I think many with a knowledge of the wines of the Loire Valley, when asked to indicate their red-wine favourite, would point to the appellation of Saumur-Champigny. It is perhaps not as widely known as Chinon, the other main contender, where the likes of Couly-Dutheil, Philippe Alliet and Bernard Baudry have been busy turning out excellent wines for many years now. Nevertheless Saumur-Champigny is home to many top-class domaines, not least Clos Rougeard, where the lesser-spotted Foucaults can be found. I’ve never managed to secure an appointment or tasting here, despite sending letters (yes, printed words of French, on paper, stuffed into an envelope, complete with stamp, posted by hand, the full works), making several telephone calls and leaving answer phone messages (all in French, again, in case you were wondering), as well as turning up and simply hammering on the gates with my bloodied fist.
Why the attraction, and all the effort? Quite simply, the furtive Foucault frères turn out the purest examples of Cabernet Franc I have ever tasted, wines with a precision and floral finesse that sometimes makes me wonder whether they have imported something magic from Burgundy to the slopes of Saumur-Champigny. If not the fruit (although you don’t get a lot of Cabernet Franc in Burgundy, so I’m told), then some secret wisdom or skill. The poise and delicate yet confident elegance of their wines defies accurate description I am afraid; you just have to taste them to experience their pointed precision for yourself.
Something else the brothers – or at least those who are selling the wines – seem to have imported from Burgundy is a taste for grand cru pricing. In recent years the cost of a bottle of Clos Rougeard has rocketed to an unprecedented level. I was annoyed when the top wine, Le Bourg, doubled in price, a jump up which already put it at the very limit of whether I or not I should be buying it for my cellar. When it doubled again, reaching a level in the 2009 vintage four times what I recall paying for the 2003, it was time to call it quits. I’m not saying the wine isn’t worthy of grand cru pricing; after all, I opened with a suggestion that this was perhaps the top red wine of the entire Loire Valley. It’s just that I have other more efficient drains on my bank account (three of them, all teenagers) and I can’t buy wines priced at the current level of Le Bourg as anything other than a very occasional, single-bottle treat. So the problem then is, where next for more regular drinking? Who do we turn to in Saumur-Champigny when Clos Rougeard leaves the party? Naturally I have some preferences, but I recently decided to taste more comprehensively, across perhaps a dozen or so domaines in the Saumur and Saumur-Champigny appellations, to see what sort of quality was on offer, whether my preferences were appropriate, and to guide other buyers of the wines.
With this plan in mind earlier this year I made a concerted effort to update my knowledge of the Saumur and Saumur-Champigny appellations, and I tasted through the wines of the following domaines; Domaine des Roches Neuves, Château de Villeneuve, Château du Hureau, Domaine Filliatreau, Domaine de Nerleux, Château de Chaintres, Domaine du Collier, Clos Cristal, René-Noël Legrand and Château Tour Grise. In each case I was looking for an alternative source, to see where I might spend my Saumur sous with Clos Rougeard no longer an affordable option. I didn’t expect to find a Le Bourg or Le Poyeux replacement in all honesty, but I reasoned and hoped that I could perhaps find something close. Over the next few weeks I will be publishing my Saumur-Time reports, opinions and tasting notes from these encounters, either in the shape of domaine updates, or in new or revitalised profiles; I start today with new notes from one of the most
significant domaines in the Saumur and Saumur-Champigny appellations, Domaine des Roches Neuves, run by Thierry Germain.
Read my first Saumur-Time report, a tasting report on the wines of Domaine des Roches Neuves (subscription required).