Clos Cristal is an interesting estate for many reasons. First, the winery and its vineyards is exploited by-, and is the property of- the Hospital of Saumur, the Centre Hospitalier de Saumur, in short, a public health facility. Its 2 permanent employees, including the winemaker Eric Dubois, are thus on the payroll of the Hospital, which is not an ordinary situation. The net earnings resulting from this winemaking activity are of course used for the benefit of the Hospital. Saumur is only 8 kilometers from Champigny near where the estate sits, and as you may have guessed, these two localities gave their names to the Saumur-Champigny Appellation. Whatever, the question that may arise is : How could such a strange thing happen, a public Hospital owning and operating a winery ? The hospital, which was long time ago known under the name of Hospices de Saumur or also Hopital Général received these vineyards with the chai and cellar beneath them as a donation in 1928 by a very original individual named Antoine Cristal. Born in 1837 (1837-1931), this man made a fortune selling cloth along the roads and being curious of everything and having a high entrepreneurial spirit, he climbed the economic ladder and met many important people and artists. At the age of 50, deciding to make a new career in wine, he bought the Chateau de Parnay (in 1890) a few kilometers from here along the Loire which had a planted vineyard of white grapes. He then planted a separate vineyard of Cabernet Franc near Champigny, in a move to push forward the reds of the region (at a time when the region was almost only known for its whites). He spent lots of time in the vineyards and in the cellar, and while not born or raised as a vigneron, this became his passion and he put all his creative energy there. This was around when the phyloxera struck the French vineyards and he was among the first to get the American rootstocks to plant and graft vines on, he even created a vine-grafting school and he was also the first in the area to set up trellis wires for the vines, when until then the vines would grow as goblets around which you could walk. To add to this entrepreneur portrait, Antoine was fighting for an ethic of natural wine [already then...]. According to his contemporary and friend Alfred Benon who drew this sketch on the left (Antoine Cristal is 91 then), he not only fought the chaptalization which was commonly practiced to make wine, but he envisioned a coming era when chemists would do whatever they'd want with wine and replace the real thing with junk. Can you imagine that, where did he get such strange ideas ?!?...
Thinking to this whole story again, the fact that a hospital keeps this beautiful winery running (and we'haven't spoken of the wines yet !), is somewhat puzzling when you think to the French hygienist lobby reigning unchallenged and busy fighting our age-old wine culture on our own money. Let's remind for example that the heavily-subsidzed anti-alcohol group ANPAA with its 1266-strong staff [sic - it went up to 1375 since] and an annual budget of more than 74 millions € [sic again] fueled by the taxpayer has been doing everything it could to instill guilt to French wine lovers and inflict heavy fines (through the complicity of complacent judges) to companies or even newspapers it suspected of promoting wine. As a result, there's almost no advertising in France for wines and all the French-based newspapers and media think twice before writing or airing a wine-centered report that could be viewed as incitement to drink by this morality police body. France counts many such associations which work against the common good in spite of their budget being entirely funded by the taxpayer. Good news could be coming soon from an unexpected direction, with the Greek clouds possibly echoing into the French mega-debt and overweight public sector issue. This could push whoever runs France to review spendings, and there could be hopefully an overnight drying up of such badly-employed public money. The French have begun bashing Moody's and other rating agencies very recently (after years of praising them for awarding AAA grades to the French debt), which could be the sign they know something is coming this way...
The soil, as you may see on the picture on left, is particularly sandy at the surface, with the tuffeau (sandstone) table at various depth beneath the sand. Because of the sandy nature of the soil, the vines take longer to root down compared to vineyards elsewhere. Walking on this soil, you really feel like walking on the dry part of a beach, with the ground slipping away under your feet, very funny.
As said, most of the vineyards here are Cabernet Franc, but there's a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon on the walls too, and there's this new plot of Pinot Noir and Pineau d'Aunis planted this year. Otherwise the vineyard is 45 years old on average, with the oldest rows being 80. Apart from the vineyards here, they have another 0,5 hectare of Chenin near the Hospital of Saumur proper.
Antoine Cristal in his time also innovated in the chai : realizing that hygiene was very important to make good wine, he lined the inside of his vats with Bohemian glass tiles. Of course today the vats and tools have been modernized but the place remains impressive. Actually, I'm told that this chai used to be open with the sky above, but after heaps of rocks collapsed into the chai they decided to cover it with cement, giving it this cave feel.
