On a particularly luminous November day, I find myself just outside the city of Saumur, talking with Sébastien Bobinet and his wife Emeline Calvez in their winery, a converted mushroom warehouse. It’s a week after Leonard Cohen’s death, and Bobinet, who grew up in Saumur, is still mourning Cohen, in his way. He cues up “You Want It Darker,” the title track from Cohen’s last album.
The music is elegiac, dark: Vilified, crucified in the human frame / A million candles burning for the love that never came. But Bobinet is upbeat. It’s the right time to be a winemaker in Saumur, after all: This small city along the banks of the Loire River, dwarfed by the cliffs of chalky limestone known as tuffeau that rise above, has become the most exciting place for wine in the central Loire.
Over the past decade, its chenin blanc-based whites have gained a reputation for their remarkable depth, particularly among white Burgundy lovers seeking an affordable alternative. The reds, made from cabernet franc and labeled either under the smaller Saumur-Champigny appellation or as Saumur Rouge, have long been popular as a sort of alt-Chinon.
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Naturally-minded wines that achieve both fashionability and seriousness. The Amatéüs Bobi is a benchmark for Saumur-Champigny, while their Greta Carbo shows that carbonic maceration (kind of) works with cabernet franc.
Sanzay is making some of Saumur’s most quietly ambitious wines, from important and well-known parcels like Les Poyeux. The 2015 reds, especially, display his remarkable talent for texture, thanks in part to fermentation in wood tanks.
Lambert is now bottling wines under his own name both from his family’s land (formerly under the Saint-Just label) and the plots he rents from nearby Château de Brézé. Both line-ups are fantastic, especially the red Clos du Tue-Loup and white Clos David.
Domaine du Collier
Antoine Foucault’s own property, run with his companion Caroline Boireau. Not inexpensive, but the wines increasingly earn their “Rougeard Jr.” reputation—especially the red Charpentrie.
Dominique Joseph (Le Petit Saint Vincent)
Another property on the upswing in Varrains, with great old-vine expressions of parcels like Clos Lyzières, plus Cab à Bulles, a surprisingly delicious cab franc-based sparkling.
A young estate with vines in Puy-Notre-Dame, one of the outer-edge pioneers. Great serious whites like Les Fontenelles, plus juicy table reds from grolleau.
A historic property originally revived by Françoise Foucault, Charly’s wife, now run by Matthieu Vallée. Keep an eye out for single-parcel bottlings like the forthcoming Le Beaumeray.
Romain Guiberteau’s hedonistic winemaking style is increasingly earning him a reputation as Rougeard for a new generation. The wines are flashy but superb—including his underrated reds.
But now they’re increasingly seen as something more: soulfully complex and savory wines, expressive of their individual terroir in a manner reminiscent of red Burgundy. (It’s telling that Burgundy, not cabernet-filled Bordeaux, is the comparison I encounter all week.) And, aside from a brief flirtation with Bordeaux-like levels of oak and extraction about a decade ago, Saumur wines have achieved their success with relative grace, avoiding the difficulties that seem to entangle nearly every promising French region as it finds fame.
Perhaps this is because so much of life in Saumur seems to exist just below the surface. I mean that literally. The local châteaux sit atop the cliffs of white tuffeau, nearly as luminescent as the sun reflected on the river below. But the Saumurois thrive in darkness—in the caves inside those cliffs, where they have, for centuries, grown mushrooms and aged wine, two products for which the region is now known. (The third is its cavalry school, France’s most famous.)
To be able to succeed in such a place requires a certain emotional complexity—the ability, let’s say, to hear Leonard Cohen and smile—and humility. Both have helped the Saumur to emerge as special amid the overall rallying of the Loire.
Even a few years ago, the region’s white wines were not as well known as the grand white Savennières to the west or Vouvray to the east, and the reds remained in the shadow of nearby Bourgueil and Chinon. But a handful of enterprising young winemakers saw the opportunity for something different.
