You Are Not a Prophet in Your Own Land
And other lessons from the Loire cabernet franc beat.
I visited my parents in Florida a couple weeks ago. For the obvious reasons, it was the first time I’d been to their home 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 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 was a month from shoving off for the Loire Valley to taste several hundred wines for review. But at some point during the pandemic, I gave up on being a wine critic (which I discuss on this week’s podcast).
On my 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.”
He took a sip and said: “It’s…okay.” Oh well, LOL… I mean, it was a fantastic red that paired amazingly with fish but…well as they say, you’re never a prophet in your own land. In any case, I’ve never been very comfortable as a gatekeeper. Wine and spirits is lousy with know-it-alls and joining their ranks never really sat well with me.
I think that’s why I enjoy Loire Valley cabernet franc, which I covered as a critic. Cabernet franc is never going to win a popularity contest. It’s is a “moody” wine, as my colleague Juice Box Beth so eloquently puts it in her article earlier this week: “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.”
Moreover, it’s a red wine that’s been mostly ignored by the old guard of wine critics. One thing I noticed during my research was that, across wine media, Loire wines are woefully underscored. The publication I wrote for 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. Those kind of numbers point to a wider bias against Loire. I concur with Eric Asimov, 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 Gen X critics still love their fruity reds. Tellingly, most of the above was edited out of my own Loire report.
This, of course, was another factor in my losing faith in the business of wine criticism altogether. Here is something I did not lose faith in: the deliciousness and delight of Loire cabernet franc.
For instance, the other night, I opened a bottle of 2017 Domaine de la Noblaie Les Chiens Chiens. This is one of my go-to wines from Chinon, and you can usually find it for around $22. That’s incredible value for red wine that delivers on complexity and drinkability. Value being something that’s rarely talked about in the world of scoring wines.
On the more natural side, is 2018 Domaine de la Butte Bourgueil Le Pied del la Butte, by legendary Loire winemaker Jacky Blot — the “maestro of Montlouis” reknowned for his Chenin Blanc and a rebel who was famously cast out of the Vouvray appellation for not playing by the rules. In 2002, Blot bought Domaine de la Butte, with its 50-year-old cab franc vines. This is one of the most consistently unique and fascinating wines in Bourgueil, and another amazing value, usually found under $25.
Finally, what’s become one of my favorite everyday Loire cabernet franc is the 2019 Chateau de Coulaine Chinon. Purple-ruby in color with a spicy, floral nose, lots of clay and stone flavors and aromas, and bright berry, tomato, wildflower, and a cool, mineral finish. I defy you to find a more drinkable, downright enjoyable bottle under $18.
There has been a wine estate at Coulaine since 1470. The current vigeron is Jean de Bonnaventure, who is committed to organics, hand-harvesting, and a non-interventionist approach. I reviewed the 2017, and liked it, but the 2019 is an absolute joy. During the time I was doing my intensive tastings, I stayed in Chinon and I would unwind at night in the town’s bars. There, late at night, I drank with many local people who swore to the everyday virtues of Chateau de Coulaine. I will always remember these casual end-of-day glasses of this cabernet franc. This wine for me will always represent what we’re trying to do with this newsletter and podcast.
When I was in Florida, on the day I went fishing with my father and my son, I took a selfie. When I looked at it later, I was shocked to see that maybe I have entered my grizzled, late Hemingway phase. Watching the recent Ken Burns PBS documentary, perhaps that should be alarming, especially for a writer who has seen more than his share of drinks and travel. But also, I saw someone who was kind of over it. Over trying to be whatever it is that wine and spirits experts think they’re supposed to be.
I feel like if Cab Franc were a person, they would be over it, too. I am what I am, Cab Franc says. “You want fruit?” Cab Franc says, “Well, what can I tell you? Olives and tomatoes are fruit too.” Cab Franc gives — as the kids says — zero fucks. Which is why it’s the perfect wine for our particular era.