Cabernet Franc: A Local Hero In the Loire Valley

Cabernet Franc has long taken a back seat to its dazzling offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon. So wildly successful has the latter become that for most of the wine-drinking public, the name Cabernet simply means Cabernet Sauvignon. Does anyone know, or even care, about the “other” Cabernet? Globally, it’s barely visible. And in its Loire Valley heartland, Cabernet Franc has suffered from a reputation for green character, unripe tannin, and lean leafiness for as long as anyone can remember, struggling to find an identity beyond these attributes. But a greater understanding of how to get the best out of this sensitive variety has led to radical advances in quality. In a world where ripeness is easy to come by, but freshness and balance less so, Cabernet Franc is coming into its own. Properly handled, it produces sublimely fragrant and graceful wines that can appeal within a year of bottling and age for a decade or more. With a string of warm, successful vintages under its svelte belt, perhaps Loire Valley Cabernet Franc’s moment in the sun has finally arrived.

The Lay of the Land

Cabernet Franc is believed to be France’s oldest red wine-grape variety. Although typically thought of as French, or even from Bordeaux, its origin was most likely a little farther south, in northern Spain. In Wine Grapes, the balance of probability is placed on its birthplace being the Basque country, from where it was a short hop for the vine to travel to Bordeaux and, from there, an easy boat ride up the Atlantic coast to the Loire.

Beyond these early forays, however, Cabernet Franc has not proven to be a successful traveler. Pockets of Cabernet Franc can be found in the US, Argentina, and Australia, but most plantings are still in France. Close to 16,000 hectares are planted in the vineyards of the Loire Valley, with a similar quantity in Bordeaux. Together, the plantings in these two regions make up 70% of the world’s acreage. Cabernet Franc is a far more important grape in the Loire than in Bordeaux, however. In Bordeaux, it accounts for less than 10% of black grapes. To put this into context, there is twice as much Cabernet Sauvignon and more than six times as much Merlot. For the Bordelais, Cabernet Franc is a minority blending partner, usually confined to the cooler soils of the Right Bank. In the Loire, it’s a different story. In Chinon, Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil, and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Cabernet Franc is the hero, vinified alone to make increasingly high-quality reds. 

Finding the Loire Style

There has been a tendency for Loire growers to compare their wines with those from Bordeaux, a temptation that grew following the positive influence of the critic Robert Parker on the fortunes of Bordeaux in the 1980s. But Loire wines couldn’t compete on that score. MW Sam Harrop, a New Zealand–based consultant and winemaker, worked with Loire growers for several years in the early 2000s. He recalls, “At that time, people were trying to get top Parker scores, using lots of new oak and lots of extraction.” While some of the wines made in this style were successful, many were afflicted by the overextraction of green flavors and hard tannins. Harrop says, “The bigger styles could be impressive but also quite green. I tried to get [winemakers] to make wines that were more sympathetic to their terroir, to look more to Burgundy than Bordeaux.” Harrop’s suggestions included fermenting at cooler temperatures, gentler tannin extraction, and reducing new oak for maturation. “They needed to explore the natural elegance and diversity of soils in this cooler climate and to interpret their own terroir rather than emulating the Bordeaux style,” he explains, adding, “The idea was to celebrate the acidity rather than the tannins.” Harrop developed trials to show the effects of picking grapes in a single vineyard at the same time but using different vinification techniques, demonstrating that there was a viable alternative to imitating Bordeaux.

This work and the shift away from more heavily extracted styles have been beneficial for the overall quality of Loire Cabernet Franc wines in the past two decades. Some of the most successful growers today reversed course: power and structure turned into elegance and finesse. Wilfrid Rousse became a winemaker in Chinon in 1987. “In the 1990s, I did what I’d been taught,” he says, “which was to pump over once or twice a day for 15 days.” But over the years, he has gradually done less and less in the winery, which, he says, is “the hardest thing to do.” He now typically does just four pumpovers across the entire winemaking process. His wines then age undisturbed in old oak in a vast, 15-meter-high underground chalk cellar, where the natural humidity is 90%. He calls his barrels’ resting place “a key tool,” and it’s one that many of the growers here have at their disposal. Beneath the vineyards lies a vast network of cellars, former quarries for the ubiquitous creamy stone used to build the local houses and famous châteaux. Rousse’s other efforts at doing less include gradually moving away from filtration beginning about 10 years ago. His meticulous attention to detail is nonetheless evident, and his wines are structured but delicate, with forward fruit and integrated, silky tannins. Rousse has managed to find the sweet spot between elegance and concentration.

