Tradition and Change at Clos Rougeard

Clos Rougeard is by far the most famous name in the entire Loire Valley for red wine. Its three cuvées are the definitive expression of Cabernet Franc. The white, Brézé, is probably the best Chenin Blanc in the Loire. Brothers Nady and Charly Foucault ran it together since 1969, in cramped cellars under the family house in Chacé, until Charly died in 2015. As the result of Charly’s death, the estate was sold in early 2017 to the Bouygues brothers (of the industrial Bouygues Group, who own Château Montrose in St. Estèphe). Jacques-Antoine Toublanc, who was a consultant to the brothers, has come as winemaker, so there is continuity.

Now the wine is being made at a new cuverie. The Foucaults found the site in 2010, a plot at the end of a residential street, with 1 km of cellars underneath. “Nady was very excited when he found the site,” Jacques-Antoine says, “the old cellars were very cramped.” Above ground, a new building is being completed for the 2022 harvest, with a rather ornate exterior that makes a big contrast with the old quarters. It appears large relative to the size of the domain, but Jacques-Antoine says that the capacity of the building matches the size of the vineyards. “We could manage 2 ha more,” he says. “Perhaps if they became available in Les Poyeux.” There are also two adjacent very large sheds for equipments. “We are organic so we need lots of equipment.”

Renovations to the building have been going on in between seasons of winemaking, but by 2022, Clos Rougeard will effectively be made in a new gravity-feed winery, equipped with 17 new concrete fermenters, holding 60-70 hl, so each can serve 1 ha. 14 tanks are for red, 3 tanks are for white. Previously the wine was made in 200 hl fermenters. Will the size of the smaller tanks make a difference? “No, I don’t think so. It’s important to have concrete to keep the minerality.”

Jacques-Antoine with the new concrete fermenters

The domain has 9.5 ha of Cabernet Franc and 1 ha of Chenin Blanc. The domain red cuvée (called Clos although this is not stated on the label), comes from 15 parcels, spread over four villages, extending over  distance of 6 km. Les Poyeux comes from one contiguous block in the lieu-dit that’s divided into several parcels according to differences in terroir. It’s on a base of clay and sandstone, the main difference being the depth of the (relatively) sandy topsoil, from very thin to some meters. “The sandy influence brings delicacy to the wine,” Jacques-Antoine says. The top red, Le Bourg, comes from a 1.5 ha parcel of 70 year-old vines, located behind the old family house, divided into two parcels, with 1.2 ha presently producing, as part is being replanted. It’s pure limestone and clay, with no sand.

Usually the reds spend 24 months in barrique, Clos in used barriques, Les Poyeux in 1-year barriques which traditionally come from Châteaux Latour and Cheval Blanc; more recently Angélus was added as a supplier. (Jacques-Antoine looked into obtaining the barriques from Château Montrose, but there were no barriques to be spared as they are used for the second wine, La Dame.) Le Bourg ages in 90% new barriques, 10% 1-year, with the oak sourced in the Loire from the forest near Blois, and (mostly) made by a small artisan tonnelier. Jacques-Antoine believes the oak has a crucial influence on the wine, and is extremely fussy about the barriques. “The source of the oak, the temperature of toasting, and the duration of toasting are all important.” His criterion for judging barrel preparation is the smell of the oak as it is being toasted, somewhat comparable to the criterion of chewing the pips to assess the ripeness of grapes for harvest. “When you burn the oak you have to feel the freshness for Clos Rougeard, the intensity of the flame is very important.”

The new cuverie is a construction site at present

All the cuvées offer an unmistakable impression of pure Cabernet Franc, with a smooth generosity to each wine that, in terms of comparison with Bordeaux, might be regarded as more right bank than left bank. The domain wine is elegant and pure, Les Poyeux is the crystalline essence of Cabernet Franc, and Le Bourg is tighter with higher acidity and tannins, and needs more time.

With 20% new oak, Le Brézé has offered a wonderfully savory impression of Chenin Blanc with a steely minerality reminiscent of Puligny Montrachet when it is young. As it ages, that minerality turns quite dry and austere. I would drink it in the first decade. But there may now be a change.

“In red winemaking, we are following exactly the Foucault brothers, but for the whites the wine could be a little lactic. The brothers often weren’t ready to pick at the right time, and they used to pick late. Nady always said you should find everything from citrus to over-ripe in the Brézé. Some years it was too heavy for me. I’m not happy to make Burgundy, I want to get the typicity of Chenin, I want to get freshness,” Jacques-Antoine says.  So you are picking earlier, I asked, how many weeks? “Oh no, Jacques-Antoine says, “for Chenin it’s only a few days, if you pick on Monday it will not be the same wine as if you pick on Thursday. I have the freedom to pick earlier, but it’s only a few days. The 2019 is typically what I would like to do every year, but it’s difficult. This is the new style, I would say,”  Jacques-Antoine says as we taste it. The 2019 Brézé showcases the acidic character of Chenin, with a sense of tension that is exceptional, but it’s difficult to achieve every year. By contrast, the 2018, from a much warmer year, is a sort of halfway house between the new fresher style and older, more Burgundian style.

