Could Cabernet Franc be your new favourite grape? We’re going to stick our neck out and say it’s poised to be many people’s favourite!
With that bold statement enshrined in black and white, we thought we’d dedicate our first blog post to our grape du jour. You’ll find a bit of history, a description of what it tastes like, a close look at the Loire, some food-matching and some links to some recommended wines at Must & Lees.
By way of transparency, it’s worth mentioning that we’re anticipating a shipment from the Loire which will include some excellent Cabernet Franc from Chinon… we talk more about this below but I suppose it makes us a little biased, although I’d argue that our views on cab Franc led to us buying the Chinon, not the other way around!
Let’s start with a little history.
Cabernet Franc is an ancient variety with roots in the French Basque Country and historical records of its cultivation dating back several centuries. There’s a wealth of documentation from 18th Century Bordeaux ( though we know it was in the region long before that). In Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc used to play a much more significant role in the original blends of the wines of yesteryear, long before the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It was said that its inclusion brought elegance, structure, and aromatic complexity making it a cherished component in the region's winemaking tradition.
It was in Bordeaux that Cabernet Franc had a hand in creating perhaps the most prestigious black grape in the world (ok Pinot lovers. we said perhaps)… Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc is believed to be Cabernet’s parent, along with Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Carménère... some pretty successful offspring!
Over time, Cabernet Franc's influence spread beyond Bordeaux, gaining prominence in other French wine regions. The Loire Valley, particularly Chinon and Bourgueil (where it had been planted since the 17th Century), emerged as notable strongholds. Its adaptability to diverse climates and soils has led to successful plantings in regions such as Italy (where it is known as Bordo), the United States (particularly in California and Washington State), Canada, Argentina, and even as far as South Africa and Australia. In these regions, winemakers have discovered the grape's potential.
Like every popular figure, foodstuff, song or piece of literature Cabernet Franc’s popularity has fluctuated over time, with various factors influencing its demand and production volumes. Perhaps the biggest barrier to Cabernet Franc’s popularity has been its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon. As the 19th century progressed, Cabernet Sauvignon started gaining prominence in Bordeaux, leading to a significant decline in Cabernet Franc plantings in the region. This shift was further amplified in the 20th century when Cabernet Sauvignon became the dominant grape in Bordeaux's most renowned red blends in the Medoc.
We’re glad to say that recent decades have seen a renaissance of interest in Cabernet Franc. The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of “New World” regions, such as California and Washington State in the US with both planting Cabernet Franc thanks to its ability to produce aromatic wines with approachable tannins.
In recent years plantings have expanded globally. Bordeaux still holds a significant share of Cabernet Franc production, albeit smaller than that of Cabernet Sauvignon. Meanwhile, regions like the Loire Valley, California, Chile, Italy and South Africa have all increased plantings meaning its well positioned to grow in popularity.
That’s great… but what does it taste like??
First, a word on its structure. Cabernet Franc is renowned for its balance. It typically exhibits moderate to high acidity, which lends a refreshing and vibrant character to the wines. This is key to why we think it’ll be the next big thing. It’s the acidity of Cabernet Franc which makes it so food friendly, contributes to its ageing potential and provides a backbone of lively freshness as it matures.
As the wine-growing world warms up acidity will becomes rarer and rarer. Cabernet Franc’s ability to hold on to acidity and deliver it in blends and as a single varietal wine will become more and more prized
In terms of body, Cabernet Franc typically falls within the medium-bodied category, although there’s lots of variation depending on region and winemaking. Gone are the days when the majority of indie wine shoppers were looking for the biggest, boldest, most alcoholic wine on offer. The grape strikes a balance between lighter-bodied reds (which can sometimes be a little daunting or divisive) and fuller-bodied counterparts (which many are moving away from).
When it comes to flavour Cab franc is unique… hopefully in a good way. First, there’s bags of red fruit with juicy raspberries and red cherries being common. When riper there’s black fruit too, notably blackcurrants. But it’s the grape’s herbaceous characteristics, including hints of green bell pepper, crushed violets, and fresh herbs which really set it apart. These herbaceous nuances come from comparatively high levels of methoxypyrazines (pyrazines for short) which you'll find smaller elements of in many of its offspring.
These pyrazines add complexity and intrigue and distinguish it from other black varieties. Depending on the region and terroir, Cabernet Franc can also exhibit subtle earthy or mineral notes. Key to this herbaceousness is ensuring ripeness. Something the Loire imparticular has struggled with in the past. When slightly under-ripe most consumers see the herbaceousness as too strong but get it right and we think it's a beautiful thing.
In terms of aroma, Cabernet Franc is all about those red and black berries and plums, intertwined with green pepper, tobacco, and spices.
The Loire: Times-are-a-Changing
The Loire may not be where Cab Franc was born but ever since Cardinal Richelieu (inventor of the table knife) transported cuttings of the vine to the Loire Valley (from Libournais in South West France in the 17th Century) I'd argue it’s now where it calls home. The Loire often refers to Cab Franc as its "signature grape" and you'll find it planted throughout the valley, from Anjou to Saumur and Bourgueil to Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil benefitting from the diverse soils and microclimates.
Although it may not be the first region in the Loire to be planted with Cab Franc it's hard not to mention Chinon. Since its introduction Cab Franc has remained the star grape of Chinon.
But not all Cab Francs in Chinon, and the Loire in general, are made equally. For too long Cab Franc’s from the Loire struggled to achieve full ripeness. This lack of ripeness led to too much greenness and made for divisive, herbaceous wines. Enter global warming.
