Ah, Domaine Olga Raffault.
It is unquestionably one of the long-time reference points for top-quality, traditional Chinon wines. Its history is intriguing. Olga and her husband Pierre operated the estate together until he died unexpectedly just before harvest in 1947. Alone with two small children, Olga was left to run the business but was ably assisted for the vintage by employee Ernest Zenninger, a German prisoner who had found refuge and work at Raffault at the end of the war. Ernest stayed on, becoming the winemaker and working closely with Olga’s son Jean Raffault. The two of them ran the estate as a team for decades, under Olga’s watchful eye, until Jean’s daughter Sylvie and her husband Eric de la Vigerie took over about 10 years ago. I had the great pleasure of meeting Sylvie at the estate in 2017 and under her watchful eye the wines remain a benchmark for quality Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley.
Raffault is in the Véron, a wedge-shaped strip of land where the Vienne River intersects with the much larger Loire. Véron is temperate, humid and low-lying, with some small hills, and two main types of soil, one gravel-based and the other clay-limestone-based. Raffault farms parcels totaling 24 hectares of vines--23 planted to Cabernet Franc and 1 to Chenin Blanc—with vines averaging about 30 years. Their flagship Cabernet Franc comes from the renowned lieu-dit Les Picasses, on a south-facing, limestone-rich slope on the highest hill in the area; this is the most structured, powerful and age-worthy of their reds. Added to the line-up later in the estate’s life were Les Peuilles, a nearby plateau with southern exposure and clay-silica soils, and Les Barnabés, on a plain of sandy gravel soils near the Loire. The scarce bit of Chenin comes from 50-year-old vines planted in the heavy clay-limestone soils of the monopole called Champs Chenin.
The farming is certified organic and harvest is manual. This minimalist approach in the vineyard extends to the cellar. The fruit is destemmed, with the whole berries going uncrushed into tank for fermentation with native yeasts. Les Picasses is aged the longest before release: a minimum of four years, mainly in old foudres, some of chestnut as well oak. This wine lives for decades, and the family has always maintained a deep library of back vintages, released periodically in minute quantities. The less brawny, younger-drinking Les Peuilles spends only 6-12 months in wood, and the earliest-release Les Barnabés sees no wood at all. Through the generations, the winemaking has remained traditional, allowing the superiority and expression of Raffault’s sites to shine through.