By Jon-David Headrick & Steven Spanbauer
When well made from ripe grapes and moderate yields, there is always a soulfully earthy and herbal twist to Cabernet Franc. In warmer climates, this is expressed as graphite, cedar, and mint-tinged red fruit flavors with a remarkable freshness and brightness. In cooler climes like the Loire Valley, things get wilder and woolier. Certain vineyard sites planted on poorer soils and on slopes with southern exposures can still capture a hint of that characteristic graphite aroma but buried under freshly turned earth, aromatic herbs, and a sultry savoriness. Being at the northern limit of its growing area in the Loire Valley, Cabernet Franc can be potentially sublime, age-worthy, and one of the best bargains in the fine wine world. Unfortunately, you can also find plenty of hard, green, unripe versions as well. This is the heartbreak and acid reflex nature of Cabernet Franc and those of us who go searching for the best growers to import to the United States.
Just what separates a great producer from an average one? The easiest hallmark to spot is consistency. Before the current era of warmer temperatures, fair-to-average vintages were the norm for Cabernet Franc, making it apparent who were the great growers. These exceptional estates have the right terroirs, low-vigor soils, warm exposures, and farming practices that limited yields. Many were organic or biodynamic long before these became marketing positions. All practice hands-off winemaking preferring indigenous yeast fermentations in well-seasoned oak barrels, vats, and in some instances, rock-cut tanks under their generations-old cellars.
Like its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc thrives on gravelly clay soils giving the wines power and structure, while sandier soils generally make for more fruit-driven expressions. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, however, it buds and ripens earlier, making it ideal for the cool growing season of the Loire Valley despite making it prone to frost. The heartland of Cabernet Franc stretches from the white limestone soils of the eastern Anjou, Saumur & Saumur-Champigny, the mixed white and yellow limestone of Bourgueil and St-Nicolas de Bourgueil, to the tuffeau and clay soils of Chinon and the Touraine. One could get into endless arguments with proponents of Cabernet Franc as to which limestone makes for the most aristocratic wines. Apart from a few ambitious and iconic estates, these wines are overwhelming values in the world of fine wine, offering both complexities of expression and a capacity to age at remarkably fair prices. Regardless of your personal preferences, we have the Cabernet Franc for you.