These Wines are the Platonic Ideal of Everyday Drinking
Why Loire cabernet franc is my ride or die.
Last week, I detailed how I’d lost my faith in wine writing and how I was over legacy wine media. In the process, I ended up dragging poor Loire cabernet franc into this contentious fray. So, today, I figured I would say a few positive words about what are perhaps my favorite everyday red wines.
Something I have not lost faith in: the deliciousness and delightfulness of the red wines from Chinon, Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny. If you come to my home, and I serve you a red, there is at least a 60+ percent chance it will be a Loire cab franc.
Loire cabernet franc is a wine for people who are over all the nonsense in wine. Cab franc wines, even the best, have that rustic note that hints at something savory, earthy. “You want fruit?” says Cab Franc with a shrug, “Well, what can I tell you? Olives and tomatoes are fruits, too.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t be, but I’m often surprised by how unloved cabernet franc is. Some of it is lack of awareness, some of it is bias, and some of it is simple snobbery. This past summer, New York Times critic Eric Asimov talked about this plight: “Wine writers can be tireless, or perhaps tiresome, in recommending the virtues of perennially unloved wines. Loire reds are one example of a category that receives little affection no matter how often writers tout their value, versatility and deliciousness.”
It’s a red wine that’s been historically ignored by the type of legacy wine critics I talked about last week. When I was deep in my Loire tastings in 2019 and 2020, one thing I noticed was, across wine media, the reds are woefully underrated. Prior to my coverage, Vinous hadn’t done a report on the Loire since 2014. In a survey of its 2019 scoring, Wine Spectator reported that less than one percent of Loire wines scored more than 95 points. Compare that to the Rhône, where 11 percent of the wines score more than 95 points. Likewise, nearly 90 percent of Champagne scored 90 points or higher, compared to only 45 percent of Loire wines. What tale do numbers like that tell?
I agree with Asimov (a fellow lover of Loire cab franc) who wrote in 2015, “I attribute this partly to a stubborn refusal by many critics to admit the best Loire reds to the upper echelons of wine.” It’s likely generational: Boomer and older Gen X critics still love their big, oaky, fruity reds. Many are also antagonistic toward wines that lean in a, ahem, “natural” direction. Since Loire Valley is an epicenter of natural wine, you’ll find an awful lot of critics calling Loire wines “reductive,” which has become a dog-whistle term. As Aaron Ayscough, who writes the natural wine newsleter Not Drinking Poison, points out: “Describing things as ‘reductive’ without suggesting why is just a lazy pseudo-intellectual crutch.”
In my own cabernet franc report, several top winemakers weighed in:
“Cabernet franc didn’t have a good image in the past,” said Matthieu Baudry of Domaine Bernard Baudry in Chinon. “Because there was a time when the yields were too high. But today, 90 percent of the growers do much better yield control, and the wines are much more elegant.”
Still, it’s a rough-hewn sort of elegance. “Cabernet Franc is a rustic variety,” said Thierry Germain of Domaine des Roches Neuves in Saumur-Champigny. “It’s vegetal, it’s volatile, and it’s important to work around that.”
It’s a tricky balance, according to Benoit Amirault of Yannick Amirault in Bourgueil. “The main challenge for Cabernet Franc is the ripeness,” Amirault said. “If it’s not ripe, you have a green character, and if it’s too ripe, the fermentation is difficult.”
My colleague, Amber Janelle Brown, and I made a short video with Baudry and Sylvain Grosbois of Domaine Grosbois further explaining Loire cabernet franc.
In the early days of this newsletter (and on my short-lived podcast) we talked a lot about cabernet franc. Beth Comatos, aka Juice Box Beth, described cabernet franc brilliantly in her article published here last year:
“If Cabernet Franc was a person, they’d be your soft-spoken, trendsetting friend who doesn’t care what other people think, and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for their originality. (They are, in fact, what the kids call “OG”: parent to the more crowd-pleasing kids, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.) Your friend Cab Franc discovered the hip music before it blew up. They wore bucket hats before they were ironically cool. They took you to underground poetry slams that changed your life. They’ve been there for you through thick and thin, yet you continue to neglect them. But why? Because your other friends are louder, needier. And they text you back quicker.
Why doesn’t Cabernet Franc get the attention it deserves? Well, it’s moody for one. Fruity and bright one day, then dark and savory the next. It’s got a bunch of personality quirks. Green bell pepper? Pencil shavings? When you’re looking for a fruit bomb, these savory and mineral characteristics might scare you off at first. But don’t fret; embrace these quirks. The best Cab Francs are integrated and delightful, food-friendly wines.”
Wine People too often get Loire reds all wrong. I think it’s maybe because they’re focused on the wrong things. If you hear Loire talk in wine circles, it’s almost always about the high-end expressions, such as those from Clos Rougeard. Not that those aren’t great wines, but they have Bordeaux-like price tags to match. There’s also, frankly, too much talk about how Loire reds have “improved” or are “getting more elegant” or how their “image is getting better.” I’m over that kind of talk, because its whole frame of reference is in relation to overpriced “prestige” regions.
