Loire Cabernet Franc: Who Do You Think You Are?


It’s been a long time coming, but the red wine producers of the Loire Valley have reason to be proud of their main red grape variety, Cabernet Franc. In last year’s article, The Dark Days Are Over, I covered major changes occurring in both the vineyards and wineries, leading to riper, refined and expressive styles that should make the vignerons proud. No longer does Clos Rougeard stand alone as the only Loire red worthy of fine wine lovers’ shopping basket. The domaine’s former owners, the Foucault brothers, led the way. There’s been a trickle-down effect, in part due to the Foucaults’ generosity in sharing time and knowledge with younger winemakers coming up the ranks. The wine equivalent of the Amazon-like algorithm, if you liked this, you’ll like that would now suggest a plethora of Saumur-Champigny top guns including Domaine des Roches Neuves, Antoine Sanzay and Arnaud Lambert. Further east, Bourgueil’s Domaine du Bel Air, Yannick Amirault, Domaine de la Chevalerie and Guiberteau would admirably fill several rows of any collector’s wine rack. And, in Chinon, a host of 40-somethings have now become part of the landscape: with plenty of experience already under their belts, they are currently making fine wines. The next 20 vintages are assured from Matthieu Baudry at Bernard Baudry and Bertrand Sourdais at Domaine de Pallus to Jérôme Billard at Domaine de la Noblaie and Pierre Alliet at Philippe Alliet, among others.

The vines that make Les Pensées de Pallus sit on sand and ironstone and are farmed organically. The wine spends 12 months in barrel and three years in bottle before release.

The very best wines are inimitable, elegant, terroir-driven and sensitively handled. They deserve to be discovered, in their own right, as superlative Loire reds, not a fresher alternative to Bordeaux Right Bank nor an affordable offering for Burgundy drinkers, which appears to be on repeat. Following four visits to the Loire in the first half of 2021, I was left wondering why Loire Cabernet wasn’t enough, why did it have to be benchmarked against other French wine regions that don’t make single varietal Cabernet Franc?

It reminded me of a speech made by Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines at the Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir conference in 2013. He made it clear that he thought comparisons to Burgundy were unhealthy for New World producers, but that holds true for Loire Cabernet Franc makers too. “Look inward,” he said. “Do not measure all things against the Old World. And above all do not see Burgundy as a measuring stick. We must be like Odysseus, lashing ourselves to the mast of the ship in order to resist the siren song of the maidens of Burgundy.” The job of vignerons, he claimed was to “craft wines which are the most honest, crystalline expression of their place and then let others decide if they feel that your efforts are worthy.” I’m not suggesting benchmarking should be banned; it provides a useful context in which to envision a wine, but the Loire is its own place.

However, the region’s self-confidence appears to be lagging behind its advances in viticulture and vinification. It may be a question of shaking off the past: based on a recent tasting of older Cabernet Francs, the oldest dating back to 1989, my takeaway was that I was glad I have decided to specialise in the Loire now rather than 10 or 20 years ago – back then the bad outweighed the good. That’s no longer the case.

If fine wine merchants are only interested in holding a Loire dinner if it’s Clos Rougeard and if sommeliers attempt to show off to their peers by posting shots of this cult wine’s bottles – as if it’s the only decent red to have come out of the Loire in the past 20 years – there’s an issue. There seems to be a general lack of knowledge when it comes to what’s good and great in the Loire. I was talking to a Master of Wine recently who joked that they usually whizzed through the Loire section of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust’s diploma because it was a gaping hole in their wine education.

Bertrand Sourdais is making superlative, ageworthy Chinon at Domaine de Pallus.

