This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Friday, Nov. 30, 2007 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20071130.php.
Where Cab Franc shines
If you paid attention to all the wine-geek trivia in the wine-road movie comedy Sideways, you may have noticed that in addition to his infamous dismissal of Merlot, the twitchy character Miles also roundly dissed Cabernet Franc.
If you paid close attention, you also noticed that one of the wines he considered most glorious - Chateau Cheval Blanc St.-Emilion - just happens to be made from a blend of mostly Cabernet Franc ... and Merlot.
The joke works for a simple reason: With relatively few exceptions (Alsace and generic varietal wines from Burgundy and the Languedoc), French wines don't disclose the wine-grape variety on the label. Location, location, location is everything in French wine, and it's considered much more important to know where the grapes were grown and the wine was made than what specific grapes were used.
French AOC wines - regional wines of controlled appellation - must be made from specific grapes, both under tradition and under law.
If you happen to know that Bordeaux wines in general are made from a blend that may include some Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, good for you. But it doesn't really matter if you know that Cheval-Blanc contains 57 percent Cab Franc, Merlot comprising most of the rest, with a splash of Cab Sauvignon and a dash of Malbec. It's assumed that the name of the producer, and the region, tell the consumer all that the consumer needs to know.
This stands in contrast with the U.S., where "varietal labeling" that gives prominence to the wine grapes became the standard for fine wines as the result of a marketing effort in the years after World War II. "Napa" may be a name to conjure with in the marketplace, but only a few Napa producers with big names (like Opus One, Dominus or Insignia) dare present their flagship wine without featuring "Cabernet Sauvignon" or "Merlot" at least as prominently as the region and producer.
Cabernet Franc, meanwhile, only occasionally stands alone, in France or the U.S. In Bordeaux, with the rare exception of Cheval Blanc and a handful of its neighbors, it's usually a minor player in the red blend. Here and there around the world, usually in cooler growing regions like Northern Italy, Ontario, New York's Finger Lakes and upland Virginia, producers are experimenting with full-varietal Cabernet Franc with mixed success.
For me, the one sure-fire, go-to region where Cabernet Franc really shines takes us back to France: Chinon in the Loire almost invariably gets it right. Located in the Touraine region (around the city of Tours), on the Vienne River, a tributary of the Loire, Chinon boasts a vine-growing history that goes back to the Romans, and - as a handy trivia question - is also the birthplace of the famous, ribald 16th Century French author and philosopher François Rabelais.
Chinon by law must be made from at least 90 percent Cabernet Franc (the rest may be Cabernet Sauvignon), and is usually all Cab Franc. Curiously, one of today's featured Chinons bears the English-language label note "100% Cabernet Franc," a bit of information (perhaps included for the export market) that counters the usual practice, a small oddity that inspired me to today's rumination.
That wine is a tasty, nicely balanced early-drinking Chinon from Rémy Pannier, one of the region's larger negociants, a wine merchant who buys grapes or wine from smaller producers and finishes the wine under his own label. Today's other featured wine is a limited-production artisanal item, an old-vines vineyard bottling from the respected producer Bernard Baudry. Drinkable now, albeit on the earthy, fruit-shy side, it's a Chinon that will benefit from extended cellaring.
Two good Chinons, two fine Cabernet Francs. Never mind what Miles said.
Rémy Pannier 2006 Chinon ($13.99)
Dark garnet. Red berries and a whiff of red-clay earthiness. More subtle than fruit-forward, raspberries and white pepper, tart acidity and soft, smooth tannins. Good young Chinon, enjoyable and interesting now, but it would be well worth setting some aside, especially at this fair price. U.S. importer: Palm Bay Imports Inc., Boca Raton, Fla. (Nov. 21, 2007)
FOOD MATCH: I like to match the earthy fruit of Loire Cabernet Franc against the mixed flavors of Asian fare. This one made a fine match with a lightly spicy pork-and-bean-curd West China standard, Ma Po tofu. More traditionally, it's a versatile match with poultry, pork, lighter red meats and a range of cheeses.
VALUE: In the age of the strong Euro, value doesn't get much better than the lower teens for excellent young Chinon like this.
WHEN TO DRINK: More than palatable now, but quality Loire Cabernet Franc will go for five years without any effort and a decade or more under good cellar conditions.
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Bernard Baudry 2005 Chinon Les Grézeaux ($23.99)
Very dark reddish-purple with a garnet edge. Red fruit and a distinct, earthy red-clay minerality on the nose and palate, well structured with fresh-fruit acidity and soft tannins. Good, typical Loire Cabernet Franc, not in a style that will please those who prefer fruit-forward to mineral-style wines, but I love it. U.S. importer: LDM Wines Inc., NYC; Louis/Dressner Selections. (Nov. 4, 2007)
FOOD MATCH: Right on with yet another spicy Asian match, Sichuan-style crispy beef with shredded celery and carrot and hot chile peppers. For a more customary match, try it with thick grilled pork chops.
VALUE: Baudry's respected name, the strong Euro and a single-vineyard wine conspire to push this one into the $20s, although as a classic Chinon with cellar potential, that's fair for fans of the style.
WHEN TO DRINK: Drink it now or cellar it well and watch it sing in 2015.
For an English-language account of Baudry and his Chinon, see the importer's Website:
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