Later this morning, my MW mentees and their fellow classmates will be about to begin their first year tasting exam. This time last week, I might well have hoped that they would have at least one Cabernet Franc in the 12-glass line up. You know where you are with Cabernet Franc – it has incredibly distinctive aromas of green bell peppers, rather crunchy tannins and crisp acidity. Or at least that’s what I thought until I spent a couple of days in the Loire, Franc’s heartland, last week. Now I have to admit that I’m less sure that I know what Cabernet Franc looks like.
Let’s go back in time to my first professional visits to the Loire a dozen or so years ago. Much of the Cabernet Franc I tasted on that trip was hard work: astringent, under-ripe (with those bell pepper flavours well to the fore), mouth-puckeringly sharp. But things were changing, partly due to the hard work put in by the team behind the Cabernet Franc project (headed up by winemaking consultant Sam Harrop MW); partly due to the arrival of a younger, more widely travelled generation of local winemakers and, almost certainly, as a response to changing market demands.
To put it bluntly, Cabernet Franc in the Loire got riper. Not by much, but a better understanding of the nature of ripeness and how to achieve it in vineyards planted in the Loire’s marginal climate led to wines with slightly gentler tannins and more bright fruit, while still retaining the zesty freshness that makes Franc so attractive.
I write the Loire section for Oz Clarke’s annual pocket wine book, so when I was invited by Sopexa (acting on behalf of Interloire) to spend a couple of days in the Loire visiting Cabernet Franc producers, I was keen to go. I hoped I’d make some new discoveries and renew my acquaintance with the wines of some of the better producers.
It didn’t take long before I discovered that very little of the Franc I was tasting fit my stereotype. Our trip began in the Anjou region, which is situated at the western extreme of where Cabernet Franc is planted in the Loire. To be honest, I didn’t taste that many wines that impressed me, but I think of Anjou as being mainly a Chenin Blanc area, so I wasn’t all that surprised. Having said that, the Anjou Villages from Domaine Ogereau stood out. In good vintages, like 2009 and 20011, the wines have a deliciously taut, focused quality, with really pure fruit and a seam of stony minerality. (The next good vintage from the Loire heading our way will be 2014.)
I was also charmed by the riper fruit of Domaine de Bablut‘s Petra Alba 2011, from the more tightly defined Anjou Villages Brissac area, whose chalky soils help the vines retain water at the height of summer, thereby promoting riper fruit and tannins.
And yes, that fruit character… As we moved further east, towards premium appellations for Cabernet Franc, the grape’s new character became clearer. That slightly under-ripe green pepper character was largely replaced (in the best wines) by a kind of tea leaf character. The crunch of the tannins was transformed into a finer chalkiness. This was abundantly clear in the wines we tasted at the Château du Hureau, a longtime favourite of mine.
Philippe Vatan (above) makes some of the most refined Cabernet Francs I’ve ever tasted from grapes grown in the Saumur Champigny appellation. His entry-level cuvée, Tuffe, is ripe and plush, with gently fuzzy tannins and deliciously juicy raspberry and mulberry fruit (and that hint of tea leaf).
The two top cuvées, Les Fevettes and Lisagathe, are both made from grapes grown on rich clay limestone soils. The Fevettes has impressive concentration and a seductively silky texture, while Lisagathe is more taut and focused. Tasting the 2011 bottlings of these wines side by side, Fevettes seems more approachable at this stage, but Lisagathe has a pent-up energy that promises well for the future.
We moved on to Domaine Filliatreau, whose wines are, perhaps, a little less complex than those from Hureau, but they still deliver great value for money and lots of typicity. More of that tea leaf character was in evidence in La Grande Vignolle 2013, a cuvée made from vines with an average age of 40 years. This is a fresh, linear red with some fairly firm tannins and some perfumed elderberry fruit. It’s probably not going to make old bones – 2013 wasn’t the greatest of vintages – but it’s utterly delicious in the short term.
Opinions were split on our visit to the Domaine de l’R. I enjoyed the slightly funky notes of Frédéric Sigonneau’s wines, but a couple of my colleagues were less enthusiastic. The ill-defined ‘natural’ winemaking movement (the Charlie Hebdo of the wine world) tends to split opinions, and this is something I plan to write about at some point in the future. For the moment, though, I’ll just say that if low sulphur wines do it for you, it’s worth checking out the domaine’s Cinq Elements or Les Folies du Noyer Vert.
Other notable visits included one to the Domaine de la Noblaie, where we were told about a vast project that’s been undertaken by the governing body of the Loire Valley wines to map most of the region’s soils. Soil samples taken at regular intervals in hundreds of vineyards have led to the creation of maps that reveal key details about soil type and depth, water resources and altitude, allowing growers to make more informed choices about their choice of rootstocks and clones, as well as pruning methods and harvest dates. Amazingly enough, all this information is now available to all online at Techniloire. Apparently it costs €200 per hectare to map a vineyard in this kind of detail. If I was a winegrower, I’d be biting Techniloire’s hand off to get them to come and map my terroir (not just Techniloire, either – the technology that allowed the Loire to map in detail is widely available).
When Jerôme Billard took over the management of Noblaie from his parents in 2003, one of his first moves was to engage the Interloire technicians to do some in-depth studies of his soils. He’s used the information obtained from the hundreds of points plotted across his 19 hectares of vineyards – along with his hands-on experience – to refine his winemaking. The domaine used to make one red wine, one rosé and one white. These days he bottles four reds, two whites and two rosés because he now understands the typicity and the potential of his plots so much better. His Les Blancs Manteaux, an attractive, supple wine, is destined for the UK market, while his more intense, powerful Chiens Chiens is bound for the USA.
I tasted wines from a number of other domaines during my brief visit to the Loire (and I’ll be writing one of these up as a wine of the week in due course), but while I tasted bottlings that reminded me of Cru Beaujolais and Crozes Hermitages, even ones that called to mind the crisp strawberry fruit of a Sancerre Pinot Noir, I struggled to find the familiar green pepper signpost that had guided me so reliably through all of my student tastings. Today’s exam candidates will search in vain for it.