Loire Reds: Beyond the Unicorn


Saumur was the place to be at the end of 2023. The inauguration of Clos Rougeard’s new cellar finally took place after a five-month postponement, leading to yet more buzz around the cult producer now in the hands of telecommunication billionaires Martin and Olivier Bouygues—owners of an increasing portfolio of wine estates, including Bordeaux’s Château Montrose. Members of the trade that barely give the Loire Valley’s wines the time of day made the journey to Saumur. I toured the winery with new cellarmaster Cyril Chirouze several months earlier, and while the underground cellars remain largely untouched, there is now a sleek lift where you once had to venture down the stairs to reach the barrels. The revamped winery and reception area now exude the rich aroma of its luxury owners. It is still located on the same residential street in a forgettable village on the outskirts of Saumur. If it were not for the wines produced there, you would pass it without a second glance.

The vineyards of Saumur-Champigny are located south and east of the beautiful Château de Saumur.

But this is not a story of the changing of the guard at Clos Rougeard, nor is it about the desire-turned-devastation of Antoine Foucault, son of the late Charly, who hoped to be the next Foucault at Clos Rougeard but could not match the financial clout of the Bouygues. Instead, it is an opportunity to consider the wider wine scene in Saumur and the Loire red wine-producing community beyond. Does the rest of the area bathe in the reflected glow from Clos Rougeard’s mythical status, or does this domaine stand alone? Is its place in Saumur-Champigny and the Loire Valley incidental to those who seek out one of its red cuvées, whether that’s Le Clos, Les Poyeux or Le Bourg? 

The estate is certainly the source of the region's most coveted and expensive reds, but red wine lovers often ignore its birthplace. Beyond Loire Valley nerds, there is very little scratching of the surface, but if more people did bother, they’d find the limestone underlying these fine wines is a common thread in the best wines of not only Saumur-Champigny but also Chinon and Bourgueil. It is frustrating that sommeliers post self-aggrandizing photos of Clos Rougeard on social media. Ask some of them to name other top producers in the appellation and they’re left scrambling. It’s a constant surprise that so few have heard of names like Bernard Baudry, Domaine de Pallus, Domaine du Collier, Domaine du Bel Air and at least ten more. The handful of importers specializing in the Loire should be praised for spotting the talent on offer. Still, a problem of perception remains. Speaking to a Berry Bros. & Rudd buyer at their first-ever Loire tasting event in London, he explained that many of their prestige customers perceived the quality of the region’s wines to be lower because they were far cheaper than their equivalents in Burgundy or Bordeaux.

Whether or not producers benefit from the glow of Clos Rougeard’s mythical status, its influence on local producers cannot be denied. Spend several days in and around Saumur and Saumur-Champigny, and you’ll soon realize that Clos Rougeard has long been a place for sharing ideas and mentoring the next generation of the appellation, whether it was Thierry Germain of Domaine des Roches Neuves when he arrived from Bordeaux in the early 1990s, or Romain Guiberteau, who went on to set up Domaine Guiberteau. The Foucault brothers shunned chemical inputs before organic farming was fashionable and stuck with their more traditional winemaking methods, advocating for long maturation in barrel. Those with quality aspirations in Saumur-Champigny and beyond have come around to their way of thinking after years of swimming against the tide. Today, 25% of the appellation is farmed organically, and the finest domaines invite you to taste their spontaneously fermented, delicately extracted Cabernet Franc. Top cuvées are often not released for two years or longer. While there has been a more widespread movement toward greener ways of farming and a low-intervention approach in the winery, would this approach have become so prevalent in this area without the Foucaults’ influence?

