Cabernet Franc: The Dark Days Are Over

A film crew is in Chinon shooting an episode of the latest series of “Emily in Paris”, a Netflix show following the life of an American in Paris who spends an awful lot of time running around a romanticized version of the city taking selfies and sleeping with Gallic charmers. It’s frivolous viewing, but 58 million people watched the first series. In what should have been a PR coup for this part of the Loire, the second series sees Emily at Château de Sonnay in the Chinon-making village of Cravant-les-Côteaux. But it seems the Loire’s most important red wine appellation is not glamorous enough for the show’s makers: as I drive slowly past the set, I see that the sign on the manor’s gate has been changed to “Château de Lalisse, Épernay.” It’s a bit of an insult for locals, but then Champagne has long been an aspirational drink thanks to more than a century of luxury marketing; Cabernet Franc, on the other hand, has hardly charmed its way into glasses in that time. Green flavors, tough tannins, reduction and Brettanomyces-laced wines were terroir, right? Not everyone agreed. In her 2004 Master of Wine dissertation on the export potential for the area’s reds, Julia Harding explained: “Cabernet Franc’s cause has not been helped by producers who defended a slight greenness as a badge of terroir.” Since then, the variety has had a makeover, but reputations are hard to shake. It’s time to shake hard. Cabernet Franc is not what it was. Few will mourn the passing of its former self. In many instances, Cabernet Franc offers ripe, succulent fruit and resolved tannins, while the herbaceous and peppery characters that plagued it for so long have also been given the flick. Matthieu Baudry, who has taken over from his father Bernard at the family domaine, said: “When I started in 2000, there was a lot of Cabernet Franc that was underripe, but if you look at the past 10 years – not counting 2013, that was a bit difficult – the wines are no longer underripe nor are they overripe.” A warming climate has contributed to this evolving style, but that’s not the only factor; older vines are playing their part, as are the people who tend them. A generation of well-traveled and university-trained winemakers has taken the reins of family estates and shows a greater understanding when it comes to ripeness, extraction and maturation. The leaps and bounds in quality are a consequence of both nature and nurture. On the nurture side, the Loire’s regional wine association backed a “Cabernet Franc Project” between 2005 and 2008, which served to highlight what drinkers wanted from Cabernet Franc – and it wasn’t leafy, chewy wines. The project brought Loire producers together and highlighted the causes of their problems: underripe grapes, high fermentation temperatures, overextraction in the winery, and excessive use of sulfur dioxide (SO2), to name but a few. The timing coincided with the return of this new generation of winemakers, creating an appetite for improvement that was accompanied by the skills and know-how to make it happen. As a result, gone are the days of enthusiastic extraction leading to hard, drying tannins. “Infusion” is the current buzzword when it comes to maceration. It’s slightly comedic when a winemaker earnestly tells you they practice infusion as if they had invented the method, when you’ve heard it from every other winemaker over the course of a week. Today, producers typically start with a couple of punch-downs a day, early on in the proceedings, but as the fermentation progresses, it’s common to pull back to almost no maceration, just keeping the cap wet as required. Combined with moderated fermentation temperatures, this results in tannins that are more akin to tea that’s been brewed slowly with leaves rather than a tea bag that’s dunked vigorously and squeezed (hence the term “infusion”). There’s also been greater attention to terroir when it comes to tannin management. For example, vines planted on a variation of sand and gravel, typically situated closer to the river, produce lighter, earlier-drinking wines; maceration times are shorter, and the process is gentler compared to wines from grapes grown on limestone and clay slopes. The appeal of Loire Cabernet Franc is its purity and fragrance, and it seems that many vignerons have learned not only that warm fermentation and vigorous extraction is not the best approach, but also that maturation in lashings of expensive new oak, as if it were a Right Bank Bordeaux, muffles the variety’s joy. Today, the team at Olga Raffault makes refined, elegant expressions, but Sylvie de la Vigerie explained that that hasn’t always been the case at the domaine. “We went through a much more extracted period. In the 1990s, there seemed to be a competition to see who could pick as late as possible, and the wines were heavily oaked, but we realized that that was not Chinon.” These days, less is more, and it seems that everyone wants to usher you into their winery to show off concrete eggs, large wooden tanks, terra-cotta amphoras or occasional sandstone jarres. While there are still plenty of 225-liter Bordeaux barrels and stainless-steel tanks to be seen, they are no longer the stars of the winery floor. --Rebecca Gibb MW, Cabernet Franc: The Dark Days Are Over, October 2021 Below is a selection of notes from the report. To read Rebecca’s full report and her vintage overview, check out the full article on Vinous now .

