Rodolphe Raffault in Cave Monplaisir
It was 9:58 on a sunny April morning, when Rodolphe Raffault arrived in his car as I was knocking on the door of Cave Monplaisir, his barrel aging cellar and tasting room in Loire Valley’s Chinon appellation.
“Bonjour,” he said with a welcoming voice as I shook his hand, which had the grip of a man who spent decades pruning vines.
I took one of the red plastic crates holding a dozen bottles of wine from the back of his car; Raffault grabbed the other, and we walked into the immense Cave Monplaisir.
More than 27,000 square feet of underground corridors were cut from this former stone quarry that houses the wines of Domaine Jean-Maurice Raffault, and two other Chinon producers. Above us were the chalk and limestone soils that define the cabernet franc wines of Chinon; enveloping us was the cave’s cool, damp air, which cloaks the oak barrels containing Raffault’s passionate work.
Raffault is the 14th generation of his family to make wine here. In 1693, Raffault’s ancestor, Mathurin Bottreau purchased the family’s first vineyard in what became the Chinon appellation in 1937.
It was Rodolphe’s father, Jean-Maurice who changed the family’s fortune and gave the winery his name. In 1973, when Raffault inherited the 10-acre estate from his father, Maurice, he replaced the family’s farming practice with the sole enterprise of viticulture. Raffault purchased vineyards and raw land, expanding the domaine to 120 acres. He vinified each plot separately, according to its soil and microclimate, and sold the wines under their respective vineyard names—a revolutionary idea in Chinon.
The younger Raffault graduated from the acclaimed enology school at Dijon University, and in 1997 he assumed responsibility for the domaine. Now with a greying beard, his soft voice and forever smile belies his rugby player-shaped physique.
Raffault pulled bottles of the 2015 and 2014 Domaine Jean-Maurice Raffault Rose’ from the red crate sitting on the cave’s floor. Made from cabernet franc grapes, both are faintly pink with the 2015 rose’ expressing citrus, cherry and strawberry aromas and flavors supported with a line of acidity, and a long, pleasing finish. 91 points. The 2014 rose’ is rounder and softer, depositing more strawberry-styled fruit. 89 points. The rose’ wines retail: $14-17.
Chinon is red wine territory. But some producers make a Chinon Blanc; Domaine Jean-Maurice Raffault is one.
Raffault planted about 8 acres with chenin blanc. The 2015 Chinon Blanc is as white as spring water with floral and pungent peach aromas and peach flavor; the limestone and slate soil contributes a mineral texture that masks the four grams of residual sugar that Raffault said is in this vintage. 91 points.
“Classic evolution of chenin blanc,” is how Raffault described the 2014 rendition as I inhaled its softer fruit aromas, and concentrated on the fruit flavors that coated my palate. Yes, the added year of age had tamed the vibrancy inhabiting the 2015; refined is my word for the 2014 Jean-Maurice Raffault Chinon Blanc. 90 points. The Chinon Blancs retail: $14-19.
A historic plot is reborn.
Once owned by the descendants of the great Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais, Clos de l’Hospice is a historic vineyard that later became part of a hospital directed by Catholic nuns.
In 1876, the nuns contracted with local winemakers to tend the 2.5-acre vineyard and make the wine. In good years the wine was sold and the income helped support the hospital; in lesser vintages, the wine was given to the patients.
This agreement ended with the arrival of Phylloxera, the vine root-eating louse that destroyed France’s vineyards in the second half of the 19th century. Despite the vineyard’s fame, the vines were not replanted, and the plot was used as a vegetable and flower garden until 1980 when the hospital relocated.
In 2008, Raffault partnered with an investment group and the town of Chinon and replanted a 1.5-acre section of Clos de l’Hospice with pre-World War II cabernet franc vines. His vision of reestablishing the Clos de l’Hospice heritage wine also included not adding sulfites to it.
The 2011 was the first vintage of the Domaine Jean-Maurice Raffault Clos de l’Hospice. Raffault used CO2 (carbon dioxide) during maceration and fermentation to protect the wine from oxidation. And during the final winemaking steps and bottling, Raffault abstained from all sulfites, as well.
My tasting started with the newest vintage, 2015 Clos de l’ Hospice. The mild toasted oak scent, from the new oak barrels the wine was aged in, provided a subtle background to pleasing red-fruit aromas; plum and raspberry flavors weaved through its medium body. Without sulfites, I searched for an oddity or two, but found none. Raffault plans to age the wine another year in barrel—unless, he said, the oak starts to interfere with the fruit flavors. That was music to my ears. Projecting 94-96 points.
Raffault blended the barrels of wine and transferred the 2014 Clos de l’ Hospice to a stainless steel tank in February. He plans to bottle the wine in May; on average, a vintage of the Clos yields a minuscule 2,500 bottles (about 200 cases) and retails for about $39.
Moving wine from one vessel to another often disturbs its structure. At first, I found the nose of the 2014 Clos de l’ Hospice to be disjointed; but after about 15 minutes in the glass, a gentle cloud of black plum and raspberry aroma rose from it. Again, I examined the wine for peculiarities, but found only tasty fruit flavors supported with a stony, mineral accent, and a long, rich finish. If this is what a non-sulfite wine can be, there should be more of them. 94 points.
Raffault made a delightful 2013 Clos de l’ Hospice in the rain-plagued growing season. It’s a cherry-colored, fresh raspberry-scented, and tasty cherry and raspberry-flavored wine. It’s lighter than the two prior vintages, but balanced and enjoyable. If any vintage needed sulfites, I thought it would be this one. Raffault thought otherwise. That’s why he’s the winemaker earning 90 points.
