More Cab Franc Love – from the Loire Valley

Saumur ChampignyAnyone who reads my posts knows how much I love Cabernet Franc.  I never get tired of trying new bottles, and I’m especially pleased to make the acquaintance of wines from regions not typically associated with the grape.  Today and tomorrow I’ll be talking about a few wines I’ve tasted recently: two from France and two from the United States.  While neither country would be considered an outlier in terms of Cab Franc production, each of the wines described below comes from smaller or lesser-known communes – at least as far as varietal Cabernet Franc is concerned.

France’s 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.  It’s this last area that we’re talking about today:  if you’re looking for food-friendly red wines that won’t break the budget, wines from Bourgueil, Chinon, Saumur-Champigny, and St. Nicolas-de-Bourgueil 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, these specimens will be lighter in tannin and higher in acidity, both qualities that bode well for food pairing.  In terms of intensity, Saumur-Champigny wines will be the lightest; Chinon will be earthier and more complex but with silky tannins; Bourgueil will show more tannin and have a fuller body.

In replenishing my wine fridge after a slew of winter guests (seasonal hazard when one lives in South Florida!), I stocked up on a couple of my favorite Loire Valley reds: a 2013 Joël Taluau St. Nicolas-de-Bourgueil “L’Expression”, and a 2013 Château de Villeneuve Saumur-Champigny.  Let’s start with the latter.

The village of Saumur-Champigny lies in the eastern reaches of the Anjou-Saumur district, and is basically a western extension of the neighboring district of Touraine, especially when considering the styles of wines produced there.  Greater Saumur is most famous for its Chenin Blanc-based sparkling wines, particularly Crémant de Loire, which is made in the style of Champagne.  But the small town of Saumur-Champigny is Cab Franc country, home to crisp, light-bodied wines redolent of currants and raspberries that are perfect quaffs on their own or with a charcuterie platter.  That’s how I sampled the Château de Villeneuve, alongside a plate of assorted Spanish ham and some French cheeses.  The wine, served slightly chilled, was fresh and full of red fruit, with barely noticeable tannins.  It’s a wine for a summer evening, as you sit on the deck contemplating the sunset. ( Note to self: stock up for the brutally hot South Florida days to come!)  Château de Villeneuve dates back to the 16thcentury.  Now owned and managed by the Chevalier family, the entire estate has been renovated, including the vineyards, which are farmed according to lutte raisonnée, meaning that the use of agrochemicals has been minimized as much as possible.

St. Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, home to my second wine, perches in the northwest corner of Touraine, perhaps the most famous red-wine producing area of the Loire Valley.  Its districts include the more widely known regions of Chinon and Bourgueil, themselves split by the Loire River as it flows west.  While many red wines from Touraine are meant to be drunk within a few years, quite a few boast the structure to age well in bottle, not unlike good Bordeaux.  Bourgueil, on the northern banks of the river, has soil rich in tuffeau, a calcareous rock similar to limestone (and also used to construct many of the famous chateaux of the region.)  It is particularly suitable for growing Cab Franc which, in Bourgueil, results in more full-bodied wines than elsewhere in the Loire, with noticeable tannins and strong raspberry aromas.  The wines of St. Nicolas-de-Bourgueil are similar in style, although a bit lighter but every bit as aromatic as their big brothers to the east.

Joël Taluau was the first vigneron in St. Nicolas-de-Bourgueil to bottle his own wine, indicative of his hands-on, non-interventionist style.  In his own words, “Wine is the blood of the vine, nothing more,” his testament against the increasing common use of oak in producing Cab Franc-based wines in Touraine.  And when I took my first sniff of his 2013 L’Expression, I silently thanked him for letting the wine be.  Ebullient aromas of red currants, cherries and red apple danced up from the glass.  Then, an even sweeter, more floral note emerged that reminded me of red lollipops but would more properly be identified as violets.  A sip revealed all the red fruits I had smelled but with an incredibly intense floral sensation that seemed to rise up through my mouth to my nose.  It reminded me of my first experience with Condrieu and the intoxicating fragrance of that siren of a grape, Viognier.  (It’s also a perfect example of how our sense of taste has way more to do with our noses than our tongues!)  Tannins were just perceptible, in total balance with the acidity and weight of the wine.  In sum, I found the 2013 L’Expression to be extremely elegant and beautiful, a wine I plan to drink more of.

Chicken ThighsWhat to serve with wines such as these?  I’ve enjoyed them 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.  Maybe it’s just me, but I think pork brings out the sweetly floral nature of the grape, while the natural acidity present in these wines helps balance the salty/fatty profile of the meat.  In any case, try it out for yourself and do some experimenting of your own – these versatile wines won’t disappoint!

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