Château du Petit Thouars

Les Georges Chinon Cabernet Franc 2019

Delectable Wine
8.9

The 2019 Chinon Les Georges is a savory Cabernet Franc with masses of spice and smoky nuances alongside violets and red fruit. Savory and serious Old World tannins offer a chalky grip on the sappy, fresh finish. Drink now with food or over the medium term. (Rebecca Gibb MW, Vinous, October 2021)
— 10 days ago

Domaine Bernard Baudry

La Croix Boissée Chinon Cabernet Franc 2017

Delectable Wine
9.5

La Croix Boissée is a vineyard that slopes up from the valley floor to the Chinon plateau close to Baudry's domaine. The result in the 2017 Chinon is a mid-weight, elegant style offering dried herbs and smoked bacon – it's a hint reduction that needs air. The finish is much more powerful than anticipated; there's no shortage of tannins here, but they have the finest of powdery textures, making you lick the inside of your mouth (that's the limestone of Croix Boissée that you see year after year). The lengthy finish is infused with spices – expect a hint of herbs, tea leaf and smoke. (Rebecca Gibb MW, Vinous, October 2021)
— 10 days ago

Domaine Bernard Baudry

Le Clos Guillot Chinon Cabernet Franc 2018

Delectable Wine
9.7

The 2018 Chinon Clos Guillot is a rich, focused powerhouse that's firm and direct, with dark blackberries and smoky notes. If we lived in an ideal world, this would be aged before releasing, as it's ripe yet tight and tannic, with the limestone soils providing grip along the sides of the mouth and a sense of direction. Lengthy, serious and complex, leaving the mouth full of dark berry fruit, spice and tea leaves. A baby. (Rebecca Gibb MW, Vinous, October 2021)
— 11 days ago

Domaine Bernard Baudry

Chinon Cabernet Franc Rosé 2020

Delectable Wine
9.2

The 2020 Chinon Rosé is a very pure, dry, mid-weight that offers delicate raspberry notes, but this is as much about structure as it is about fruit. The flint soils contribute a slight phenolic texture and length to the finish. A serious food rosé, made with a blend of 50% flint and 50% alluvial soils, and hand-harvested and gently pressed. (Rebecca Gibb MW, Vinous, October 2021)
— 10 days ago

Olga Raffault

La Singuliere Chinon Cabernet Franc 2012

Delectable Wine
9.2

A selection from the Picasse vineyard, the 2012 Chinon La Singulière has greater oak influence than the Picasse cuvée, being aged for two years in 600-liter foudres. The nose is focused and fine with brooding characters. It expands beautifully in the mouth, offering plenty of substance without verging on heaviness. There are no angles to this wine, but plentiful tannins provide power on the finish. There's a slight element of dryness, potentially derived from the fermentation and extended maturation in oak. Scented and smoky on the finish, with black cherry flavors lingering long. This needs food but can be enjoyed now for its spicy, savory nature. (Rebecca Gibb MW, Vinous, October 2021)
— 11 days ago

Domaine Bernard Baudry

Les Grézeaux Chinon Cabernet Franc 2019

Delectable Wine
9.3

Sourced from a single vineyard located at the bottom of Chinon's slope on alluvial/clay soils, the 2019 Chinon Les Grézeaux is currently a bit shy in terms of revealing its fruit flavors. It’s also a hint reductive with its smoky bacon characters, but that's unimportant. What matters is the core of fruit and excellent focus. It's very relaxed and fluid with mouthwatering acidity. The tannins are more serious than the front and midpalate would have suggested and betray a little grittiness. Aged 15 months in cement, this could be opened in one to two years, but the concentration and structure offer drinking over a decade. (Rebecca Gibb MW, Vinous, October 2021)
— 10 days ago

Domaine Bernard Baudry

La Croix Boissée Chinon Blanc Chenin Blanc 2018

Delectable Wine
9.6

The ripeness of the 2018 vintage gives an almost Syrah/Viognier character to the Chinon La Croix Boissée, which offers sweet black fruit and a creamy apricot note. Sumptuous yet never ever opulent, it's almost as if the wine's just done a yoga class. Plentiful tannins give the inside of your cheeks a chalky rub, while there's surprising freshness considering the ripeness, leading to a lengthy finish. This is a baby that will turn out to be a great adult. (Rebecca Gibb MW, Vinous, October 2021)
— 11 days ago