Cellar Direct Winter Wines: Olga Raffault Chinon

14 12 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

Welcome to the second instalment of our winter run through some intriguing Cellar Direct releases, reviewed here for both your wine reading pleasure and to provide you with a buyer’s guide of sorts. Peter provided a thorough synopsis of how this wine club works last Saturday, and I concur that the Canada-wide shipping, option to accumulate mixed 3-packs and 6-packs, and the meticulous attention paid to temperature control during shipping are major selling points. I can also appreciate the willingness to go well off the beaten wine path, as witnessed by the last offering. The rare and esoteric Fer Servadou?! Get out. This offering is by no means as mysterious, but still reflects a fundamental Cellar Direct ethos: to deliver balanced artisanal wines that reflect their place of origin. I do harbour a certain love for the wines of the Loire, and Chinon holds a special place in my heart as a prime bastion of my favourite Bordeaux grape, Cabernet Franc.

The elder Cab is lighter than its more popular offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, typically yielding rather pale ruby wines that contribute finesse and a floral, spicy perfume to Bordeaux-style blends, with the junior Cab providing more muscle and the ubiquitous Merlot providing flesh. Franc is quite notorious for yielding bell pepper aromas and other green stalky notes, particularly if over-cropped, although to my palate this signature is pleasant in moderation and if appropriately buttressed by characteristic raspberry and other red fruits. Moreover, this capsicum character can easily grade away from green bell pepper toward paprika, Tabasco sauce, and other fruiter chilli peppers (e.g., Ancho), likely as a function of ripeness and climate. Although adaptable and quite prone to genetic mutations (albeit less so than Pinot Noir), Franc does its best work in sandy, chalky soils, where it can channel its power to produce wines with reasonable body along with some of the cassis character of its progeny. Enter the Loire valley. More specially, meet Chinon. In “The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste”, Rajat Parr and Jordan MacKay, whose general sentiment is that the broader Loire valley is a criminally underrated wine region, describe Chinon and its sister region Bourgueil as places where Cabernet Franc finally gets to take its star turn as a solo variety. With the possible exception of nearby Saumur, it is here that varietal Franc wines reach their apex.

Chinon is part of the broader Touraine sub-region, once known for searingly acidic whites and brittle, reedy reds, but fortunately undergoing a massive cultural shift toward quality winemaking that seems tightly correlated with the recent rise of the area’s two predominant grape varieties: Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. Chinon has long managed to cling to a more solid reputation, carving out its own unique identity as an AOC that covers the fairly steep banks of the Vienne River as well as the flatter slopes running northward from the hills above the eponymous town to the Loire River itself. The vineyards lie on three main soil types: sand, gravel, and clay. The gravel and sand at the base of the hills lends itself to light-bodied, fruity, early drinking wines of the crushable sort, wines relatively devoid of the mineral character thought to be imparted by the limestone found higher up on the slopes. Mixtures of limestone and clay at these altitudes provide wines of a finer texture with a long finish and a crystalline acidic purity or precision that, again, many attribute to the limestone. Some winemakers even postulate that the colour of the rock makes a difference. Here’s where my the purely rational skeptic part of my mind gets chippy, asking questions about mechanisms and demanding better research. The artistic part of my mind wants this empirically-driven critic to simmer down and just enjoy the romance. I think both minds have something to say. Heedless of mechanism (or our lack of understanding thereof), it is nigh-impossible to argue that these differences in terroir fail to translate into the finished wines. Clearly they do.

2017 Olga Raffault Chinon ($29)

Terroir-driven distinctions aside, the classic “Chinon profile” is that of a light- to medium-bodied dry red wine that is 100% Cabernet Franc, although AOC rules permit the inclusion of up to 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. Red fruit aromas and flavours predominate, sometimes with a cassis or currant element that again often skews more red than black. Floral characters are common and an earthy regional signature provides the backdrop, one said to recall wet chalk. And yes, a leafy green note ought to be there, if only in the form of a sly wink. The darker, crunchier examples can age for 10 years or more. Although modern trends of course seep into Chinon as they do all wine regions, sometimes blurring or diluting vaunted traditions, do not expect such a thing to happen under the watch of Olga Raffault.

