Cabernet Franc is one of my favourite grapes in the wine world, capable of elegance and charm in its own right and adding perfume and freshness to many of the worlds Bordeaux blends. Despite being grown in warmer regions, particularly in the USA and Argentina, it really excels in cool to moderate climates, where the crunchy, red fruit profile and herbaceous flavours come into their own. This typically means Bordeaux, where it was historically planted as an insurance in case the Cabernet Sauvignon didn’t full ripen, particularly on the right bank where Cabernet Sauvignon has traditionally struggled to ripen in the cooler, clay soils. However, despite certain Chateau using Cabernet Franc as a majority in their blends (Cheval Blanc being a notably famous example), my favourite region for the variety has always been Touraine in the Loire Valley, particularly around a small region known as Chinon. (Psst, we’ll be doing a wine tasting of the Loire Valley in October with Maestrazgo Wine Club!)
The Loire Valley isn’t a warm place, being located in northern France, but as it stretches so far along its namesake river, making generalisations about style is difficult. What is certainly true is that the Loire is responsible for some of France’s best value, cool climate wines, with only really Sancerre commanding premium prices in certain markets. Touraine, located in the centre, is arguably the most important of the zones, often referred to as ‘The Garden of France’. It’s here that the best regions for Cabernet Franc are to be found, with both Chinon and Bourgueil making a strong claim, with Chinon probably the best known of the two.
Over the last year or so, I’ve drank a reasonable amount of Chinon but never in a comparative format. So, when Monvinic Store were having a small sale of some affordable wines from the region, I scooped a few bottles up and went about with the comparison! It’s worth noting that Chinon roughly comes in two different styles; full bodied, more structured Cabernet Franc from the clay and gravel soils, whereas lighter styles are made on the sandy, alluvial soils closer to the river. How fortunate then, that I managed to have wines from different producers, in the same vintage, on these two, very different soil types! It’s worth noting that 2011 was a pretty torrid vintage in the Loire, where the continental conditions make for some severe vintage variation, and typically it is the Cabernet Franc grown in the more structured style that rides the bad years more capably.
Domaine Grosbois Gabare Chinon 2011 – 12.5% ABV
Domaine Grosbois is an old estate that has been ran by the Grosbois family since the French revolution, with 9 hectares of land on the lighter, sand and gravel soils around Panzoult. Like so many estates in France, it has recently been given an injection of pace and a clear direction by a younger generation, in this case Nicolas Grosbois. My experience with wine-makers is that the best nearly always have an international appreciation of wine, and often experience in other wine regions. This is true for Nicolas who worked at one of my favourite wineries in New Zealand, Pegasus Bay, as well as Brokenwood in Australia. His main contribution to the future of Domaine Grosbois was to revitalise the land, first of all with a switch to organic viticulture and more recently to the more controversial, biodynamic system. All his Cabernet Franc is unoaked and the intention is to give a pure expression of Chinon and his vineyards in particular.
Gabare 2011 is 100% unoaked Cabernet Franc harvested from sandy soils at the base of his vineyards. A slightly murky, ruby colour and with a subtle aroma of fresh red fruits, this isn’t giving much away but slowly opens up to reveal lighter notes of fresh violets, fresh leaves and black pepper. A little lean on the palate with the same fresh flavours, and perhaps a lack of texture from the tannins. A nice, simple Cabernet Franc that feels affected by the weather conditions of 2011.
Charles Joguet Les Petit Roches 2011 – 13.5% ABV
Charles Joguet is a name that resonates in the Loire Valley and particularly in Chinon; taking over his family estate in 1957, Charles was one of the first wine-makers to start attracting international attention to the region. The estate itself is sat on deeper, clay dominated soils covering 36 hectares of prime vineyards, including some of the very best in the appellation. 9 different wines are made in total, reflecting their origins from specific plots around the estate. Since Charles retired, the estate went through a short but unwelcome period of misdirection and inactivity, before Kevin Fontaine took over the reins and brought it back on track. This is the producer I’m most familiar with in the region and I’ve enjoyed 5 of the 9 cuvees thus far, all a wonderful expression of Chinon and Cabernet Franc.
The wine itself has a much clearer appearance when compared with the Gabare from Domaine Grosbois. Aromatic and energetic, the extra ripeness of the wine is apparent with a riper red fruit profile, graphite, gravel, earth and a stronger, more clearly defined herbal note. The lovely, crunchy tannic profile comes out on the palate and there’s the energy and vibrancy I so love about wines from Chinon. A lovely balance of red fruits, herbal notes and earth; quintessential Chinon.
I really enjoyed this small experiment, and not just because I love drinking Chinon. I learn a lot of theory as part of my studies and it’s nice when something practical helps click the pieces into place. In this case, that soil type and the situation of the vineyard makes a big difference when it comes to the profile of the wines from Chinon, particularly in poor vintages. The extra ripeness and balance of the Charles Joguet made it a far more attractive wine, with more energy and more typicity. I would love to find the same two wines from a better vintage, 2010 say, and make the same comparison. Keep your eyes peeled on the 1st October as there will certainly be a Cabernet Franc or two to get your lips around in our tasting of the Loire Valley!