Cabernet Franc is an orphan grape, which means that all of the varieties that came together to make it centuries ago have died out in extinction. About a thousand years ago, it was perhaps with this knowledge that Cabernet Franc began to have children of its own, like Merlot and most famously Cabernet Sauvignon, the latter being the son of a alliance with Sauvignon Blanc. And like all good and dedicated parents, the Cabernet Franc was on the whole happy to step back and see its widely planted progeny find success and fame in the wine world.
Cabernet Franc is probably best known as one of the varietals in a Bordeaux blend or a Meritage blend from California. For a winemaker, Cabernet Franc’s main talent is its ability to ripen early, or at least earlier than most other red grape varieties. In the pre-global warming climate of the mid to late 20th century, it would have been especially valuable in Bordeaux, where winemakers could at least rely on it to maturity in a cool growing season. Further north in the cooler Loire Valley, its ability to ripen early has made it the overwhelmingly dominant red grape variety.
Cabernet Franc is doing well in another cool climate close to home, the Niagara Peninsula and other southern Ontario wine regions. It responds well to the limestone soils of the Niagara Escarpment. At Thirty Bench, Cabernet Franc from winemaker Emma Garner of Beamsville Bench is among Niagara’s most prized reds, while Norman Hardy’s Limestone-riddled Cabernet Franc from Prince Edward County doesn’t draw much attention. of his pinot noir, but is a fan-favorite perennial, for those in the know.
If we refer to France, the wines of the Loire Valley are best known on export markets such as ours for whites; especially for Sauvignon Blanc and especially for the relatively eastern regions of the valley, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Further down the river, towards the Atlantic, roughly between the ancient medieval cities of Tours and Angers, are the red wines, almost all made from Cabernet Franc grapes.
The great commercial advantage that Bordeaux winemakers enjoy is its deep-water port, which facilitates exports to Britain, the Netherlands, and eventually North America and beyond. While the Loire has the port of Nantes, once the capital of maritime Brittany, the importance of the Loire for its winegrowers went in the other direction: it was historically the river itself.
The Loire is the longest river in France, and it makes a long arc from its source in the Massif Central to the Atlantic. About halfway, in Orléans, the river is only 120 kilometers from Paris. Most of the Loire wines, especially the reds, have always been destined for the capital and its bistros. This is partly why you see relatively few bottles of Cabernet Franc from the Loire in Canada, at least outside of Quebec: Parisians and their northern French compatriots drink most of it.
Compared to its Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot progeny, Cabernet Franc is often described as lighter, with more red fruit notes than black fruit. Sometimes it is also described as a little more fragrant. As with all things vinous, the exceptions to these rules are many and a concentrated Cab Franc from a warm year (which seems to be the case every year now in Europe) can be just as rich and complex as any wine red. Still, Cabernet Francs from the Loire Valley tend to show good acidity, crisp and lively, which puts them firmly in the camp of the gourmet wines.
A good wine pairing seems like a game of chicken and egg. Has the wine found the food, or the food the wine? Or if not, a third explanation would be to say that they are symbiotic: most classics seem to associate a place’s wines with its food. The Loire Valley is sometimes referred to as the garden of France because just about any French ingredient can be found, grown or raised there. And, like wine, much of it ends up in Paris.
There are plenty of red wines that go very well with the bistro dishes – that is, the popular dishes – of France, but there is a strong argument to be made that a typical Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley is versatile enough to go with just about any of them: light enough for seafood or for white meats like veal sweetbreads, but also big enough for everything from veal liver to duck confit to the good old steak and fries. In this way, there are few home-cooked meals my house that wouldn’t welcome a lighter glass of Cabernet.
That’s why I was thrilled to find a bottle of the 2018 Saumur-Champigny Lieu Dit Les Poyeux on the shelves of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario store near me. French wine term said place can be literally translated as “place said”, but could be more accurately (and poetically) transposed as “the place we call”. Les Poyeux is a hillside vineyard just south of the Loire near the town of Sauzur-Champigny, famous for its cellars.
Since before recorded history, these caves have been carved into the soft yellow chalky limestone that locals call tufa. Léger is an easy and ideal quarry to go up or down a river to build as many cathedrals, abbeys and fairy tale castles as the big one nearby at Saumur. It’s also fantastic to let the vines grow long roots deep there, searching for water and dissolved minerals. Of all the red wine regions of the Loire, Saumur-Champigny has the most tufa, resulting in wines that are paradoxically both sweet and deep in flavor.
Les Poyeux is made by a cooperative created in the 1950s, named after two of its founding farmers: Marcel and Robert. Like a Clos in Burgundy, individual farmers claim particular ranks in Poyeux, and the cooperative has six who contribute to the wine. In concert, the farmers leave their Cabernet late on the vines, usually picking well in October, then the must is left to macerate on its skins for 22 days, to bring out a brooding blackberry fruit wine despite its faint strawberry nose. Blended into this is the revealing Loire Cabernet Franc note of pencil shavings. Plus, it’s $19 a bottle.
The Marcel et Robert 2018 Saumur-Champigny Lieu Dit Les Poyeux is a bargain, and there are plenty of other Loire bargains to be had, if you’re lucky enough to be in a market with an allotment, time in time. Of course, there are many more expensive and more sophisticated Cabernet Francs from Saumur-Champigny, mostly sold by the case to restaurants or collectors. And also wines from neighboring regions such as Chinon and Bourgueil which are worth a visit if you find any. The result is that the red grapes that made it in the Loire when it was too cold for anything else to work have a moment in the warmer weather, and more often than not, it’s worth having. try.