Clos Cristal, one of the Loire Valley’s most famous vineyards, has been in the ownership of the Centre Hospitalier de Saumur since 1928. When I first learnt of this fact I was mystified as to the exact nature of this Centre Hospitalier; it seemed like a rather grandiose name, and it was tempting to think of it as something akin to the Hospice de Beaune. Was it some sort of historical, semi-ecclesiastical institution, I wondered, once a valuable lifeline for the ill and the destitute but long made obsolete by the advances of 21st-century medicine? Or perhaps it was some sort of auction house, where barrels of wine are bought and sold, for hugely inflated sums? Or maybe it was a museum and tourist attraction, renowned for an intricately patterned and colourful roof?
As it turns out, none of these are true. In fact, it would be a challenge to think of any suggestions further from the truth, as the Centre Hospitalier de Saumur is one of the smartest hospital complexes in the Loire Valley. Located on the eastern edge of the town of Saumur, it offers a large range of medical and surgical services, and really looks the business, being housed in a very modern building. This is clearly no Medieval poorhouse, nor is it an auction house, nor some dusty museum. In this profile I explore how Clos Cristal came to be in the possession of the local hospital, and of course what it is that makes this vineyard and domaine so famous.
The existence of this remarkable vineyard can be attributed to one man, Antoine Cristal (1837 – 1931). Although he was not from a family of viticulteurs, Antoine Cristal played a very important role in the history of Saumur and its wines. Originally the son of a wagon-maker from the Auvergne, he worked in Tours and Angers for many years as a textiles salesman, eventually accruing sufficient wealth for him to purchase an estate and vineyards on the banks of the Loire, this being Château de Parnay, in 1886. There he turned his attention to viticulture and winemaking, and within a few decades his wines were on the lists of the greatest French restaurants, and were being exported further afield, with the English, Japanese and Russian courts being notable patrons.
On the whole these were white wines, red vines being almost unknown within the region at this time. Today, however, the wines of Saumur and Saumur-Champigny are predominantly red, and this conversion began with Père Cristal, as he came to be known. Antoine, inspired by his experiences of the red wines of Burgundy, was the first in the region to plant and vinify Cabernet Franc, producing a wine that was the forerunner of modern-day Saumur and Saumur-Champigny. It is little wonder that he has come to be highly regarded in the region. Surprisingly, the only image of him of which I am aware is this drawing (above) by the sculptor Alfred Benon (1887 – 1965), who hailed from Saumur.