Thierry Germain, the outspoken owner of Domaine des Roches Neuves, in Saumur-Champigny, has winemaking roots in Bordeaux going back six generations. He says, “When I arrived in Saumur, I wanted to make Bordeaux. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, people liked sweet, ripe, high-alcohol wines like the ones they found in Bordeaux and the south. So I made wines that were very ripe and very oaky.” Today, he has rejected new oak altogether and considers it more important to preserve what he calls the fragile character of Cabernet Franc, which he believes is easily lost. High levels of ripeness are no longer on the agenda. “At 14%, Cabernet Franc begins to lose its identity and becomes flat,” he argues, adding, “The hardest thing is to find the right maturity of the grape and to preserve its identity.”

Germain is well known as one of the earliest to harvest. In 2022, he began picking on September 10, which, he explains, was “10 days before the rest.” He is also happy to identify Cabernet Franc as vegetal—but in a good way. “The problem with the word vegetal is that it is always associated with pyrazines and unripeness,” he says, “but I use the word a lot, because for me it is linked to fruitiness and florality. We’ve been taught it’s an enemy, but I think of it as an ally.” If it sounds as if his wines might taste green, be assured that they don’t. But they certainly taste fresh—and very much alive. Like many winegrowers in the region today, Germain produces a range of cuvées from his various parcels to highlight different expressions of Cabernet Franc. He also makes an outstanding Franc de Pied from ungrafted vines. Germain credits his son Louis, working with him since 2018, with showing him that infusion—the current buzzword for gentle tannin extraction—can give the same quantity, but finer quality, of tannins compared with more traditional pumpover techniques.

A New Generation

There is a new generation of talented young Loire winemakers, many with more experience of the outside wine world than their forebears. At Domaine de la Noblaie, in Chinon, Jérôme Billaud took over from his father in 2003, after studying in Dijon and subsequently working for Christian Moueix in Bordeaux and California, followed by a stint at Sacred Hill in New Zealand. He recently participated in a wide-ranging soil survey completed by the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment, which involved digging numerous soil pits on his land to better understand the terroir. He likens the folded layers that were uncovered to “a lasagna you’ve pushed your hand into,” saying he uses this new understanding of his soils to determine more nuanced picking dates for his wines.

Another local star with an impressive résumé is Bertrand Sourdais, who divides his time between his family property in Chinon, Domaine de Pallus, and his Ribera del Duero winery, Antídoto. He studied at the local wine school in Montreuil-Bellay before collecting experience like stamps in his passport: Bordeaux (Mouton Rothschild, Léoville Las Cases, Nénin) Chile (Santa Rita), and Spain (Alvaro Palacios, Dominio de Atauta). Since taking over the family domain in 2005, he has made an impressive range of wines that come from some of the best sites in the appellation. The style is Loire, but with a definite outside influence: bold, ripe, and confident wines that will likely still be intriguing a decade from now. They are rather like the enigmatic Sourdais, who says, “Cabernet Franc is like Grenache: it can be unbelievable or meh.” Clearly, he’s aiming for the former.

At Domaine Grosbois, the globe-trotting brothers Nicolas and Sylvain farm 25 hectares to produce wines that have benefited from the pair’s collective experience in New Zealand, Chile, Spain, Australia, and Oregon. At the eastern edge of the Chinon appellation, they make fruit-forward wines of exceptional drinkability, most of which do not spend any time in oak. The winemaking formula appears deceptively simple: harvest by hand, destem, drop into a concrete tank. The wines are breathtakingly lovely: fresh and silky, complex and alive, juicy and plump—a veritable showcase of Cabernet Franc finesse. After all their travels, the brothers seem to rejoice in their idyllic home environment, where they raise pigs, cows, and chickens and grow truffle oaks and vegetables alongside their vines. Unusually for this part of France, Domaine Grosbois exports 85% of production, compared with a more typical 25% in the area. Good news travels.

