December 4 has been designated International Cabernet Franc Day – a move sure to please lovers of the grape, which is often overshadowed by its more famous offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon. As one of the primary grapes of Bordeaux, Cab Franc shares top billing with Merlot in the soft, elegant wines of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, arguably the stars of Right Bank wine production. Perhaps the most celebrated example of a Bordeaux-style Cab Franc blend is Chateau Cheval Blanc. Located in Saint-Emilion just across the border from Pomerol, Cheval Blanc sits atop the favorable soil of Graves-Saint-Emilion, which comprises clay, sand, and a small strip of limestone over layers of dense iron rock. This combination of elements gives rise to a wine that Clive Coates, MW, calls, “Full, generous and fruity when young; warm-hearted, rich and silky when mature.” The wine itself is rich but balanced, typically a blend of 2/3 Cab Franc to 1/3 Merlot, or thereabouts. Aging in new oak barrels imparts additional complexity. The 1947 vintage was a marvel, firmly establishing Cheval Blanc and the wines of Saint-Emilion as comparable in quality to the much-adored wines of the Médoc region on the Left Bank.
If you’ve seen “Sideways,” you might remember Miles drinking his dream bottle of wine out of a McDonald’s cup, as he sadly contemplates his lost love at the end of the movie. Guess what was in that cup? Yep, Cheval Blanc. (Despite his earlier declarations against both Cab Franc and Merlot, no less!)
On the left bank of Bordeaux Cab Franc is more of a bit player, with very little planted and even less going into the wine. But there are places which specialize in varietal wines based on Cab Franc, notably the Loire Valley regions of Bourgueil, Chinon, and Saumur-Champigny. If you haven’t tried the versatile reds from the area known as the Garden of France, you’re really missing out.
The Loire Valley lies to the southwest of Paris, a bit north of Bordeaux, and stretches westward from Sancerre to the Atlantic port city of Nantes. It’s full of beautiful landscapes peppered with medieval chateaux, and makes all manner of wines, including oyster-friendly Muscadet near the coast, light and fruity Rosé d’Anjou in the northern limits, elegant Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre in the east, and a panoply of Cab Franc-based reds from the central area of Touraine. If you’re looking for food-friendly wines that won’t break the budget, the wines from Bourgueil, Chinon, and Saumur-Champigny (I call them BCS wines) should be on your shopping list.
What do they taste like? Raspberries and violets, with some deeper notes of cedar and lead (think pencil shavings, those of you old enough to remember the classroom pencil sharpener!) In cooler years, Cab Franc can exhibit a vegetal, green-pepper aroma, which some tasters dislike but, unless the wine is flawed, is really a matter of taste. Compared with wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, the BCS specimens will be lighter in tannin and higher in acidity, both qualities that bode well for food pairings. In terms of intensity, Saumur-Champigny wines will be the lightest; Chinon will be more complex but with silky tannins; Bourgueil will show more tannin and have a fuller body.
Kermit Lynch, the esteemed wine importer, recounts in the memoirs of his first trip to the Loire Valley, his experience at a local village restaurant, where he asked for a bottle of the finest local red wine (which turned out to be Bourgueil): “The price was painless, the color a promising bluish-purple, the aroma loaded with berry-like fruit, the flavors original and delicious.”
Gerald Asher, in his collection, “The Pleasures of Wine,” recalled a discussion with Pierry Couly of Domaine Couly-Dutheil in Chinon: “A young Chinon is one of the easiest wines to drink. It adapts to just about any food.”
So what makes an ideal food partner with a Cab Franc?
Depending on the weight of the wine, it could be anything from a fresh river fish to steak, with game birds, rabbit, pâté, and rillettes commonly recommended. One classic suggestion for serving alongside the heavenly Cheval Blanc, according to French sommelier Gérard Lepré and passed along by Clive Coates, is Contre-Filet Prince Albert: filet of beef stuffed with foie gras and truffles, with shaved truffles sprinkled on top. Certainly a fancy, upmarket preparation worthy of such a high-profile wine; but you can go much simpler, especially with Cab Franc from the Loire. I’ve enjoyed these wines with charcuterie platters and cheese, roasted chicken thighs and a host of other things. But for some reason I really enjoy Cab Franc with roasted pork loin atop chard and white beans or potatoes (see photo). Do some experimenting of your own – these versatile wines won’t disappoint! Some producers to seek out at your local wine shop: Charles Joguet; Domaine Couly-Dutheil; and Domaine de Bernard Baudry.
While the Loire Valley is ground zero for varietal Cab Franc wines, there are examples made in other parts of the world. In Napa Valley, Viader makes a 100% Cab Franc under the DARE label; it is also a major component (34%) in the winery’s Liquid Cashmere, a Howell Mountain red blend. Justin Vineyards in Paso Robles bottles a Cab Franc-centered blend (58% in 2013) called Justification. Similar examples come from Horton in Virginia, and several wineries in Yakima Valley, Washington (Kestrel and Sheridan, to name but two.) Over the border, Burrowing Owl Winery in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia produces a varietal Cab Franc, too. I’ve never tried it but I was lucky enough to sample their Syrah, which was delicious!
Whichever way you choose to celebrate Cab Franc Day – opening a budget-friendly Chinon with roast duck, or splurging on a bottle of Cheval Blanc to accompany a succulent filet, or inviting a few friends over for happy hour – the perfect wine is waiting for you! “Santé,” as they say in France – “To your health!”
Asher, Gerald. The Pleasures of Wine, 2002.
Coates, Clive. The Finest Chateaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines, 1995.
Lynch, Kermit. Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France, 1988.
Robinson, Jancis, et al. The Oxford Companion to Wine, 2015.