The unassuming appearance of Clos Rougeard completely belies its international reputation as the domain where the Foucault brothers make the best red wine of the Loire. Located in a residential street in Chacé, there is no nameplate or even a street number to distinguish the domain: you have to deduce its location from the numbers of the houses on either side. A neighbor on the other side of the street watched with some amusement as we pressed the bell and got no answer. “They’ve gone out,” he told us, “I saw them leave a few minutes ago. Do you have an appointment?” When told that we did, he said, “well it will be alright then, they will be back soon.” I had the impression that watching people turned away from Clos Rougeard might be part of his day. But in a few minutes, Nady Foucault indeed returned to let us in. Once admitted, the house is to one side, and across a courtyard is the entrance to the winery, with a rabbit warren of old caves underneath, carved out of the rock and very cold.
The domain has just over 10 ha, with 9.5 ha of Cabernet Franc and a hectare of Chenin Blanc. The three cuvees of Cabernet Franc are the domain wine (an assemblage of many parcels), Les Poyeux, and Le Bourg: the white wine is called Brèze. Les Poyeux is a 3 ha plot of 40 year old vines with soils carrying from argile-silex to argile-calcaire. Le Bourg has 70 year old vines on argile-calcaire terroir (located behind the house), consisting of 1 ha in two parcels. Le Bourg gives a tighter wine with higher acidity and tighter tannins and needs more time. Usually Le Clos (the domain bottling) and Les Poyeux spend 24 months in barrique as does Bourg, but in 2009 Bourg spent 30 months because this was a powerful vintage. The white (Brèze) spends 24 months in barriques, with 20% new oak. One need hardly ask about methods: they are all traditional. Vines are maintained by selection massale. There’s no chaptalization, no collage, no filtration, no battonage (for red: sometimes there is battonage for white).
The major characteristic of the house, for both reds and white, is the sheer purity of the fruits. There is a wonderfully seamless, smooth, edge to the Cabernet Franc; you feel you are tasting the unalloyed purity of the variety. The underlying structure is so refined it is hard to see directly. The fruits are precisely delineated, with great purity of line, supported by a very fine underlying granular texture, with a sheen on the surface. Hints of stone and tobacco show on the finish. All the cuvées offer an unmistakable impression of pure Cabernet Franc. There’s a smooth generosity to the wine that in terms of comparisons with Bordeaux might be regarded as more right bank than left bank. The reds are by far the best known, but the white is also very fine: concentrated, mineral, and savory.
There are other fine red wines in Saumur Champigny and Chinon, but it is fair to say that nothing else I tasted on a recent visit to the region left me with that impression of seamless purity. I asked the Foucaults what is responsible for the difference at Clos Rougeard. “We had a chance, our parents never used herbicide; they were the only people in the appellation not to do so in the 1960s and 1970s. The other vignerons mocked us because we had weeds among the vines. And in the 1980s we were the only ones to mature our harvest in barriques; most people only used cuves,” says Nady Foucault. The difference is so marked, it’s hard to believe that is all there is to it! When pushed, all Nady would add was that, “The other difference is that we are very traditional, we are making wine exactly like our parents and grandparents.” But with all due respect, I would be astonished if the wines were this fine two generations ago.
The Foucaults sell the wine at a reasonable price, not cheap, but fair (although it’s all on allocation: even top restaurants get only a half case). They are conscious of its fame, however. When I visited, there was a lively discussion about the price of wines, including Clos Rougeard on the after market. ““I am not for speculation in wine, it’s made for drinking. Wines are not like jewelry,” says Nady, and the price recently reached by an old bottle of Le Bourg was regarded with incredulity.
The Foucault brothers’ Champignys are, indeed, among the best reds made in the Loire. Whether or not they are the best is a subject on which reasonable people may disagree. (Do you plan to write about the other Loire reds sampled?) You did not mention the vintages tasted. I assume some of them were recent. In which case, the presence of oak is always evident and, at times, obtrusive, masking both the quality of the fruit and the terroir. The Foucault reds need cellaring in order for the oak to integrate into the whole. I have rarely found this not to be the case.
Yes, the vintages were recent, ranging from barrel samples to bottles back to 2008 (2007 for Le Breze). The most forceful oak showed in the 2011 Le Bourg barrel sample, but it did not seem to me to be unbalanced. “The tannins are gripping,” said Nady, but I thought the fruits could hold it, and the wine should be in decent balance by the time it is released (although of course it will benefit from aging). Le Poyeux 2010 shows an elegant rather than blockbuster style, with the purity of fruits shining through a glycerinc sheen. In 2009, Le Bourg is more aromatic than Le Poyeux, but in neither did the oak seem to stand in the way of the fruits (of course, this was an unusually rich year): Le Clos 2009 was not as forceful as either cuvee, but again elegant, with a faintly herbal impression on the finish. On another note, Le Breze 2007 is a standout, with a nose of sheer minerality that make you think of Puligny. Of course, “best” is a highly subjective judgment, but all I can say is that although I tasted some excellent reds from Saumur-Champigny and Chinon, I do not think anything else had the sheer class and breed of Clos Rougeard.