Meanwhile, according to importers specialising in Loire wines, there’s a hangover among both consumers and professionals from the days when Cabernet Franc was invariably lean and green. The average consumer doesn’t know the name Chinon. Wine buyers might know of the appellation, but they say they think it’s too green. They have not caught up on where the region is now. Growers are finding that the only way they can give a point of reference is by making comparisons. This lack of depth even among some of the most knowledgeable and knowledge-thirsty parts of the wine trade needs addressing. It’s not helped by the regional wine trade association trying to keep all members happy and showing off too many mediocre wines at masterclasses. It’s a problem for any regional body but fielding the wine equivalent of your B or C team at the World Cup does not leave spectators impressed. And there are plenty of second string, middle-of-the-road wines in the Loire that fail to inspire, but you could say that about any wine region, even the most prestigious appellations.

What’s more, there are still plenty of wines that suffer from reduction. It’s advisable to have a copper coin on hand when tasting Cabernet Franc as there are plenty of incidences of reduction in the younger wines while Brettanomyces reared its ugly head in the form of leathery, medicinal flavors and drying tannins. Cabernet Franc is a variety that can’t be forced. Vines grown on sandy gravels are generally suited to making light, fresh and fruity styles. Winemakers sometimes force these wines to be something they’re not by putting them in an oak barrel to make them seem grander and charge a higher price. Still, the lower priced wines can be better balanced and more pleasurable, which is the point of drinking wine. The Cabernet Franc styles better suited to oak ageing – preferably with a low percentage of new oak – tend to come from sites that have a limestone bedrock overlaid by clay, often mixed with sand or flint.

Rodolphe Raffault stands in front of Chinon's castle in his Clos de l’Hospice vineyard.

The Croquant 2021s

Three of my favourite wine words in the French language are soyeux (swhy-yer) for silky, juteux (juu-tur) meaning juicy and the word of the 2021 vintage: croquant (croc-kont). Croquant means crisp, and it’s all about freshness; it evokes the sense that you’re biting into a firm redcurrant. It’s the sensation of your teeth piercing through the crunchy skin to meet the piquant fruit inside.

Wines from 2021 are more ‘Ligérien’, a term which French dictionary Larousse define as “belonging to the Loire basin”. In 2018, 2020 and to a lesser extent, 2019, the intense summers led to wines that were often more Rhone than Ligerien in style. Hot and dry conditions resulted in wines that show richness, ripeness and some unprecedented alcohol levels. The crisp, skip-along acidity that keeps Loire wines refreshing is back with a vengeance in 2021, after it took a vacation in the three preceding warm vintages. Even though you might have become accustomed to the riper, richer expressions of the previous warmer vintages, in 2021 the wines are more classically styled, rather friendly and with no hint of green flavors. These are currently on the market, and for those who haven’t explored Cabernet Franc in recent years, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The heady scent of vines in flower fills the vineyards of Bourgueil.

While the 2020 vintage had been about “preserving freshness” according to Saumur-Champigny producer Antoine Sanzay, freshness was no issue in 2021 due to the cool conditions. In 2021, frost, mildew, above average rain and below average temperatures – as well as a tornado in Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil – were hardly conducive to healthy, ripe grapes. “It wasn’t a barbecue summer,” says Pierre Gauthier of Domaine du Bel Air in Bourgueil. “But, if the same conditions had come 30 years ago, the wines would not have been ripe, but today our yields are lower.” Indeed, improved viticulture in recent decades has given vignerons a better chance at negotiating all that the climate throws at them. In 2021, there was a lot of work in the vineyard: “it was demanding”, admits Benoît Amirault, who runs Domaine Yannick Amirault in Bourgueil, and he adds: “the style is suited to people who don’t like their wines too rich” in contrast to the burly, ripe 2018s and 2020s.

The early release 2021 Cabernet Francs, often referred to as vin de soif or glouglou wines, are certainly crisp and crunchy, with alcohol levels returning to 12-13% rather than the 14-15% of the previous vintages. However, it’s still too soon to give a global perspective: the top wines continue to mature in cellar and won’t see the light of day for another six to twelve months. The top producers have managed to pull off some fine wines, if the 2021 barrel-samples of Domaine de Pallus and Domaine des Roches Neuves are an indicator. Yes, the acidity is apparent and there are moderate alcohol levels, but there remains flesh on the mid-palate of these light-body wines.