“In the 1980s, the wines were known for being easy and simple,” says Matthieu Vallée of Château Yvonne, one of the area’s up-and-coming new talents. “Now it’s finally changed, and people can see a different side.”
It turns out Saumur is the perfect place to try and make wines more ambitious than history has dictated. Just west of the city, near the town of Martigné-Briand, the Loire undergoes a grand transformation—if not an obvious one. As I drive east on the D83, I notice a subtle shift in the color of the freshly tilled soils; they grow a bit lighter, and tinged with grey. The types of trees change, too, from pine and fir to more deciduous species like chestnut, their autumn leaves vivid.
This area just west of Saumur marks the end of the Armorican Massif, the ancient mountain chain—now eroded to metamorphic and volcanic rocks—that covers much of northwestern France, and the beginning of the Paris Basin, the ancient seabed with limestone-derived soils that blanket much of central France. It is an elemental shift, from fire to water.
The shift helps to explain the distinguishing qualities of Saumur wines. While Saumur may be tied to the Anjou geographically, its wines are grown not in the Anjou’s acidic soils but in the first of the alkaline soils that extend for hundreds of miles into Champagne and northern Burgundy. That lends them an innate freshness, or what Calvez calls, “a style we want to drink—not too prosaic.”
Back in Saumur, Bobinet takes me for a quick tour of the vines planted by his grandfather 70 years ago, located on a plateau just above the tuffeau cliffs that line the river. That plateau marks the start of Saumur-Champigny; the the land then slopes down toward the plain to the south of Saumur, and ascends again on several small hills in villages like Saint-Cyr-en-Bourg and Brézé. These hillocks, visibly rising from the flatland, host some of the area’s best vineyards, farmed by promising vignerons like Romain Guiberteau and Arnaud Lambert of Domaine Saint-Just and Château de Brézé. As in Burgundy, different elevations and mixes of limestone soil yield notably different wines.
That complexity doesn’t come at a cost (yet) since land prices are a fraction of what they’d be in Burgundy. The penumbra of vineyards around Saumur’s edges, including the new appellation of Saumur Puy-Notre-Dame, remain accessible to younger vignerons, who can plant on compelling soils like falun, a sandy deposit dotted with fossilized shells. Minimalist producers like Domaine Mélaric, Domaine de l’Enchantoir and Sylvain Dittière’s La Porte Saint Jean have all landed there, providing an outer-banks edge to Saumur’s strong reputation.
But why Saumur, and why now? For one thing, the area doesn’t seem burdened by history. It was reputed as a wine region as far back as the Middle Ages, but even as it found an audience in the 20th century, it didn’t fall into the trap of Chinon or Bourgueil: beholden to a distinct identity and captive to the will to make over-cropped, often industrialized wines. And, of course, there’s one other explanation.
“You Can Put That In Your Article”
I visit Clos Rougeard on the third Thursday of November, the day when Beaujolais Nouveau is released. The estate’s three-level cellar in Chacé, resembling an old, concrete farm building, hardly looks like an important place. But from this building, starting in 1969, brothers Nady and Charly Foucault essentially rewrote the path for Loire wines.
Nady Foucault is in a buoyant mood. He pours me what he insists is the first-ever taste of his new vintage of Le Bourg, made from a single hectare of 70-year-old vines on richer clay soils. (“No spitting!” he bellows.) The 2016 Bourg is years away from completion, seeing as the wines are usually released after four years, but already it has the telltale dried-flower and smoke aspects of all Rougeard reds.
“The less work I do, the happier I am,” he tells me, referring to the light-touch winemaking at Rougeard. “You can put that in your article.”
The Foucaults’ intense focus on farming practices; their commitment to bottling individual parcels like Bourg and Les Poyeux; and their preference for long aging and new oak (plus old barrels from top Bordeaux properties) defined Rougeard as the opposite of Loire simplicity. The wines gained a reputation for emulating, and sometimes besting, Bordeaux’s more stately approach. That, in turn, helped to build a cult following over the past decade or so. A bottle, if you can find one, now approaches $200.
