The second of our two explorations into the wine styles of the Loire gave our tasters a deep dive into the different expressions of its signature red: Cabernet Franc
For many people, Cabernet Franc is the ‘other’ Cabernet after Sauvignon. But in fact, as this course’s presenter in London, Rebecca Gibb MW pointed out, it should be the other way round, since Cabernet Franc (along with Sauvignon Blanc) is the parent of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cabernet Franc’s original heritage is uncertain, with grape historians suggesting that it arrived in the valley from (variously) the Basque country, Bordeaux and Britanny. The latter would, at least, explain why it’s still often called ‘Breton’ in the region.
An earlier-ripener than its progeny, Cabernet Franc is well suited to the Loire’s cooler climate, and it is used for everything from reds and rosés to sparkling wines.
That said, there’s been a rise of 1.3ᵒC in the Loire over the last 50 years during the growing season – most of it since 1980.
Saumur-Champigny grower, Arnaud Lambert, who we heard from via Zoom mentioned that typically he would pick his Cabernet Franc in mid-October, but in 2020 harvested it at the end of August!
The higher temperatures have meant more sugar and ripeness of fruit and tannin, but milder winters have also created problems with vines becoming active too early in the year, at a time when frost can still occur. Spring frost damage has seen a growing number of short harvests since the millennium.
As well as naturally higher ripeness levels, the region’s winemakers have gone through some stylistic changes of their own, too, over the last few decades.
Initially, the higher sugar and ripeness levels saw producers working their wines hard in the latter stages of the ferment, extracting more colour and tannin, which they then backed up with relatively high amounts of new French oak. This created bigger, richer wines.
But the last ten years have seen a shift. Producers look to extract the colour and tannins earlier in the fermentation when temperatures are lower, and are using significantly less oak.
Key tasting terms, according to Rebecca, are ‘red fruit, graphite, grass and bell pepper – but we’re seeing more violet perfume in the wines now because of the changes in the way they are making them.
‘One of the beauties of Cabernet Franc,’ she went on, ‘is the perfume – and you don’t get that if you ferment at 32ᵒC.’
Chinon is the largest of the Loire’s red wine appellations, located round the Vienne river – mostly on the north side, to give south-facing vineyards. Typically, it gives fuller-bodied styles that can age 10-20 years.
Near the river, the soils are sand and gravel, which tend to give lighter-bodied, early-drinking wines, often unoaked.
On the slopes (or coteaux) the soil is clay over limestone, giving more refined, long-lived wines that are often oaked.
The plateau – a slightly raised flat dip – gives wines that are stylistically halfway between the two.
This is a stylistic pattern that is repeated across the region’s different Cabernet Franc growing regions.
Oak in Loire reds doesn’t often mean small barrels, however. ‘Small barrels and Cabernet Franc don’t really work,’ explained Rebecca.
Just to the east of Angers, the soils change from the black, schistous sedimentary earth of the coast to the white clay/kimmeridgian limestone of the Paris basin. Anjou straddles both of these – ‘black Anjou’ and ‘white Anjou’ – resulting in a variety of wine styles, depending on where the vines are grown.
‘I was impressed with the quality of the Anjou Cabernets,’ said Damien Trinckquel from Number One at the Balmoral Hotel. ‘I always buy the white Anjous, but I forgot about the noir and blanc soil types.’
Like several other tasters, he was impressed by the Domaine de Bablut Anjou Villages Brissac.
‘I was a big fan of that,’ added Isobel Salamon. ‘The nose made me swoon a bit. Beautiful graphite, mulberry integrations, with a nice, sweet smokiness on the palate. I want this with game – venison or pheasant.’
Saumur-Champigny/Puy Notre Dame
The Saumur-Champigny appellation consists of vineyards round eight villages near the town of Saumur. The soil is very chalky, giving gentle, light reds that are acid- rather than tannin-based. They’re all about delicacy and purity.
‘You always find that lovely chalky sensation with Saumur-Champigny,’ said Rebecca. ‘They can be serious but the serious ones rely on their fruit purity, not oak or extraction. They aren’t tricked up.’
A good number of attendees picked Saumur-Champigny as their favourite region from the eight Cabernet Franc flights tasted.
Fernando suggested using these wines in his sommelier selection to help them sell. His favourite example was the Domaine Antoine Sanzay 2018.
Chewton Glen’s Natasha Senina picked Les Loges from Domaine de la Guilloterie as her favourite, saying it was ‘beautiful and fresh, slightly tense, but juicy with red fruit and blackberry aromas; tender and delicate – enchanting!’
‘I adored this flight,’ agreed Isobel Salamon, from Eden Locke. ‘The Domaine du Vieux Pressoir from Saumur Puy-Notre-Dame was honestly what I want to have on my Christmas table.’
On the north side of the Loire, with south-facing vineyards, and protected from the northerly wind by a forest on top of the plateau, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil can provide the next longest-lived examples of Loire Cabernet Franc after Chinon – up to 10 years as a rule of thumb.
The soils are the same combination of sand/gravel and clay/limestone as Chinon. ‘It’s probably easier to pick the sites within an appellation than to tell one appellation from the other,’ said Rebecca.
As Mathieu Longuere MS, presenting in Edinburgh, put it, ‘You can have Loire Cabernet Francs that taste like Bordeaux, and some that taste like Beaujolais.’
Mathieu believes that these wines benefit from decanting. ‘You can see the initial nose can be savoury, even rustic. But over time they become a lot more aromatic and expressive.’
Condita’s Konstantinos Katridis agreed, picking out Frederic Mabileau’s Les Rouillères 2019 as his top red, saying it would be great paired with beef tartare.
James Payne MS, from Douneside House, meanwhile, went for La Chevallerie ‘75cl de Terroir’, which, he felt, stood out because of its lightness and elegance.
As a means of engaging and intriguing your customers, James suggested serving Loire Cabernet Francs alongside fuller New World versions, say from Salta in Argentina, to highlight the differences in style.