With such widespread improvements, why does the Loire still struggle to attract fans? There remains an outdated impression that Loire reds are green and mean. In this cool climate, Cabernet Franc has long struggled to ripen, failing to shake off its peppery, herbal, underripe characters. But, with climate change bringing warmer temperatures and more educated, well-informed winemakers better understanding how to handle the variety, Cabernet Franc can be sublime. In the warm vintages of 2018, 2019 and 2020, we waved goodbye to underripe and, in some instances, said hello to Cabernet Franc, which seemed more Rhône-like in ripeness. Loire Cabernet Franc’s past is affecting its present and potentially its future. It’s not seen as being as sexy as Burgundy Pinot Noir, nor as stately as Bordeaux. “Some people compare our Cabernet Franc to Pinot Noir, but no one has ever compared Pinot Noir to Cabernet Franc,” says Louis Germain of Domaine des Roches Neuves, which makes delicate, elegant expressions of Saumur-Champigny. It’s a telling admission, but why would any winemaker compare their local wines to the Loire’s main red variety when it has such a checkered past?

Clos de l'Echo is one of Chinon's most famous and picturesque vineyards.

The 2021 vintage reminded us of the region’s northerly position in France, yielding wines in a more classical Loire style. Anne-Charlotte Genet of Domaine Charles Joguet says, “We were pretty happy to have a cool season after the previous vintages and to rediscover the freshness of the Loire, but it was a difficult year.” It was “a nightmare,” says Germain. A combination of frost, mildew, above-average rainfall and cool temperatures, not to mention a tornado in Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, made it difficult to fight off disease and ripen the grapes. In some ways, it was lucky the yields were so low that they had a fighting chance of ripening, leading to a late vintage. “I honestly wanted to forget it when harvest came along. It was hard to know what to do in the tank, and I needed my father’s experience to help,” he added.  

It was too early to fully assess the 2021s in my last report when the only wines released were quaffing styles, but I can now safely say: tread with caution. Two thousand twenty-one is neither a generous nor deeply pleasurable vintage. The general style is fresh, verging on crisp, with modest alcohols of 12-13%. Compared with the warmer vintages that our palates have recently become attuned to, there’s less fruit richness on offer. In the best instances, the flavors are bright and red-fruited, but all too often, they can be peppery and herbaceous. The elevated, linear acidity sometimes translates as energy and brightness, creating a vivid style, but it can also be eye-watering in many wines. What’s more, acidity highlights tannins, which can lead to a pinched character—a little like the face of the wizened grandma in George’s Marvellous Medicine. Consequently, winemakers needed to be extra careful in 2021; thus, the vintage was more complicated and less successful for reds than whites. As always, the best producers managed to negotiate the hurdles, although there are a few unexpected disappointments. That said, several top wineries are not yet ready to show their flagship 2021 cuvées, like Joguet’s Clos de la Dioterie and Clos du Chêne Vert, whose bottling is scheduled for mid-2024. Clos Rougeard plans to release their 2018 reds this spring.

For those seeking immediate enjoyment, the early-release glou-glou reds from 2022 offer juicier fruit and sweeter ripeness than the leaner 2021s. While it was a warm, dry summer, with the Loire River levels falling to historic lows, alcohol levels remain moderate compared with recent warm, dry vintages. Producers attribute this to blocage, a period where the vine stops photosynthesizing due to a lack of water in the summer. While rain brought refreshment in mid-August and allowed ripening to progress, dehydration caused berries to be smaller, with thick skins requiring careful extraction. The warm weather continued into September, and harvest was a brief affair, with pickers working quickly as acids fell. It’s too early to tell whether this will be a memorable vintage for reds, but for those entry-level gluggers, there’s plenty of pleasure to be had if the tannins were well-managed.

For those more interested in the collectible Loire Valley wines for the cellar, the flagship cuvées of at least a dozen producers—not simply one unicorn winery—should be on your shopping list for 2024. While there remains a river of underwhelming, all-too-often fault-riddled wines at lower price points, it’s safe to ditch your outdated perceptions of fine Cabernet Franc. If you buy carefully (you have a Vinous subscription, so that box is ticked), the best wines in the Loire are excellent, remain remarkably accessible and, unlike Bordeaux and Burgundy, you can still afford to buy the very best without re-mortgaging your house.

I tasted the wines in this report both in the Loire during domaine visits and at my home in England. A number of the samples were delayed, and we will be adding reviews from additional producers in the coming weeks.

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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