Warm Up Like the French: Drink Cabernet Franc
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
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.