Of Castles and Cabernet Franc: leisure days in the Loire
There is a legend that the Abbey at Brittany was home to some of the first planted Cabernet Franc grapes in the soils of France’s Loire Valley. It believed that cuttings came from the Basque region in the 11th Century, over 1,000 miles away. We don’t know who planted what when and exactly where, but we do know the Romans had vines under cultivation in Loire even before that. Today the Loire is known for Cabernet Franc, and its stunning castles of which 42 of over 300 are part a UNESCO World Heritage site throughout the 600-mile long valley. Located southwest of Paris it is Frances’ third most prominent wine region behind Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. Parts of the Eastern Loire are easily accessed by car just an hour drive from Paris, and a main jumping off point for one-day and up to three-day tours. The TGV train can get you to various Western points like Angers and Nantes in less than three hours.
Cabernet Franc in the Loire is the antithesis of Cabernet Franc from California. This should not imply that New World Cabernet Franc is lesser in quality, but to truly understand the origins, complexity and uniqueness of Cabernet Franc, a nothing much of a grape in California, you need to taste Loire thereby giving yourself a reference point. Cabernet Franc in France is picked earlier, rarely gets any oak treatment, has a surprisingly complex acidity and offers specific dark berry notes common to Franc. It is the soils - limestone, clay, and slate - that give Franc its structure. “The acidity is the arrow that gives the wine direction,” says winemaker Fredrik Filliatreau. And what you find from the villages of Anjou to Saumur, to Chinon and Bourgueil is a wine of diverse characteristics.
At Domaine Leduc-frouin in Anjou I visited brother and sister team Antoine and Nathalie Leduc-frouin who hand harvest 74 acres of Cabernet Franc, some of which was planted by their grandfather 60 years ago. Though this age is not uncommon, Anjou Cab France is meant to be consumed within a few years as it leans towards an expression of light bright fruit. However I also tasted through vintages dating back to 1999, and you clearly see the age-ability of Cab Franc whereby the inherent acidity allows for cellaring.
Just down the road another brother and sister team, Helene and Yves Matignon set to work on their small parcel of vines. They, too, are third generation farmers, originally with grapes, cattle and cereal grains, though the most notable thing is the cemetery next door. But as I traveled throughout the Loire I found this to be more common that you would expect: lots of parcels of vines and cemeteries nearby, castles popping up near the major freeway and an abundance of wines you may never get to try unless you come here.
As a contrast to family wineries, Alliance Loire is a co-op of 150 wine growers who produce 80 different cuvées at various price points for an international market. “There’s a saying that Anjou is very soft,” technical director Nicholas Emereau tells me, meaning that the region is temperate in which to grow grapes. The Alliance operates 260 acres of vines in a massive facility. In fact their boxy tasting room belies what’s underground. I go with Nicolas and winemaker Eric Laurent down a tight circular staircase 80 feet into tunnels originally excavated for their stone in the 1700s. Left behind are 33,000 feet of dank tunnels where the Alliance ages nearly 10 million bottles (it was also where the Nazis stored ammunition during WWII). For such a large facility their wines cover a wide spectrum from inexpensive fruity wines to cuvées with rich
complex fruit. As I taste through several of their wines, The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, belts out “Born in the USA” over the speakers, a reminder that the Loire is not that far from America.
Moving east I visited Domaine La Jarnoteire in the St. Nicholas de Bourgueil region, where Carine Reze took me into caves quarried around 990. It’s deep in these caves, some 60 feet underground that they age their wines in chestnut barrels, a practice they have done since they purchased the property in 1945. Of course it was this exact area that Cardinal Richelieu, in the 1600s, decided would be the exclusive place for Cabernet Franc to be grown. And the Cardinal was right. The Cabernet Franc wines of the Bourgueil (pronounced “bur-goy”) express themselves as the most complex, at least to me, of the other Loire Valley regions. You should not imply from this that other areas are lesser in terms of Cabernet France, but that for my palette Bourgueil was the most comprehensive and Carine’s wine show a lovely maturity. “Our style is for elegance, not powerful