By Jeff Thoreson
The large wine store where I like to go to wander the aisles, like the DIY-ers wander around the big-box home improvement centers, offers just two bottles of wine from Chinon, France. Really? To me, that’s like Lowes offering just two colors of paint.
I’m a big fan of dizzying array of cabernet franc wines made in the Loire Valley, so it’s lack of respect – and availability – on this side of the Atlantic concerns me.
Peek in the bistros that line the bowling-alley wide cobblestone streets of the ancient city of Chinon and you’ll find wine lists loaded with both light, quaffable wines from local vineyards and elegantly aged bottles that complement the gastronomic charms of the area. Perhaps that’s why not much is exported – the locals know a good thing when they see it, and maybe wont to share with the rest of the world – or at least my wine store.
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Almost all red wines from Chinon, a few hours southeast of Paris, and the neighboring appellations of Bourgueil, Saumur-Champigny, and St. Nicholas de Bourgueil are made almost entirely of cabernet franc.
Throughout the world, cabernet franc is best known as one of the three main grapes of Bordeaux, the one that blends so heavenly with cabernet sauvignon on the left bank of the Garonne River and merlot on the right bank that it helps create some of the world’s greatest wines.
In Chinon, and throughout the central Loire Valley, cabernet franc is a solo act of such importance that the world-class reputation of the entire region is fueled by that single grape. Cabernet franc in the Loire produces styles of wine from crisp roses to full-bodied, age-worthy reds.
Although Chinon is not the spiritual home of cab franc, that likely being the Basque region southwest of France, the grape was brought to the area in the 11th century and is now so married to the local terroir that Chinon and cab franc are as inseparable as Chablis and chardonnay.
Cabernet franc is, generally speaking, a light- to medium-body wine with a pleasant upfront fruitiness, maybe a touch of herbal flavor and a distinct pepperiness on a finish that lingers. In the central Loire Valley, cabernet franc becomes magical. The flavors of these wines move across you palate the way great wines should.
The steep vineyards of Chinon, where the terrain climbs sharply from the Venne River, offer so many soils and schists that the cab franc grown in the gravely conditions of the plain is different from that grown in the limestone clay of the hilly uplands, which is different from the same grapes grown in the sandy limestone of the plateaus. And the interesting thing is, all three of those conditions may exist within such close proximity that they all may be found in the same vineyard.
At Domaine Bernard Baudry just outside of Chinon, Bernard and his son, Matthieu, produce such a markedly different styles of cabernet franc that it is difficult to believe they all come from the same appellation much less the same producer. Bernard Baudry – Vigneron – Chinon
The Baudrys and almost every other winemaker in Chinon will tell you that a wine’s bouquet, fragrance, flavor and characteristics all come from the terroir, not interventionism in the winemaking process. What the land provides, the winemaker merely guides.
During my visit to Chinon in 2019, I also came across Domaine Olga Raffault, a long-time family-owned vineyard that has produced some of the region’s great vintages. The Raffault vineyards are in the temperate, humid region where the Vienne intersects with the might Loire River and the soil can be gravel based or clay based. Domaine Olga Raffault : vins de Chinon, vins de Loire.
Raffault’s flagship wine comes from a renowned lieu-dit, a French term for a small geographical area bearing a traditional name. The vineyard of Les Picasses, with its south-facing, limestone-rich soil, produces a structured, powerful, age-worthy wine much bigger and bolder than what the average wine drinker thinks cabernet franc is.
Between those two producers, I brought back as many bottles as checked-bag weight limitations would allow. So, my cellar is still well-stocked with great Chinons, although trying to replenish when they’re gone won’t be as easy as a trip to my wine store.
Baudry Les Granges: From the sandy gravel of riverbank vineyards, Les Granges is a light, fruity meant-to-be-drunk-young wine about as easy-going as red wine gets.
Baudry Les Grézeaux: From the more gravelly vineyards Baudry produces Les Grézeaux, a dense yet silky wine with even bigger tannins and, in good vintages, age-worthy potential of a decade and beyond.
Baudry Le Clos Guillot: This wine comes from the schist vineyards that start to climb steeply upwards. It’s sour cherry and darker fruit flavors could easily be mistaken for a fine pinot noir.
Baudry La Croix Boissée: From the chalky calcium carbonate soils of Baudry’s mid-level vineyards, La Croix Boissée is a far bigger and more tannic wine than any cabernet franc you’ve tried.
Olga Raffault Rose A spectacular, crisp, fresh rose, it’s herbal and red fruit notes come from sandy, stony, alluvial soils near the Vienne River and aging in stainless steel vats.
Olga Raffault Les Picasses Powerful and full-bodied, the grapes come from the chalky clay and limestone soils in the hills above the river. The south-facing slopes offer maximum exposure to the sun for full ripening.
Try a few wines from Chinon and if you like them, look for single-varietal cabernet franc wines from other regions of the world. Because the grape buds and ripens earlier than other reds, it is ideal for cooler climates.
Hungarian winemakers started planting the grape in the 1990s and now wines from Vilany and Szekszard have developed a reputation for excellence. Other Eastern European countries, most notable Bulgaria, Slovenia and Croatia, are coming into their own with cab franc.
In the U.S., Virginia, especially the Charlottesville and Middleburg AVAs (American Vinicultural Areas), now produce very good cab franc wines. Some regions of Canada are growing the grape, mostly for blending or making a single-varietal ice wine. Argentinian winemakers now say cab franc has more potential of any grape other than malbec.