Considering Climate Change

Climate change has had a predictably beneficial effect in this part of the world. The Loire Valley still has a climate that is cool in global terms, but temperatures have been increasing steadily over the last decades. Recent growing seasons have been celebrated for conditions in which it has been easy to ripen grapes: 2018, 2019, 2020, and now 2022. But rising average temperatures have come with consequences: advanced early-season growth means vines are increasingly vulnerable to spring frosts and drastic crop loss. Another result of warming temperatures has been the tendency to pick grapes with higher levels of ripeness and accompanying lower acidity, a combination that puts wines at risk of being out of balance or, worse, faulty. Brettanomyces infection, often associated with winemaking of days past, can still be found surprisingly often. Whether or not it was deliberately sought, it is shrugged off or considered a stylistic choice by some winemakers. The tendency to eschew sulfur use during winemaking has exacerbated the problem. Thierry Germain, who does not appreciate Brett, makes a direct link to grape maturity. “The higher the alcohol and pH, the higher the risk of Brett,” he says. He notes that in the warm 2022 vintage, “Brett is everywhere.”

The Old Is New

Although much has changed, there are still producers who stick to the tried and trusted methods through which they earned their reputation. At Clos Rougeard, probably the most renowned winery in the Loire Valley, the brothers Foucault were largely ignored locally for decades for failing to follow the trends of their neighbors—whether using agrochemicals and machinery or increasing yields to meet the rising Parisian demand for a fruity, bistro-style Saumur-Champigny. Instead, for 50 years, they did pretty much as they pleased, crafting handmade wines from organically farmed, low-yielding vines, until, eventually, others realized they might be onto something. Prices exploded, and the wines have become virtually unobtainable. Technical Director Jacques-Antoine Toublanc, who has consulted for the estate since the 1990s, says, “People used to hassle me for working for the people who let grass grow in their vineyard.” Explaining what goes into the making of the world’s most sought-after Cabernet Franc, he says the grapes are handpicked when just ripe. Everything is destemmed, and the grapes are treated with great care. There are no pumpovers. As for extraction, Toublanc says, “Here, maceration has always been infusion. We don’t do anything else.” The wines age in deep, cool cellars for several years. After the death of Charly Foucault, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the modest winery attracted the attention of a monied buyer, and it remains to be seen if the Bouygues brothers (owners of Château Montrose, among other wineries) will bring a Bordeaux influence to Saumur-Champigny.

Pierre Gauthier, owner of Domaine du Bel Air, was born 50 meters from his Bourgueil vineyard. A veteran winemaker whose first vintage was 1995, Gauthier says he learned everything from his father, with no technical training. “I’m not a revolutionary,” he says. “If people have been making wine this way for a thousand years, I’m not about to change it.” It may be starting to sound familiar: handpicking, destemming, gentle handling, and, presto, delicious Cabernet Franc. But some things have changed. “Forty years ago, we didn’t do much in the vines,” says Gauthier. “Now, winegrowers here are more like gardeners. They love their vines.” He also controls the temperature of his fermentations, explaining, “It’s better for the yeasts and for the aromas.” Gauthier is clearly delighted about the recent warmer vintages, even if, like most of his neighbors, he can list the exact dates of all the frosts that have affected his vines.

Pouring a juicy, ripe, and black cherry–scented 2020 cuvée, he says, “Previously, we were only able to make a wine like this every 20 years.” His 2018 wines show intensity of fruit across the range but no sensation of excess. “We never lack acidity here,” Gauthier notes. Nonetheless, he harvests earlier than most, which is evident not only in his wines’ freshness but also in their overall balance: even in a warm vintage like 2018, alcohols are moderate, at 13.5%. His top wines spend up to 30 months in oak and are destined for a long life. His 2018 flagship cuvée, Clos Nouveau, demonstrates aromas of violets and licorice, with silky tannins layered over black fruit intensity. It is easily a 20-year wine. Grand Mont from the same vintage demonstrates toasty, confit, savory fruit and a chalky minerality that lingers on the finish. It’s obviously a keeper but already delicious. This is where great Loire Cabernet Franc can offer the best of both worlds. And as Gauthier wryly remarks, “Nobody’s going to be angry if you open it now.” 

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Bordenave, Louis. Collection de l’ampélologue. Éditions Féret, 2016.

Robinson, Jancis, Julia Harding, and José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. New York: Ecco, 2012.

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