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Loire Valley reds: A ‘franc’ conversation

June 22, 2023

Just about anyone who has had a little time with red wine knows the name cabernet sauvignon. Its relative, cabernet franc, is thought to be the parent along with sauvignon blanc that resulted in the well-known and revered offspring, cabernet sauvignon. But what of cabernet franc these days? How has this red grape remained in our collective glasses and in what form?

It’s thought that cabernet franc found its start in Bordeaux in the 17th Century, possibly in the Libournais on the right bank of the Dordogne. Its movement across France has been attributed to religious orders and it has found pride of place in the Loire Valley where the climate is best suited to its growth and ripening. In particular, the cooler regions of Center Loire such as Anjou-Saumur and Touraine.

Vine to glass

Cabernet franc vines ripen at least a week prior to cabernet sauvignon which means it’s able to thrive in the cooler climbs of Chinon especially. This doesn’t mean the grape can withstand extreme cold and wet conditions. In some years the vine suffers from a lack of sun and the young berries shrivel before they can ripen (known as coulure).

Read Also: Lure of the Loire: Blanc canvas

Cabernet franc grapes are, nevertheless, a great companion grape blended with other varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, even if it plays second fiddle. And it can stand alone as a single varietal wine with aromas and flavours that the winemaker selects through their choice of harvesting times.

In the glass, cabernet franc is highly expressive with notes of red fruits like raspberry and strawberry. It also has a backdrop of green bell pepper which is due to the natural occurrence of a chemical called pyrazine. Interestingly, not everyone can discern that aroma so cabernet franc might appear more fruity to some of us. The soils (called tuffeau) are a chalky limestone rich in fossilized sea creatures. That special tuffeau imparts a unique crushed stone and other flavours to the wine. The longer the grape ripens the higher its sugar content and therefore flavour profiles shift to sweeter fragrances, sometimes smoky, and if fermentation is allowed to go to completion, it becomes a dry, medium-bodied red wine with fairly high tannin.

Loire Vally

Cabernet Franc vines found within the Bourgueil region of the Loire Valley.

As the climate has shifted over time, the alcohol content of cabernet franc wine has generally moved from 11 percent to 13 percent and sometimes more, again depending on the vintner’s choice. As a medium to high acid wine, it pairs very well with acid-containing dishes, most notably those with a tomato base. The changed profile of cabernet franc is giving the wines complexity, colour and structure that offers depth to single varietal and blends, alike.

Loire landscape

If you’re wandering along the Loire River, and in particular Middle Loire, you’ll travel through the Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (AOCs) of Saumur-Champigny, Saumur-Puy-Notre-Dame, Chinon, Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. These AOCs that cluster to the left and right of the Loire River are the seat of some of France’s, and some might say the world’s, most prized cabernet franc.

The famous Chateau scattered along the valley floor and hillsides are things of fairytale proportions. Owned by magnates of industry and families throughout the generations, they are the home to much of biodynamically and organically farmed cabernet franc. Chateau Yvonne in Saumur-Champigny proudly owns vines that are up to 80 years old.

In Chinon, on the right bank of the Vienne (a Loire tributary), Bernard Baudry began Domaine Bernard Baudry 38 years ago. Here, 90 percent of his vines are planted with cabernet franc in limestone, gravel and clay soils. His operations have been organic since 2006. The wines are bright and structured with bold expression.

Loire Valley

Loire Valley: Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil.

We talk about soils quite a lot. They are the source of a multitude of varying aromas and tastes in wine. Gravel and limestone can bring out lighter fruitier flavours while clay offers the grapes a chance to develop more heady aromas and deeper flavours. Areas like Bourgueil are blessed with both. Indeed, the recognition of Bourgueil as a shrine for cabernet franc lovers is not happenstance, “…the founding of the Abbey of Bourgueil in 990 appears to represent the beginning of the bourgueillois vineyard.” As a commercial proposition, the expansion of cabernet franc in the region during the 12th Century was made all the more easy by the Loire River which allowed for a thriving export trade to the Dutch from the area we now call Bourgueil AOC.

