordeaux and other wine properties in Burgundy with the acquisition of 51% of the Henri Rebourseau domaine based in Gevrey Chambertin, not to mention a truffle farm Chinon.
To say that this property has become a cult estate is a gross understatement with sommeliers and restaurants the world over clambering to buy the wines or visit the estate, an almost impossible task to arrange even for us as the importers. The Foucault family had been quietly producing tiny quantities of wines from the same small plots of vines in Saumur and Saumur Champigny that the family owned and farmed for generations, with the notable exception of the purchase in 1993 of 1 hectare of very old vines in Brézé. Perhaps it was the addition of this tiny plot of ancient vines on the east facing slope of this historically great terroir of Brézé that has bought the worlds attention to this estate, such is the beauty and rarity of this wine.
Farming organically without the use of modern fertilisers and systemic chemicals and replanting with massale selection of vines and giving the wines very long ageing in barrels and then also in bottle before releasing each new vintage ensured that the wines would show their best upon release. Not only was it this ‘slow wine’ method of production that had appeal, but very simply these wines are among the greatest to be found in France. These are wines of rare breed and texture and complexity for the white Brézé (which, with age, is often compared to great white Burgundies) and also for the small 1 ha patch of very old Cabernet Franc vines located in Chacé that makes the iconic ‘Le Bourg’ red. Just 4000 bottles are produced of each of these 2 wines in a good year - and the demand from wine lovers around the world is enormous.
However Charly was not the only person doing all the work in the vineyards and cellars, indeed the cellar-master now is the same person who had been working with Charly for more than 10 vintages already and the current vineyard manager had also clocked up more than 15 vintages working alongside Charly. So having visited the estate in November 2018 and tasting through the barrels of the 2018 + 2017 vintages and then the 3 vintages not yet released being 2015, 2014 + 2013 (2016 had just been moved to tank in preparation for bottling and so was not available to taste) it was clear that nothing had notably changed either in the cellars or in the wine-making.
The cellars remain the same, the exact type of oak for each cuvee remained the same, the 2014 + 2015 vintages lay resting in bottles deep underground in these very cool damp cellars waiting for release and the 2017 + 2018 vintages in barrel remain stylistically identical to the earlier vintages but if anything these younger vintages shocked me with just how well they were showing at this early stage. If anything the 2017 + 2018 vintages appear to even more impressive, which is perhaps not surprising as there is little doubt that the wines at this estate have progressed and gained in clarity and depth in the last 2 decades. So the progress continues under new ownership who are fully committed to bio-dynamic viticulture not only at this estate but also at their other wine estates.
In April 2019 I drove through the hillside of Brézé with Arnaud Lambert stopping beside the extremely old vines of Clos Rougeard, Arnaud owns the plot beside these large 100+ year old vines, and what was notable was that the missing dead vines had now been replanted and those few rows owned by Clos Rougeard appeared absolutely immaculate. So yes there has been small change with replacing dead vines and no doubt other small details will be attended to all in the same spirit and care as before by the new owners who certainly do not lack the means to ensure that this iconic estate remains at the every top, not only of Saumur, but also among the greatest estates in the Loire and indeed all of France.
The leading cuvée of Saumur-Champigny produced here is Le Bourg, which comes from a 1 hectare plot of mostly 75 to 95 year-old Cabernet Franc vines planted on soils comprised of a thin layer of clay over limestone sub-soil. After the frost of 1991 a proportion of the vineyard needed replanting so there are also some younger vines which were replanted then. These are the vines that lie directly behind the courtyard and its anonymous gateway in the village of Chacé. There is also Les Poyeux, from a more distant 2.9 ha plot of 40-70+ year-old vines on more sandy soils, and finally for the reds there is the domaine Saumur-Champigny which on the wine cartons says Clos but is not labelled as Clos. This is produced from a blend of ten other plots of vines totalling about 4.5 ha covering 3 communes of Chacé, Varrains and Dampierre-sur-Loire. Vine age here varies from 30 years old to more than 90 years.
If these wines are not sufficiently esoteric there is also a white Saumur named Brézé, which comes from the village and hill of the same name, made naturally from 100% Chenin Blanc, in miniscule quantities from 1 hectare of 100+ year old vines which was purchased in 1993 on the famed hill of Brézé. This wine is simply in a class of its own, a wine of rare dimension. Less well known is that there are also some chenin blanc vines in Les Poyeux and it is these vines that have produced the very occassional and very rare Coteaux de Saumur sweet white - most recently in 1989, 1990 + 1995 while the 1921 is recalled by a privileged few to remain amongst the greatest wines they have ever tasted.
“Brézé is on the rise, today producing some of the most arrestingly mineral, intense Chenin Blanc on the planet. For at least 500 years, these vines produced some of the most profound wines of France. They were regularly exchanged, barrel for barrel, with Chateau d’Yquem, the nectar like sweet wine from Bordeaux that sells for thousands of dollars a bottle. They were a favourite at Versailles under the Sun King, Louis XIV. Today, out of 400 hectares (980 acres), only 4 producers are bottling wines as Brézé, accounting for about 10% of the vineyard area. Arnaud Lambert has 21 hectares, and makes stunning single vineyard whites from Clos du Midi, Clos David and Clos de la Rue. These are precise crystal sharp wines in their youth, with enough snap to shock the tongue, but still posses the weight and resonance to expand and slightly soften with age. The reds come from Clos de L’Etoile and Clos Mazurique. While differences in each vineyard lead to wines of distinctive character, Lambert’s style arcs toward grace. His wines are stripped down and elemental, ripped with acidity and verve. They plug into the electricity of Brézé’s limestone soils.” Rajat Parr, The Sommeliers Atlas of Taste
Clos Rougeard has just one hectare of Brézé, while Arnaud Lambert has a remarkable 21 hectares, including several very old Clos vineyards that have been leased from Chateau de Brézé.
The Clos Rougeard vineyards are planted to a density of 6000 vines per hectare and have been tended without herbicides or fertilisers, with the plough being an important method of weed control. Yields have been kept low pruned using the Guyot simple method and kept to a maximum of 6 bunches per vine resulting yields that usually come in at less than 40 hl/ha. After harvest by hand, the fruit is de-stemmed and fermented in barrel with the cap submerged by foot or by pumping over. The reds undergo malolactic fermentation in barrel, with Le Bourg going into new oak, Les Poyeux in used one-year-old barrels and the red Clos in older wood again. There is no fining and no filtration, minimal use of sulphur, and the wine is bottled after 18-24 months in oak so that after 2 winters of ageing in barrel the wines are very stable. The end result is, particularly in Les Poyeux and Le Bourg, a wine that stands apart from the traditional view of Saumur-Champigny as a light red for quaffing in Parisian bistros. There is a substance to the Rougeard wines that suggests they deserve more than that, but more importantly there is a textural quality to them, a silkiness to the tannins, that demands attention.
These are subtle wines, wines that do not assault the palate, but seek to impress on grounds of their elegant composition rather than forceful flavour or aroma. They are truly stunning wines.