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. 

The cellars of Arnaud Lambert are hewn from Saumur’s tuffeau rock.

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. 

Matthieu Baudry of Domaine Bernard Baudry makes transparent Cabernet Franc in Chinon, and also has good taste in music.

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.

Olga Raffault’s granddaughter Sylvie de la Vigerie returned to Chinon to run the family domaine with her husband Eric.

One of the challenges that producers have also had to address as they raised the Cabernet Franc bar is the variety’s propensity for reduction. A little smoky bacon and flint in Loire Valley reds has long been seen as part of the terroir, but when a wine smells like someone has just broken wind, there’s an issue. In the past, a heavy hand with SO2, an antioxidant, exacerbated the problem. Arnaud Lambert, a Saumur-based producer, who is worthy of more attention on both the red and white wine fronts, said: “Cabernet Franc is very easy to grow in the vineyard, but it needs a lot of attention. It can be reductive and needs a lot of oxygen. If you don’t do that, it’s like a fridge that’s been closed for two years.” Regular racking in the first few months is the key to success, in his opinion, while the use of sulfur dioxide has dramatically decreased across the Cabernet Franc–making community, reducing the incidence of reduction. However, with less use of SO2, which also acts as an antimicrobial, and warmer seasons increasing pH levels, this opens a door for spoilage microbes to enter, meaning producers need to be vigilant.

Nature is also playing a rather large helping role in the evolution of Cabernet Franc. The change in climate has been clear for all to see in the past three warm vintages (2018, 2019 and 2020). A study that spanned the 58-year period between 1959 and 2017 showed the magnitude of change for red wine producers in the Loire. Whereas the Cabernet Franc harvest took place in late October in the early 1960s, by the end of the Noughties, pickers were in the vineyard in late September; the hot 2003 harvest kicked off a massive 43 days before the cool 1963 vintage. Guillaume Delanoue, who works for the French Vine and Wine Institute (IFV) in Amboise, said that global warming is mainly (80%) responsible for these earlier harvesting dates. Despite this advancement, grapes are coming into the winery with potential alcohols as much as 3% higher and acidity levels 2g/L lower than they were 40 years ago. But there is a tipping point, and it seems to be fast approaching; Arnaud Couly of Chinon’s Couly-Dutheil revealed that in 2018, there was one tank of their Clos de L’Echo (one of the appellation’s most famous vineyards) that reached an unprecedented 16% alcohol. And they were not the only domaine printing final alcohol levels of 15.5% on wine labels that year.

Following the untimely death of Frédéric Mabileau in August 2020, his wife Nathalie and sons Rémy (pictured) and Charly have continued his pioneering work in Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgeuil.

Vintage Overview

A trio of dry, warm vintages has produced fruity, juicy Cabernet Francs with remarkable ripeness levels. While some producers are still running through their stocks of the abundant 2018 vintage, it is the 2019s and the early-release, early-drinking 2020s that will be filling shelves in the coming year. To be fair, “filling the shelves” might be a bit of an exaggeration, since the 2019 was a small harvest for most Loire producers, including those in the region’s Cabernet Franc belt. Yields were halved by a potent cocktail of frost and coulure caused by cool, wet weather during flowering, then summer drought and heatwaves made grape-growing particularly challenging, as Benoît Amirault of Yannick Amirault explained: “Everything that you didn’t want to happen in a season did; thankfully, we had good conditions leading into harvest.”

Despite the warm vintage, there remains a surprising freshness and fragrance to the wines in 2019, which might be explained by slightly cooler evenings compared with 2018. A little rain in the second half of September refreshed things too, while those Cabernets grown on limestone typically display fine freshness. What’s more, producers are becoming more accustomed to these warm conditions and are now harvesting in the cool of the dawn, sending their pickers home after their lunchtime baguette and wine rations, to return the next day before the sun rises. You’ll find deep hues and intense concentration, and yet many of the wines are remarkably approachable when young, with attractive youthful fruit offering a flavorful embrace. Despite the conditions, the surprising line of tension that runs through the vintage suggests it will also age with grace. 

The sloping, hillside sites, rise above the alluvial terraces close to the river Vienne and produce many of Chinon’s most complex, ageworthy wines.

Two-thousand twenty completed the triple whammy of warm seasons. An early budburst saw the vines race ahead, and it looked like a record-early harvest could be on the cards. Jerôme Billard of Domaine de la Noblaie explained that he thought he would have to ask staff not to go on vacation because the vines were on course for an early September harvest. However, incredibly dry conditions and intense heat in July and August – with some days exceeding 40˚C – slowed things down. (Hydric stress causes the vine’s stomata to close in order to stop water from transpiring, but that also inhibits photosynthesis and delays maturation.)

Terroir plays an important role when it comes to water availability; vines on alluvial soils, such as free-draining sand and gravels, suffer more from the heat and aridity than those on moisture-retaining clay and limestone. This lack of water led to small berries with a high ratio of skin and seed to juice. A little autumn rain plumped up the small berries: between September 18 and 24, Chinon received around 40mm, which also helped to lower alcohol levels. Some vignerons admitted that the tannins in 2020 weren’t as ripe as they would have liked, but with rising alcohol levels and falling acidity, it was time to pick, and this meant winemakers had to be more focused than ever on careful extraction. What’s more, meticulous selection was crucial due to in-bunch variation; quality-oriented producers conducted several passes through the vineyard and sorted in the winery.

Cabernet Franc production has become more sensitive in the past 15 years including at Domaine Philippe Alliet where Bordeaux barrels were once liberally used but were given the boot in 2014.

Thus far, the early releases and barrel samples from 2020 provide sweet, ripe fruits that sit in both the red and riper black spectrum; they are juicy and succulent, but it’s too early to make a definitive statement on the vintage given that the majority of the best releases are still to come.

What’s clear is that Loire Valley Cabernet Franc is an entirely different proposition than it was 15 years ago. There’s a wide array of quality levels and styles, as you would expect from a region that represents one-third of the world’s Cabernet Franc vineyards, but the bar has been raised and now the job is to tell the world that the bad old days are over. A prime slot on Netflix might help.

I tasted many wines in this report during a visit to the Loire Valley in summer 2021 and also conducted a number of tastings at home in the UK.

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