A New Climate

While 2021 temperatures may have marked a return to conditions that would have been more recognisable to the older generation of growers, producers accept the new normal is anything but normal.

It’s mid-May, 2022 and it’s just hailed again. I’m in the 15th century cellars of Charles Joguet, an underground chalky gallery, just 50km to the east, golf balls of white ice are raining down on the crops including vines. A couple of weeks later, another hailstorm hits parts of Chinon. The ground is dry and hard, producers are praying the clouds will provide the rain they need. They do not. Several weeks later, the mercury tops 40˚C – and this is all before the summer officially begins.

The wines of Bourgueil's Domaine du Bel Air made by Pierre Gauthier are worthy of any top cellar, particularly Grand-Mont and Clos Nouveau.

Uncertainty and unpredictability now loom large every season from the starting gun. Frost has become one of the biggest concerns for wine producers in the Loire and along its banks and its tributaries – the appellation of Chinon runs along both banks of the Vienne river not the Loire. “When you talk with vignerons who are 70 years old, they were frosted just once in their lives – in 1991. In 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2021 we frosted five years out of five,” says Clos Rougeard’s viticulturist Richard Desouche. Walk through the vines with any vigneron from Bourgueil, Chinon or Saumur-Champigny and later pruning has become a common theme of discussion due to the milder winters encouraging early budbreak. The theory is that the later you prune, the later the buds will burst, reducing your chances of losing your burgeoning crop at the very start of the season. There’s an old saying: “Taille tôt, taille tard, rien ne vaut la taille de Mars” meaning no matter when you prune, it’s best to do it in March – although climate change has shaken up the rules. What’s more, logistics mean that the more land you have under vine, the more difficult it becomes to prune everything late. Then, the later you prune, the later your growing cycle commences, meaning later harvesting with the risk of facing autumn rains.

There are other solutions, including the standard anti-frost fighting measures: wind fans, sprinklers, fires and candles. Appellations are collaborating to share the costs of wind fans. In the village of Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, for example, the growers have collectively contributed 2 million Euros to buy turbines as well as install a far-reaching sprinkler system, which covers 420ha or just over one-third of the appellation. Meanwhile, in 2021 Clos Rougeard installed an electric wire along the vineyard wires in its vineyard Le Bourg. “The aim is not to have heat around the wire but to keep the sap warm so it will go through the buds and won’t frost,” says Desouche.

Where better to understand the sub-soil than in the 15th century cellars of Charles Joguet.

“It’s Not Bordeaux, It’s Not Burgundy, It’s Our Own”

While championing the Ligérien wine style, maturing the wines in Bordeaux or Burgundy barrels could be viewed as somewhat inauthentic. As a result, winemakers have been working with several coopers to revive a historic barrel, native to the region: La Pipe Angevine. In late June, a 480-liter barrel for reds and a 230-liter barrels designed for whites was unveiled at the Paulée d’Anjou. Made with wood from the forests of the Loire Valley, it’s 113cm long rather than the standard 105cm; it should be 130cm if it were a true replica, but modern tools won’t permit such a long barrel. Nevertheless, the larger barrels offer a more subtle oak influence on Cabernet Franc, which could prove to be positive. Paul Pisani, the young and dynamic new generation at the helm of Château de Targé in Saumur Champigny, explains: “It’s not Bordeaux, it’s not Burgundy, it’s our own.”

A barrel may seem like a small matter, but it suggests there’s growing pride in local traditions and creating wines with an authentic regional voice. The wines are better than ever, yet much of the wine profession and drinking public has yet to realise. It’s time to find a rooftop and tell the world Loire Cabernet Franc isn’t what it was. It’s so much better. 

© 2022, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

You Might Also Enjoy

Muscadet: A Region in Crus Control, Rebecca Gibb MW, November 2021

Cabernet Franc: The Dark Days Are Over, Rebecca Gibb MW, October 2021

Sancerre: Taking the Temperature, Rebecca Gibb MW, August 2021