Without the advances in viticulture, winemaking and technology, the nuns would have given the 2013 to the patients, but the 2012 Clos de l’ Hospice would have fetched a good price. Its black-cherry hue was the first sign that this vintage was healthy; blackberry and cherry flavors were wrapped around the medium body and the integrated tannins gave the wine depth and length. 93 points.
When Raffault poured the non-sulfite 2011 Clos de l’ Hospice, I took extra care to examine what five years of aging rendered in this inaugural wine. Other non-sulfite wines I’ve had usually begins to get cloudy, or develop a brown tint at this age. But not Raffault’s: Its raspberry-cherry color was bright; the red-fruit aroma and flavor were fresh, a slight oak influence was noticed, but not objected to. I let the wine course around my mouth studying its elegant texture, and searching for a separation between the front and back of the palate, I found a seamless line of flavor. After more than a century, it was an impressive debut for the Clos de l’ Hospice. 94 points.
As I put my glass down, I thought about the challenge of reestablishing the Clos de l’ Hospice vineyard in a small village where all eyes are on you. Eliminating all sulfites from the winemaking process added to the task. The nuns would have prayed for his success, then blessed him for achieving it.
Rodolphe with Clos de l’Hospice
Chinon does not rank its wines. But if its vineyards followed the Burgundy system, Clos de l’Hospice would be a Grand Cru, along with Clos d’Isore. Les Picasses would be a Premier Cru; and Les Galuches and Jean-Maurice Raffault Chinon Rouge would be village-level wines.
Cabernet Franc rules in Chinon. In Bordeaux, it is a blending grape; primarily used in St. Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac and other Right Bank appellations, it delivers a black-tea accent and tannins to the region’s fruit-driven merlot. Chinon’s red wines are lighter, and deliver aromas and flavors crossing a spectrum of red fruits from cherry to strawberry to raspberry to cranberry and black-cherry.
While Chinon’s regulations permit up to 10 percent cabernet sauvignon, Domaine Jean-Maurice Raffault’s Chinon red wines are pure cabernet franc.
The “village-level” Chinons.
The 2015 Jean-Maurice Raffault Chinon Rouge is the hue of raspberries. Pronounced raspberry and strawberry aromas introduced the delicious strawberry flavor carried on a stream of acidity. It was a big brother to Burgundy’s wines just four hours east. 90 points.
The cherry-colored 2014 has enticing black-cherry aroma and flavor wrapped around a bigger body with a tannic edge and stony finish. I thought this wine would be ideal with a grilled hamburger, and I’d sip the 2015 while grilling the burger and chatting with guests. 88 points. The Chinon Rouge retail is about $16.
Les Galuches vineyard is 25 acres with 40-year old vines planted in very sandy soil. The 2015 Jean-Maurice Raffault Les Galuches was aged in older barrels and bottled in March 2016. Black-cherry colored and black-fruit scented, its medium body packs delicious blackberry and black tea flavors that glide to a dry finish. 94 points.
The 2014 Les Galuches angles to the black-cherry side of the fruit spectrum; its integrated tannins make it just as pleasing and well-made as the 2015 rendition. 94 points.
Rain saturated the 2013 season until September; then, the sun appeared and winemakers salvaged the vintage. Raffault’s 2013 Les Galuches is much lighter in color, weight and red fruit aroma and flavor then both of the following years. But it is balanced, and a vintage for immediate consumption. 86 points. The Les Galuches bottlings offers great value at $13-17. .
Raffault’s 15 acres makes him the largest owner in the 36 acre Les Picasses vineyard. Named for a vineyard tool used to work on vines planted in stony soil, Les Picasses is a mix of yellow chalk limestone and clay, and populated with framents of fossilized seashells and ancient stones.
Raffault poured a barrel sample of the 2015 Les Picasses; in its embryonic stage, the wine displays immensely appealing red-berry aromas, and delicious black-cherry flavor with integrated tannins. It will remain in older barrels inside Cave Monplaisir for another year. This will be a first-rate wine earning a projected 94-96 points.
The 2014 Les Picasses was just transferred from barrels to tanks, making it unsuitable to taste. But the raspberry-tinted 2013 Les Picasses is bottled. Its light cranberry scent, black-cherry flavor, and mild acidity make it a pleasant wine, but the rain shortened the finish. 88 points.
Better balanced is the 2012 Les Picasses; its medium body carries appealing raspberry and cherry flavors with integrated tannins, giving the wine a long, pleasing aftertaste. 92 points. Retail is remarkably reasonable at $19.
Clos d’Isore is the domaine’s seven-acre vineyard planted with 80-year old vines in white chalk limestone and clay. Like humans, old vines are not as productive, yet they yield intensely flavorful grapes. The barrel sample of the 2015 Clos d’Isore was elegant, balanced, and concentrated with raspberry-like aroma and flavor. It will continue aging in 1 to 3-year old barrels until February 2017; 95-98 points is projected.
The 2014 Clos d’Isore was bottled in February, 2016; its raspberry and cherry aromas and flavors are underlined with a minerality from the chalky limestone, giving complexity and length. 94 points. It is not yet in the American market.
Forty years ago, Jean-Maurice Raffault began bottling and selling his wines with their respective vineyard names. It upended Chinon’s practice of blending all the wine and marketing it as a generic Chinon. When you taste Raffault’s wines, you understand the wisdom of that idea and the different pleasures each vineyard offers.
photos by John Foy