Loire (III): Cabernet Franc
In my last blog post, I wrote about the underrated wines made from Chenin Blanc in the Loire. The same can be said about the region's major black grape, Cabernet Franc. It's one of the parent grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Carmenère, as well as a grandparent of Malbec. Yet around the world it's often seen simply as a blending grape, probably because that's how it's used in Bordeaux. In the Loire, Cabernet Franc is treated much more seriously, with wines that can age for decades being produced. For more everyday drinking, there are also plenty of fruity, approachable wines. However, these are generally lower-alcohol, lighter-bodied wines, explaining why they don't always fit into international trends.
As I've already mentioned in the previous Loire blog posts, the challenge of getting the grapes ripe in the region has changed a lot in the last twenty to thirty years. For both white and black grapes, this used to be much more unpredictable than it is now, accounting for huge vintage variation. I visited Lamé Delisle Boucard, a domaine based in Bourgueil, where the current winemaker, Phillipe Boucard, gave me a taste of the 1989 vintage, the bottle sourced from his cool cellar dug deep beneath the chalky soils. Tasting a wine that old is always a source of excitement, but Phillipe was quick to comment, "This wine was a disaster, and it was the first one I made. The 1980s were catastrophic, full of green, underripe aromas which no one outside the region wanted." The wine certainly had retained its herbaceous, green bell pepper aromas, though I thought it had also maintained its structure remarkably well. But Phillipe went on, "The 2000s have been fantastic," as they've seen a succession of warmer vintages which have allowed more consistency and riper aromas in the wines, making them more approachable to foreign markets. Making wine now is much easier than it was in the 1980s, and it's reflected in the wines: riper, fruitier, and more immediate while still retaining their acidity and tannic structure.
Many producers such as Lamé Delisle Boucard age their wines in underground cellars that have naturally cool conditions perfect for storing wine. These cellars are extraordinary, dug over the centuries to provide stone for local buildings. In the Touraine area of the Loire, the soil is tuffeau, a chalky limestone soil which was used for the construction of the region's famous châteaux. It's ideal for growing grapes as well as building castles, as the rocky surface doesn't retain water, forcing the vines to dig deep to seek underground resources. The cellars give you a great opportunity to see what the soil actually looks like underneath the surface, as well as creating damp, humid, cool conditions that allow the wines to slowly mature. The Loire is also famous for the historic troglodyte people who lived in caves dug into the rocky landscape. Again, producers take advantage of these ancient caves, storing wine in dark, cool conditions hidden well away from the sunshine. The Loire is a region whose winemakers work harmoniously with its beautiful landscape.
Chinon and Bourgueil
These are the two most important appellations for Cabernet Franc in the Loire, and one could argue in the world. They lie either side of the Loire river and, despite just being half an hour's drive from one other, display considerable differences in styles of wine. Chinon is perhaps the more famous. It's the birthplace of Rabelais, the French author who is, in part, the inventor of the modern novel, and the town was a focus for the many wars waged against England: Chinon was once the base for French kings and was where Joan of Arc pled her case to help lift the siege of Orléans. It's a beautiful village dominated by its fortress and old medieval buildings, situated on one of the Loire’s many tributaries, the Vienne. Style varies within the appellation. Near the banks of the rivers, the soils are sandy and produce fruity, easy-drinking wines. Further up the slopes away from the rivers, the soils become more limestone and gravel based, leading to complex wines with grainy tannins, more restrained fruit aromas, and intense peppery wines. Unless the name of a vineyard is on the label, it’s difficult to know where a wine is from and what it’s going to taste like: in which case, price is a guide.
Bourgueil is north of the Loire, where the clay-gravel soils on south-facing slopes rising from the Loire result in intense, tannic wines with great ageing potential - arguably the best Cabernet Franc wines anywhere in the world. Again at Lamé Delisle Boucard, I got to taste a wine from 1964. It was astonishing how fresh, alive, and strutcured the wine remained, proof that Cabernet Franc can age as well as the best wines of Burgundy or Barolo. Old wines are not always the easiest to drink, but this wine belied its age. The wines can be drunk young too, with fresh red fruit aromas, high acidity, and firm tannins. In either case, these are extremely food-friendly wines, the acidity, tannins, and restrained fruit aromas making them great with rich chicken, pork, or lamb dishes, with maybe a little bit of spice.
Within Bourgueil is St-Nicholas-de-Bourgueil, which produces much fruitier wines for earlier drinking. Cabernet Franc is also grown throughout the Anjou-Saumur region; generally the wines are again fruitier and easier drinking, though some more serious examples are made. One further wonderful aspect of Cabernet Franc in the Loire is the price. Domaine du Closel, more famous for their white wine from Savennières, also produce some red wine. Le Rouge 2009 (✪✪✪✪) is mature, floral, and herbal with great acidity and tannin structure: they sell it for €9.
... and Cabernet Sauvignon
Despite its universal fame, Cabernet Sauvignon is not my favourite grape, so it was satisfying to travel around the Loire and hear producers say that they are pulling out Cabernet Sauvignon in favour of local grapes such as Grolleau. Perversely though, I find it at its most interesting when it displays slightly green, herbaceous aromas which are frowned upon in areas such as Napa Valley. I'm definitely in a minority on this, but it means Cabernet Sauvignon in the Loire intrigues me. On its own, I don't think it works - it's just too green as it's so difficult to get it fully ripe in Loire's cool climate. It's mainly grown for rosé, when complete ripeness is not an issue. But it's also allowed in the Cabernet Franc based appellations to add tannins and black fruits to the red wines. And despite my aversion to Cabernet Sauvignon, one of my favourite wines of the trip was Clau de Nell's Violette 2015 ($50; ✪✪✪✪✪), which is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Cabernet Franc. The Loire is a region which never ceases to surprise.