An experience worth the trip can be had at Chateau de Miniere which has a property history dating back to the 15th Century and vines that are up to 110 years old. Organic since 2010 and transitioning to biodynamics, the current owners of the Chateau recognize its heritage and its future steeped in cabernet franc.

Not too far from Bourgueil is Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. The land is varied in terrain and is home to over 100 vintners who call cabernet franc their signature grape. It’s no wonder that it’s in 95 percent of the wines produced in Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. The terroir is peppered with sands, gravels, and tuffeau, making it difficult to choose only one Chateau or vineyard to highlight. Rather, understanding that the wines here are vibrant and often lighter than those of the other AOCs in this part of the Loire, they are captured in the phrase “La Redemande,” which essentially means keep asking for the wine over again.

Below are six 100 percent varietal cabernet franc wines that are priced in the $20-$55 range and one at $100, for comparative purposes:


Catherine & Pierre Breton

Vines grown on the tuffeau limestone that typifies the region producing lighthearted, red fruits on the nose with a backdrop of tart red cherry. This is a dry, medium alcohol wine with fresh acidity that enhances the supple dried fruit characteristics of plum and cherry on the palate. The wine finishes with a light touch of tobacco. There is plenty of body that supports the moderate tannin structure and makes it an age worthy wine. ($50)


Domaine Des Closiers, Les Coudraies

This regional standout has a great quality to price ratio (QPR). More elegance that lends darker fruits to the aroma spectrum. Violets and black cherry at the front give way to green bell pepper. The soils here are consistently tuffeau and limestone and while they do offer an easily quaffable cabernet franc, this one adds some heft to the palate. Because the style is a cuvee you are getting the best of the fruit pressed first and the moderate and smooth tannin is the backbone on which the red raspberry, red cherry, and some smoky light tobacco are supported. ($55)

Arnaud Lambert, Les Terres Rouge, Cyr En Bourg

To bring out the fruits in this wine the vignerons use concrete for the initial fermentation then stainless steel for ageing up to one year. He does not add sulfites to the bottled wine. The expression of red and dark fruits is lively and is amplified through the vibrant acidity. Arnaud uses terroir to the wine’s advantage. The limestone bedrock and silt, clay and sand topsoil allow the full expression of the fruit. Arnaud has crafted [what some label as “entry level” cabernet franc] an expressive wine that has freshness and depth. Fruit making way to sweet tobacco. ($31)

Chateau Yvonne, Le Beaumeray  

Young vines planted on limestone soils that overlay tuffeau. This wine is a native yeast fermentation all hand harvested, unfined and unfiltered. Sitting in foudres then oak (20% new) for 12 months it is aged for a full year in the bottle pre-release. The wine is complex and dignified. All the fruit is organic and is sourced from a single vineyard and directly reflects the terroir. Aromatic and fragrant, the wine shows an earthiness underlying ripe red fruits. It delivers a palate replete with tart fruit, minerality and a finish of leather and pencil shavings. ($95)


Bernard Baudry

Grown on gravely-sand and clay plateau soils, the nose on this wine offers ripe red fruit and some herbaceous qualities. This lulls you into thinking it has limited depth, but mid palate a smokiness enters that also bring some spice elements, and a little pepper and leather. Baudry uses natural yeast, ages in cement and wood, and this organic wine undergoes unfiltered bottling. The finished product is a bright and flavourful wine that is instantly fruity and vivacious, with a mature finish. ($28)

Crémant de Loire

M Bonnamy Brut Rosé

A sparkling cabernet franc from Crémant de Loire AOC. Grapes grown on tuffeau and clay, mainly from hectares south of Saumur in the Loire. Traditional Method fermentation, with a second fermentation in the bottle, gives these Loire Valley “Fines Bulles” a fine sparkle for the juicy, berry flavours and allows some of the earthiness in the terroir to peek through. The berry flavours of strawberry and cherry dominate. The fresh acidity and fruitiness present themselves well as an aperitif and as an accompaniment for almost any dish. ($19)


Gillian Marks, PhD is a contributing editor for VineRoutes


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