The true beauty of Loire cabernet franc is that you can drink it every day. For $15 to $25, there dozens and dozens of wonderful, gulpable—and widely available—reds that pair great with the foods people actually eat. These are the wines for people who are eating less red meat or going more plant-based. They’re wines for pizza and pasta, for healthier proteins, for spicy foods, for sushi. These are not the wines for our imaginary, monocle-wearing gastronome who dines on rack of lamb and foie gras. They’re for people who don’t need wine to be an oaky raspberry bomb.
I do believe Loire cabernet franc will eventually have its day.
Last spring, in my first trip after the worst of the pandemic, I visited my parents in Florida. For the obvious reasons, it was the first time I’d been to see them in a year and a half. We had a great time: Ate well, walked on the beach, went fishing for sheepshead and grouper around Tampa Bay. And of course, we drank a lot of wine.
When it came to wine, things for me had changed. The last time I’d been in Florida, I’d been working as a wine critic. In fact, I’d hosted a blind tasting of cabernet franc for my parents’ wine-loving friends, and I was a month from shoving off for the Loire to taste several hundred wines for review. But during the pandemic, as I’ve well documented, I gave up being a wine critic.
Apparently, though, my advocacy for Loire reds had created at least one convert: My father. Though I guess he didn’t see it that way.
On the first night in Florida, as a cool breeze rustled the palms over what Florida people call “the lanai,” my father opened a fine bottle of Chinon, a 2017 Bernard Baudry Les Clos Guillot Chinon.
“Do you know this one?” he said. “It got a 93.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m the one that gave it a 93.”
As the old book says: No one is a prophet in their own land. Who cares? I was never meant to be a wine gatekeeper anyway. Let everyone discover Loire cabernet franc for themselves.
Six Picks: Loire Cab Franc
Value is something that’s rarely talked about in the critic’s world of scoring wines. Here are a half dozen that offer amazing value.
2020 Domaine de la Butte ‘Le Pied de la Butte’ Bourgueil, $22
By legendary Loire producer Jacky Blot, the name refers to 35-year-old vines growing at “the bottom of the hill.” No oak, only concrete. Complex nose with aromas of cherry, red berry, autumn leaves. On the palate, more tart berry with an underlying dark slate note. Fresh, immediate, quaffable.
2020 Catherine et Pierre Breton ‘Trinch’ Bourgueil, $24
From famed natural producer, younger vines aged in stainless steel. Nose full of bramble, with hints of tarragon, anise, and even a touch of jalapeño. Fresh, juicy, bright, with a light mineralty to give it just enough structure. Super glou glou, as the kids say.
2020 Marc Plouzeau Chateau de le Bonneliére Rive Gauche, $17
Cool, drinkable example of the savory side of Chinon. Earthy, primal with aromas of forest floor, pepper, and blackberry, and flavors of black cherry, olive, juicy and lively, leading to a lengthy, chalky finish.
2019 Olga Raffault Chinon, $18
Absolutely one of my weekly go-to wines, from a benchmark Chinon producer. Classic, textbook cab franc, with great juicy acidity, fresh fruit, and just enough savory and earthy notes. For a step up in elegance, look also for Olga Raffault Les Picasses ($28).
2020 Bernard Baudry ‘Les Granges’ Chinon, $22
Amazing value for a pretty complex wine. Aged 10 months in cement. Expressive aromas of spice, dried herb, grilled meat, and in the mouth, swirling fruity-savory notes of blackberry, grilled tomato, black olive, tobacco, and a spicy finish.
2019 Domaine de la Noblaie Les Chiens Chiens, $21
Another of my go-to favorite Chinon producers. From 30-year-old vines of a lieux-dit that literally means “Dogs-Dogs.” An example of oak aging in Chinon (12 months in large neutral oak) that’s understated. Textured, serious, dark, and chewy with dried herb, plum, black olive, blistered tomato, and even a hint of espresso. Super complex and amazing value.
You could insert dozens of wines in the space of Loire Cab Franc. Outside of the pearl-clutchers' preferred flavor profile and hangovers of over-oaked, over-extracted, possibly sugar-laced wines of the late 20th century, the 100-point rating system does us all a disservice in its inability to transmit the value of lighter-bodied wines. I had a buyer say to me not long ago "If you have any Barolo rated 95 or higher I'll take a look". I responded "well, it's a shame that 95% of Baroli do not satisfy the criteria for those rating, but if you want some balanced Nebbiolo with pure fruit and no oak, look me up." The bottom-line is that the rating system of the 20th century cannot adequately respond to the tastes of the 21st. I'd rather drink 88-point Barbera (or Dolcetto, or Sangiovese, or Grenache, or...) over 99-point Napa Cab eryday.