But Rougeard also provides, if not a cautionary tale, at least a somber undertone to all the good vibes in Saumur. Late last year, just as the Foucault brothers were beginning to enjoy their improbable success, Charly died unexpectedly. While his son, Antoine, effectively took over winemaking, it quickly become clear that Charly’s death cracked open an evident family rift. (At one point Nady refers to Antoine as “the little prince,” which probably isn’t a Saint-Exupéry reference.)
Charly’s sudden death left the property without a succession plan, and when I visit, Antoine—who separately runs his own winery, Domaine du Collier—and his mother, Françoise, are in the midst of trying to buy out Rougeard from his uncle, who has no children, in order to keep it in the family. Nady, they suspect, might prefer to sell it to an outsider. “I’m the ninth generation,” Antoine tells me. “My goal is to pass it on to the tenth.”
Family squabbles are nothing new in wine, of course, but the instability at Rougeard is cause for worry for the rest of Saumur, since, spiritually, it is the region’s north star. And as it happens, the concerns aren’t abstract: Just after New Year’s, reports surface that Rougeard is being sold to French telecom magnate Martin Bouygues, owner of Bordeaux’s Château Montrose and one of the country’s wealthiest men. (The reports are quickly denied, and two months later Rougeard’s destiny is still unclear.)
The night before Antoine’s 40th birthday, we spend several hours talking in his small office, an empty bottle of 1928 Brézé sitting nearby on the shelf. As the hours pass, he grows more introspective, and wistful—that somber undertone of Saumur resurfacing. It’s not simply that his father’s death deprived Antoine of a much-loved mentor (although on that I can sympathize, as someone who similarly lost his father just before 40). It’s also that Antoine realizes the need to ensure what he calls a “transmission”: continuing the legacy built by his father and uncle. They made the case that Saumur had the potential to produce something more distinctive and important—not in that moneyed way of buying a reputation, but in the decades-long work of proving a thesis about how great the region’s terroir could be.
“My father would say, ‘Wine is the school of humility,’” Antoine tells me. “You have to do the work. It’s that simple.” But of course, nothing in Saumur is ever quite that simple.
“There’s a Crack In Everything”
While Rougeard’s work draws comparisons to Bordeaux, it really is that more complicated Burgundian model—vinifying individual parcels of both red and white, and striving to understand the differences—that captivates Saumur’s current pioneers, who’ve seen the opportunity to follow in Rougeard’s wake. In the case of Guiberteau, that means showcasing the nuances that differentiate the lean, spicy Clos de Guichaux white and his almost overpoweringly rich Brézé. For Lambert, it’s a matter of delineating the clear line between his easygoing, citrusy Clos David, grown on a sandy northeast-facing plot in Brézé, and his intensely herbal, fleshy Clos de la Rue, grown just a few hundred yards away on clay.
The prospect of serious—and more expensive—wine is forcing a seismic shift in a region where, as Lambert points out, most properties only started bottling their own wine in the 1970s—and where, even today, 80 percent of the vines in the towns of Saint-Cyr and Brézé still go to the local co-op. As Lambert puts it: “There’s no real history of how the wines were made.”
I think about this again on my last day in the Saumurois, when I visit Antoine Sanzay in the village of Varrains. Sanzay took over his family estate in 1999, and launched his own label in 2002. After initially selling to the local co-op, he began making wine from a remarkable set of vineyards, including a parcel of the sandy Poyeux vineyard just across from Rougeard’s. He not only deduced the importance of his inheritance, but what it means to help define Saumur as a significant place.
“Here, look at the remains of that wall. Once, there was that Burgundian notion of place here,” Sanzay tells me, as we walk the nearby remains of Clos Cristal. “Now we have to rediscover our patrimoine—our history.”
Is that really the task, for Saumur to reclaim a noble past? Or is it meant to continue what Rougeard began, to build a reputation where none existed? Somehow, it’s both. This is, after all, a place where elemental contradictions thrive. Light and dark. Fire and water. The precipice of fame, and the weight of uncertainty. “There is a crack in everything,” Cohen once sang. “That’s how the light gets in.”