Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Saumur-Champigny: Clos Rougéard (Freres Foucault)

Ahh, sun! We awoke early at the Chateau des Reaux and took a leisurely walk around the moat and grounds, which were nicely tended and beginning to show promising signs of Springtime. Our presence, however, was very annoying to the chateau's swan population, and they hissed and gesticulated whenever we got too close.

Regrettably, our 10AM appointment with Bourgeuil/Chinon producer Pierre Breton never happened. We arrived at the appointed hour and walked through the gate into the courtyard. There were no other parked vehicles, and no signs of activity. After looking around a little while we just stood and waited, trying to decide what to do next.

In a nearby vineyard someone saw us waiting, stopped what they was doing and began walking in our direction. "Here's our man" I thought. But the news was not what we wanted to hear. "They have gone out for the morning," he told us. "No one will be here until afternoon."

A valuable lesson was reinforced at Breton. This was the only winery where we forgot to call the day before to solidly confirm the app't that had already been made. It also turned out to be the only appointment we had made in advance that didn't happen. The lesson: If you really want to taste at a particular place, reconfirm all appointments the day before.

The remainder of the morning was spent getting lunch supplies in Restigné, driving to Chacé to locate the Foucault winery, and then heading into Saumur to check in at the "Hotel de la Loire." Situated on a sizeable island in the middle of the river, many of the rooms in this modern hotel have spectacular riverside views of the old city and its storybook chateau. After eating lunch on a park bench overlooking the city, we headed back to Chacé for a 2:30 rendezvous with winemaker Bernard "Nadi" Foucault.

M. Foucault was waiting for us and immediately took us down into the cellar across the courtyard. Tall, quiet, beady-eyed and thickly mustached, he resembled in many ways a stereotypical cowboy figure of the American west. But the similarity ended there. The Foucaults are winemakers, not cowpunchers. We proceeded to taste a series of Saumur-Champigny's from barrel and bottle that boggled the mind with their brawny extract and rich fruit.

They were all great wines, benchmark cabernet franc that just might make an experienced taster forget for a moment (or forever) about the better known cabernet franc wines made in Bordeaux or elsewhere. Big, teeth-staining, inky, mineral-rich, these reds have character and complexity cranked several notches above most other wines in the region. Nuance, yes, balance, yes, but they are not for the faint-of-heart.

On the other hand, one might also argue that the noticeable use of new oak here gives the wines a more "international" flavor, less of a sense of place than the products from other wineries in the region. It begs the question: is this style of cabernet franc really traditional here, or are the wines being made in this way so as to secure high scores from the tired taste buds of extract-appreciative critics?

Foucault says it's tradition, that today's wines are made the same way his grandfather made them as far back as 1900; using low yields, new or slightly used oak barrels (depending on the cuvee) and no filtration. From what we saw, heard and tasted I believe what he says.

Compared to Druet (who is also similarly excellent all around), the wines at Clos Rougéard are more muscular, with the tannins exhibiting a rougher, coarser grain. The oak quality here is sweet and spicy. Druet's wines show finer-grained tannins and a subtler, smokier oak influence.

Clos Rougeard's 97s (in barrel since December) were powerful and inky, iodine-rich, without any taste of oak as of yet. The 96's from barrel showed some oak beginning to integrate, and the 95s (bottled last September) clearly showed oak mingling with the rich fruit. The results are arguably most Bordeaux-like reds I've tasted from this region, yet still with a rugged voice of their own.

Foucault described the 95 vintage as more tannic and acidic than 96 or 97, and compared 95 with 89. Not having much experience with the wines here, it seemed to me that he was saying that he currently felt 1995 would be the longest-lived vintage of the three. Personally, I think ALL the wines made here will be long-lived.

After tasting the 97 and 96 reds in barrel, we tasted the 95s from bottle at the underground "bar" carved out of the rock, with M. Foucault tending. The walls and ceiling above and around the tasting bar shimmered eerily with the reflected light of hundreds of coins, all pressed into place by previous visitors and held fast to the cave walls by the moisture contained in the fungi that covers the rock. It was a surreal setting.

Near the end of the tasting, M. Foucault recommended what he called a "moderate but excellent" wine bar/restaurant in Saumur for dinner and when we expressed interest, insisted that he call on our behalf to make the reservation. We left the cave and walked over to the house to use the phone. Being early in the day there was no answer, so he sent us off with the admonishment to mention his name to the staff.

Back in Saumur we hiked up to the chateau with an hour to spare before closing time. Being March, it was practically deserted. As we were the only tour-takers in the place, the guide at the gate walked us around the chateau's two museums: a Medieval decorative art collection and an Equestrian museum (Saumur has a large equestrian center). Interesting, and worth a look. One wing of the castle-like chateau is being extensively renovated. Our guide told us that it might take five more years to shore up the foundation and repair the walls.

Later we ate a tasty, well presented dinner at the wine bar that had been recommended, the "Le Relais" in Saumur which is adjacent to the pleasant-looking "Hotel Anne Anjou" along the riverfront. We mentioned Foucault's name to the hostess and were seated. Over the course of the meal several curious staff members approached us, each with the same question: Were we personal friends of M. Foucault?

No, just fans who had paid his winery a visit. But we hope to be long-term acquaintances of the wines we tasted today.

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