25 Wines in 25 Years: 1998 – Raffault Champ-Chenin

The Union Square Café was my favorite restaurant in New York for many years. The upstairs dining area and bar had an old, downtown Manhattan warmth coupled with four-star, midtown food. I haven’t been to the new location but on 16th Street, it was sophisticated but not pretentious and always, welcoming. 

Feeling groovy with my old friend, Greg Maidman, at the Union Square Cafe in December 2014

Feeling groovy with my old friend, Greg Maidman, at the Union Square Cafe in December 2014.

When Gramercy Tavern came along I almost felt protective of Union Square because it stole the spotlight. The first time I ate there, in 1996, it lived up to the hype so I got over my blind loyalty to Union Square and, when I was in New York and wanting to treat myself, alternated between the two.

My grandfather turned 93 in June of ’98 and since we never knew when his birthday would be the last,[i] I went to New York to partake in the festivities. Conveniently, I was also meeting someone I was seeing in NY and we spent an evening, dining at Gramercy Tavern.

I tasted a few of Olga Raffault’s Chinons in San Francisco but did not even know that the estate made Champ-Chenin, a white wine, before noticing it on Gramercy’s wine list. So there I was, June in New York, before the humidity set it, with great company and unbeknownst to me, about to have a pretty spectacular wine experience.

There is not a lot of Champ-Chenin to be found, period, and Raffault’s production is tiny. For years, I’ve been hoping to find it on the west coast but the importer, Louis Dressner, gets so little of it that it doesn’t really leave New York.[ii] It had a textbook Loire Chenin Blanc quality – searing acidity and intense minerality – but was not rich and full-bodied like Savennières, or as perfumed as Vouvray. Enchanted, I started hunting for it but this being 1998, when the web was still in its infancy, was SOL. 

When I visited Raffault in 2006, I brought back a couple of bottles of the Champ-Chenin and managed to keep my paws off of it for several years. I found some of the 1993 at Flat Iron Wines in the summer of 2014. A month later, I had an Old and the Restless Loire Chenin Blanc tasting and added it to the mix.[iii] While it showed well at the tasting, it soared like an eagle on Adderall over the next few days. By day three it hit its peak and remained unchanged for another 24 hours. After that, there was nothing left in the bottle so the experiment ended.

Raffault Champ-Chenin and two other studs from the Old and the Restless Chenin Blanc tasting

Raffault Champ-Chenin and two other studs from the Old and the Restless Chenin Blanc tasting

Had I not ordered Raffault’s Champ-Chenin at Gramercy in 1998, I might not have thought to use it in the Old and Restless Chenin Blanc tasting at all. Discovering new appellations and types of wine is part of the ride for me. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in the industry for all of these years and be stuck in, say, a Burgundy rut. You might be thinking that doesn’t sound too sucky but exploring unknown territory is what makes my work more intellectually stimulating. I never get bored with the Loire, as it has been so dynamic. No doubt, that is why this particular wine, that I tried so many years ago, has stayed with me after all this time.

[i] He lived another five years and, once he turned 95, used the excuse that he was “almost 100 years old” to justify his lifelong curmudgeonliness.

[ii] I saw the Raffault Champs-Chenin on a list in DC a couple of years ago so I guess some makes its way to the Capitol but we remain deprived out west.

[iii] The Old and the Restless is a tasting series I’ve been doing since 2012. I pick a theme – say Chenin Blanc – and find eight to ten wines that are at least ten years old and taste them blind with a group of students. Here are the notes from the 2014 Chenin Blanc tasting: http://thevinguard.com/old-restless-chenin-blanc/


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