Now, let’s just start by saying we know global warming is not, in any way, a good thing. With that made clear, we can talk about its effects on Cabernet Franc. Global warming is reshaping the region's winemaking landscape. This shift is particularly notable when it comes to the cultivation of Cab Franc.
With rising temperatures, Cabernet Franc is benefiting from extended ripening periods. This increased warmth allows the grapes to achieve full phenolic maturity, resulting in more concentrated flavours and riper tannins. As a result, winemakers have the opportunity to craft wines with deeper fruit expressions and enhanced richness.
The challenge for winemakers lies in preserving the hallmark acidity that defines Loire Valley Cab Franc. While fully ripe grapes are always a good thing it needs to be balanced against the inevitable loss of acidity.
The Loire has some tricks up its sleave. Almost all of the central and Western Valley benefits from the cool climatic influences of the Atlantic Ocean meaning even as temperatures increase evenings are often cooler. The make up of the soil is also key. Let's look at Chinon as an example.
A Closer look at Chinon
Amongst the most famous regions in the Loire you’ll find Chinon. This sub-region within the Loire Valley, holds a special place for Cab Franc lovers. Renowned for producing exceptional expressions with a rich and long winemaking history.
The geology of Chinon plays a crucial role in shaping the character of its wines. You’ll find Chinon along the banks of the Vienne River, which has contributed to the formation of the varied vineyard soil types. The terroir of Chinon is characterised by a mix of gravel, sand, and limestone.
In Chinon the vineyards are predominantly planted on tuffeau limestone, a porous and calcareous soil that provides excellent drainage. This soil composition contributes to the vine's ability to access essential nutrients and moisture, promoting balanced vine growth and reducing water stress. The regulated water availability helps the vines maintain their natural acidity and ensures gradual and consistent grape ripening.
Winemakers are also exploring adjustments in fermentation methods, such as shorter maceration periods or the use of temperature control during fermentation, to preserve the fruit's aromatic freshness and retain the balanced acidity. Oak aging decisions are also under scrutiny, as the delicate balance between oak influence and preserving the grape's varietal expression becomes increasingly important.
Château de Vaugaudry, Chinon
We travelled to chinon earlier this year, in deepest winter. It was freezing and the “tranquillity” was a little ghostly. Thankfully we found exactkly what we were looking for a not so well hidden gem: Château de Vaugaudry.
Vaugaudry is a rather grand chateau surrounded by vineyards just five minutes from the main town. Sadly, when we arrived it was too cold for our attempts to sample the wines - the Atlantic effect in full swing in March. The wines were opened for us straight from a deserted tasting room, they were fridge cold. Pleasant but too cold to really tell if they were good enough to import. Thankfully we had the sense to take a few bottles with us. When we’d warmed up (ourselves and the wine) we enjoyed a bottle (or two) over dinner. In the bastardised words of Bono… we finally found what we were looking for.
Lovely fresh wines which sang with acidity, lots of red fruit, nice and ripe but not too bold, far from inky and not more than medium-bodied. The red fruit was followed by that signature herbaceous mint leaf and green pepper… not so much that it was obnoxious, just enough to add complexity, varietal character and a sense of place. They offer an oaked and an unoaked version, the oaked being marginally more expensive. We disagreed on our preference, I liked the complexity from the oak and thought it was subtle enough to add, rather than detract, from the fruit but there was certainly a charm to the direct fruitiness of the unoaked option. I imagined how good the unoaked version would be when slightly chilled in summer, though that seemed a long way away from our cold Chinon winter evening.
To me, this was textbook Chinon which I thought would’ve been easier to find. Too many I’d tasted earlier were too ripe with winemakers gleefully welcoming the extra ripeness and higher potential yield but neglecting that signature acidity.
You’ll be glad to know that we went ahead and purchased Château de Vaugaudry’s wines. they’ll be available in our Islington shop and online in June.
What should I drink it with?
Acidity equals versatility when it comes to food pairing. Here are a couple of options, some classic, some more esoteric:
- Classic Pairing: Grilled Lamb Chops - Cabernet Franc's herbaceous and earthy notes work beautifully with rich flavours of grilled lamb chops. The wine's medium body and refined tannins complement the meat and the acidity cuts through the fattiness of lamb, an oldie but a goodie
- Esoteric Pairing: Spicy Tofu Stir-Fry - Vibrant acidity and fruit-forward cab franc counterbalances the heat and enhance the flavours in the dish. The herbal undertones complement tofu's delicate texture. Go with an unoaked Cab Franc for this
- Classic Pairing: Roasted Duck Breast - A riper Cab Franc, with good acidity, complements the richness of roasted duck breast. The wine's red fruit characteristics and herbal notes elevate the succulent and slightly gamey flavours of the meat
- Esoteric Pairing: Mushroom Risotto - Earthy and savoury Cab Franc is a perfect match for a mushroom risotto. The wine's herbal nuances blend with the earthy flavours of the mushrooms, while its acidity cuts through the creamy risotto
- Classic Pairing: Aged Gouda Cheese - Medium body and well-integrated tannins complement the rich and nutty flavours of the cheese. The pairing showcases the wine's complexity while allowing the cheese's flavours to shine.
Ok, I want some… what you got:
Château de Vaugaudry - coming soon! We'll add a link as soon as we can
Coterie Cabernet Franc & Malbec 2019 - Shop here
Gabrielskloof, Walker Bay Cabernet Franc, 2019 - Shop here
Chateau de Coulaine, Chinon Rouge Diablesse, 2017 - Shop here