“Little or no sulfite is used but we are not fanatics, we check and we don’t want to take any risks. We never filter or use sulfur (except a little at bottling) but it’s not written, it’s not official.” Blending means that some barrels of Poyeux or Bourg may not be used but go into Clos. After blending, the wine spends 5-6 months in stainless steel before bottling. It’s racked off for bottling and that’s the only moment where sulfur is used. Procedure is the same for the white except that there’s a little filtration at bottling to ensure clarity and brilliance.

As we started the tasting of 2019-2017, Jacques-Antoine said ruefully, “Our tasting now is a bit like infanticide. At home, I open the wine a day ahead and put it in a decanter.” He then adds that because of an oversight, on one occasion  a Brézé white was left open in the fridge for 3 weeks and was then even better. “It holds for 6 weeks, it goes off a little after 7 – but it’s not very practical for tasting.” As he consulted a biodynamic calendar, he said, “Oh dear, it’s not a fruit day, because of the sandy influence, Les Poyeux is more sensitive to the moon.” But all the wines tasted wonderful anyway. With Clos you see the purity of fruits first and minerality follows on the palate. With Poyeux, you see the minerality first on the nose and then the purity of fruits shines through the palate. Bourg combines intensity with elegance.

Jacques-Antoine divides recent vintages into two. 2015, 2017, 2020 are all taking their time. 2016, 2018, 2019, 2021 are more immediately approachable, easy to understand quickly. “Some people have asked me to bottle the 2021 straight away because it’s so approachable.” For the style of Clos Rougeard, “it has to be ripe, but it has to have freshness on the palate at the same time.” Elegance over power might well be the motto of the domain. It’s in good hands.

Tasting Notes

Le Clos, 2018

Faint aroma of roasted meat, almost animal, on nose, but very pure impressions on palate, all crystalline black fruits, with suggestions of minerality on the finish.    92 Drink 2026-2038.

Les Poyeux, 2018

Faint minerality on nose, like Clos showing faint roasted meats segueing into animal, but fainter than Clos. Palate has an even greater sense of purity and clarity of Cabernet Franc expression, with some faint hints of tobacco coming out in the glass followed by a sense of chocolate on the texture. Greater sense of fine tannins in background, partly due to oak (1-year barriques as opposed to old for Clos). It’s less approachable than Clos and will need longer to express itself.    93 Drink 2028-2040.

Le Bourg, 2018

Great sense of fruit purity on nose shows mélange of black fruits. Brilliance on palate, very flavorful, with almost savory undertones lingering on a very long finish. A sensation of gunflint shows retronasally. This is a rare combination: the height of elegance combined with depth.    95 Drink 2032-2052.

Le Clos, 2017

Faint sense of minerality with gunflint on nose, almost a tertiary impression,  gives impression of a cooler vintage. Palate is quite backward, fruit purity has not really come out to the extent of 2018, so this is much less revealing.    91 Drink 2028-2040.

Les Poyeux, 2017

Nose is more restrained than Clos 17 or Poyeux 18. There’s a faint touch of minerality in the background, and a mineral edge to the finish. Very tight on the palate, all the purity of the cuvee is hiding behind the structure; the fruits will shine through in time. This really needs time but should soften to great elegance over some years.    92 Drink 2032-2047.

Le Bourg, 2017

Nose broadens out from Poyeux with more obvious sense of fruit followed by some herbal and mineral impressions. A roundness and depth to the fruits comes through that crystalline purity on the palate, with a note of minerality adding complexity at the end. Vintage conditions are reflected in a sense of tension.    94 Drink 2032-2052.

Brézé, 2019

Savory nose of Chenin followed by mineral notes. The wine is quite tight at present, and this is definitely a fresher style than we have seen in the past. Faintly nutty at the end. Overall the style has more tension than it used to. This is a very definite style of Chenin.    92 Drink 2023-2032.

Brézé, 2018

Softer impression to nose than 2019 but overlaid with sense of minerality following to the palate. This vintage is a halfway house between the style (very flavorful and full-bodied, and the new style (fresher with more sense of tension). It shows a perfect balance between fruity and savory, with some faintly lactic impressions at the end. “This is Clos Rougeard with all the complexity from citric to exotic fruits,” Antoine says.   93,  Drink 95-2032.

Brézé, 2017

Nose is relatively restrained. Palate balances between fruity and savory with a lively sense of acidity, and shows the general tightness of the vintage. At the moment this is showing a tendency towards the sourness Chenin Blanc can express in leaner years, and it seems the least successful of trio from 2019 to 201. A faint overlay of minerality is less obvious than in 2019.    90 Drink 2024-2032.

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