At Clos Cristal, in addition to the organic farming, the wines are vinified naturally, no additives are used and almost without SO2 either, which is another level of challenge. Eric Dubois the winemaker is the son of vignerons, but he didn't intend to follow this career initially. He studied architecture and by the circumstances of life he veered back to winemaking, ending up teaching at the viticulture school of Montreuil Bellay. Eric Dubois favors non intervention for his winemaking, and apart from a small sulphur adding on harvest day, he doesn't add SO2 further on, including for bottling (particularly for the vintage 2010, not a single cuvée got SO2 at bottling). He took this path gradually, realizing that an increasing number of people develop an allergy to sulphur, and also because he tasted wines here and there with little or no SO2 and spoke to the vignerons, exchanging tips about their respective experiences.
__ Clos Cristal, Hospices de Saumur, Clos Tiremouche. Sparkling rosé (table wine). No vintage on the label, but it is a 2010. This is the result of a simultaneous harvest of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc & Chenin, pressed together, the color comes thus freely (it's a pale rose color here), then it ferments in vats, and it is bottled when there's 20 to 25 grams of sugar left. That's it, no sugar added, it ferments on the wild yeasts on its own sugar. Very aromatic sparkling with very light bubbles. Grenadine notes, among others. A pleasure to drink. No dosage, no residual sugar, and no SO2 added (including on harvest day). Eric Dubois prefers this method compared to the traditionnelle (the Champenoise), the wine is made faster without extended élevage sur lattes (bottles lying to settle the sediments), although it did stayed 9 months "on lattes". 2000 bottles made of this only. Costs 9,5 € at the winery. I haven't a pic of the bottle but it is a nice regular sparkling bottle with its cork and muselet.
__ Clos Cristal, Hospices de Saumur, Chenin 2010 (the 45-are plot near the Hospital of Saumur). Depending of the vintage and because they make only 3000 bottles on average, they don't follow a particular style of Chenin year after year. They make sometimes liquoreux, or sparkling, or a veil wine with this Chenin. This one is a simple fresh Chenin, he says, to keep the fruit. Fermentation in vats on the indigenous yeasts like all the wines here, bottled mid may without SO2, after a light earth filtration. 10 €.
__ Clos Cristal, Hospices de Saumur, Saumur-Champigny, Récolte 2010. The main cuvée, Cabernet Franc. Needs a bit of aeration at this stage, although less than some time ago, Eric Dubois says. Here, apart from a bit of sulphur when the harvest arrived at the chai, there has been no other addition including for bottling. The fermentation takes place with destemmed grapes, with a maceration varying in time, from 14 to less than 30 days. What is sure is that there's no pumping over, just a bit of juice is poured manually on the cap to humidify it. He says that a regular pumping over brings the risk to liberate too much tannin into the wine. They also don't rack the wine much. Filtered on earth. They could avoid any filtration if they had a few more months of élevage, but as it's bottled relatively early (last may), they prefer to do one, even if a light one (there may be some sediments after that). Nice fruity wine already, with a light sucrosity, and I feel that it will offer its best after a couple of years. Costs 8,5 €.
__ Clos Cristal, Hospices de Saumur, Saumur-Champigny, Boutifolle 2008 (Boutifollle is the cadastral name of the plot inside the Clos). Cabernet Franc. This is Cabernet Franc from the Clos (without the ones growing along walls, which are vinified separately), and for this cuvée, after a fermentation in stainless-steel vats, there has been a 2-year élevage in 600-liter demi-muids (where the malo took place also). The nose is quite different, with intense notes of eucalyptus leaves for example. The tannins stand out for this vintage, but Marc who pours the wine says that a long decantation helps. 14 €
__ I couldn't taste the emblematic cuvée Les Murs, the one made with the Cabenet Franc grown along (and across) the walls at it is still fermenting now, but I'll try to taste it one day. Les Murs costs 15 €. Let's remind that this wine tastes very different, and when harvested, a large proportion of the grapes are passerillées or dessicated, which gives it a solar character (according to the winery's price sheet). Eric Dubois says that there's more concentration, with striking prune notes and higher alcohol, but the acidity is high too because the concentration occured very early. This wine is dry, all the sugar is transformed. They make 3000 bottles of Les Murs.
Pic on right : Looking up to the sky from the cellar through an aeration chimney.
Exports : U.S. : Bourgeois Wines, Vias Wines, Canada (Quebec) Vinealis, U.K. : Caves De Pyrene, Holland : Pieksman Wijnimport, Belgium. For exports to other countries : Genuine Wines.
Alfred Benon's book about Antoine Cristal ,Cristal, vigneron saumurois.
Donations to the Saumur Hospital across the centuries (article in French)
Research paper on the History of the Clos (walled plots) in France and in the Saumur region (in French)
Wine Doctor page on Clos Cristal