Warm Up Like the French: Drink Cabernet Franc

Categories: Unscrewed

Chinon Basket 2.jpg
Lauren Mowery

Sometimes we New Yorkers could take a few lifestyle cues from the French. They've spent generations perfecting the art of the café, a place that fosters lounging, reading, socializing, and just enough political yammering. And while the denizens of Paris are enjoying life, they're drinking Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, much of it from Chinon. Yet this food-, wallet- and lifestyle-friendly wine has largely been ignored in the U.S. I confess to my own inclusion in its exclusion, until recently rediscovering these wines at a Loire Valley Wine Bureau dinner.

Hosted at the Breslin, the Bureau featured over a dozen, mostly delightful, sensibly priced Cab Francs from Chinon, reminding me that it's truly an underappreciated red wine region. Located in the "the garden of France" or the Touraine region of the Loire Valley, Chinon has a micro-climate that allows for ripening of this red grape, in an otherwise white wine kingdom.

Because they're sometimes confused, let me clarify that Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon are not the same grape; the former is the latter's parent. And just as we swear we aren't like our folks, Cab Franc is plenty different from her offspring. Cab Franc ripens earlier, has more expressive aromatics, fruitier flavors, higher acidity and lighter tannins. The fruit must be ripe to make great wine, otherwise the grape's dark side, or more appropriately "green side," manifests as unpleasant herbal or overly green vegetal/pepper notes.

The problem of under-ripened grapes has been a factor in wine drinkers' perception of Cab Franc, specifically during the early years of production in Long Island. Outside of the North Fork, most American wine drinkers know of Cab Franc as a grape blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Bordeaux, or as the dominant grape in Saint-Émilion. But as a solo performer in the Loire, the grape truly excels.

The Chinon wines featured at the tasting were mostly charming, several quite polished, one beautifully aged, but all fully ripe. Ripeness in the Loire Valley, however, is not the same as ripeness in California. The lovely red raspberry and cherry fruits showed restraint, and were backed by fresh acidity, compliments of the region's cool, northerly climate. Added complexity came from flavors of tobacco, spice, minerality, funky (good) earth notes, even cheese. But crucial to Chinon's mission statement was the demonstration that well-made, interesting wines at affordable price points are "ripe" for your picking.

Producers to Try:


Domaine Charles Joguet

Justin Monmousseau

Olga Raffault

Where to Buy:

Astor Wines, 399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500

Chambers Street Wines, 184 Chambers Street, 212-227-1434

If you can't find Chinon, look for these other Cab Franc dominant appellations: St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny. Prices range from the low-teens to the mid-twenties.

Lauren Mowery is a wine and travel writer. She writes the Unscrewed column for Fork in the Road and blogs at Chasing the Vine.

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Thank you for the comments! I spent a lot of time exploring the wines of the North Fork last summer, and I completely agree that the Cab Franc being made now is impressive (hence my reference to the early, rather than current, days of Cab Franc in L.I.) I would be happy to make a date and drive out to the winery; NY Cab Franc deserves its own report!


Great piece about the beauty of Cabernet Franc. Having just been in the Loire this past summer I can say it is a lovely region with great wines. However one doesn't have to travel too far from NYC to experience the beauty of this wine which is grown right on the North Fork of Long Island. As a winemaker on the North Fork and one of the first to plant this variety out east, I can say that it is now one of the best red wines in our region. Outside of the Loire, I'd say Long Island is now producing some of the most distinctive Cab Franc anywhere. Moderate alcohol, with beautiful aromatics and very little oak. I'd be happy to host you at our winery in Cutchogue and taste with you some of the wines we are making right in NYC's backyard. Your local winemakers as well as your readers would thank you for it!

R. Olsen-Harbich