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Or rather that of her granddaughter Sylvie, who continues to faithfully pursue the family’s winemaking legacy after Olga passed away several years ago. Olga and her husband Pierre originally operated the estate together, until 1947 when he unexpectedly died just before harvest. Olga was left to run the business solo with young children in tow, but was ably assisted for the vintage by Ernest Zenninger, who fascinatingly enough was a German prisoner who found refuge and employment at Raffault upon the end of the war. Ernest in fact went on to become the winemaker, working closely with Olga’s son Jean and helping to run the estate for many years. A particularly poignant example of the fundamental humanity that often lies at the root of these old wine estates. Raffault geographically lies in the Véron, a parcel of land right where the Vienne intersects with the much larger Loire. This area is temperate and humid, with a few small hills and two primary types of soil, one gravel-based and the other consisting of clay-limestone.  Raffault organically farms around 24 hectares of vines, with 23 planted to Cabernet Franc and a mere 1 to Chenin BlancVines average around 30 years old.

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As for the wines themselves? Well, they are often described as “old school”. Grapes are hand-picked and fermented via native yeasts using the ultra-traditional whole cluster approach, stems included. In addition to the fruity lift that whole clusters can provide, due to some degree of carbonic maceration occurring in the uncrushed berries, the stems are thought to impart additional fine tannic structure (if appropriately ripe) as well as pleasant savoury aromas. Tank-fermented, the resulting wine is usually transferred to large old neutral oak barrels for aging until bottling, only to see further aging until release.

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It is no exaggeration to state that Raffault represents a region-defining estate, a true benchmark for quality in the Chinon AOC. Priced at a level that is ridiculously reasonable, it is not uncommon for these bottles to as much as quadruple in value once they hit the 15- to 20-year old mark. Alas, 2017 was a tough vintage. The 2017 Olga Raffault Chinon therefore represents the first vintage of the “Domaine Chinon” bottling, a combination of Raffault estate and some purchased fruit. This blend was born of necessity rather than any desire to deviate from tradition. It was made in a similar style as the Raffault Barnabés Chinon, an early and easy drinking oak-free red from younger vines on flat, sandy alluvial sites (this is tank aged for six months). Recall that this is a recipe for “light and approachable.” Fortunately, these traits need not come at the cost of complexity.

The nose is a comely, perfumed mixture of raspberry, black raspberry, mulberry, bilberry (or wild blueberry, maybe not a note I’d expect here but very pleasing nonetheless), red cherry, and a cornucopia of dried herb and spice elements that serve to drape ripe fruit in a primordial cloak of Parma violet candies, black liquorice, chipotle (the smoked pepper, not the US restaurant chain once of ill repute), black pepper, pencil lead, lovage, and shoe polish. Sure, those red bell/chilli pepper notes are present and accounted for, but well-integrated into the holistic vibe that can only be the spawn of some of the best Cabernet Franc turf on the globe. This wine begins rather linear, compressed and tightly wound yet with middling acidity at best. It eventually blossoms into something more round and plush, veering into blackcurrant Halls/menthol lozenge territory before those ripe strawberry edges curl back up to encompass vitamin tablet minerals and flecks of cigarette tobacco, smooth ripe tannins streaming through paradoxical layers of bucolic opulence. This is like watching a world class boxer or MMA fighter sparring:  there’s an artistic grace, but what can this individual do when truly under pressure? I suggest you find out by investigating as many bottlings from Raffault as you can…but I strongly suggest that you start here.

90- points

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Cork Rating: 4.5/10 (Nice font and graphics. Doesn’t reach the heights of what was in the bottle.)


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