Why cabernet franc is the next big thing in Loire wines – and which ones to buy

Bottle of red wine being poured into a glass
Long in the shadow of its famed progeny, cabernet franc deserves to enjoy its moment in the sun Credit:  REUTERS

For a few years now “the Loire” has been talked of as a region that is trending among sommeliers. That’s unsurprising given the value to be had and the discoveries that can be made in a place whose many appellations and range of styles requires some navigation. At almost 630 miles in length, the Loire is France’s longest river, rising in the Massif Central and flowing north before bending west to flow through Orléans, Tours, Angers and Nantes, emptying into the Atlantic just to the south of Brittany.

The range of climates found along its course support, among others, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc (Sancerre being the most famous proponent of both); cabernet franc, gamay, malbec (here known as cot) and chenin blanc (which is produced in a dizzying array of styles, often within a single appellation); and melon de bourgogne, the grape responsible for the marine white that is muscadet.

But what offers an adventure for some makes the region invisible to others. The Loire’s wines are less appreciated than they deserve to be and as we teeter on the brink of autumn, the grape I’d like to single out is cabernet franc.

In genetic terms, cabernet franc is like a distinguished paterfamilias whose fame has been obscured by that of his children: DNA analysis suggests that cabernet franc is a parent to cabernet sauvignon and merlot, as well as to carménère. (As an aside, in a rare triumph of linguistic clarity, it has been shown that the other parent of cabernet sauvignon is sauvignon blanc.) Cabernet franc is gentler and less tannic than cabernet sauvignon. Both are grown in Bordeaux but cabernet franc plays more of a supporting role in a blend while cabernet sauvignon is the blackcurrant-scented, structure-giving powerhouse of the Médoc. Internationally, cabernet franc has been championed by a few gentle souls who value its beautiful perfume, while cabernet sauvignon is the name you see emblazoned on millions of bottles from Australia, Napa, South Africa and elsewhere.

Among winemakers at least there is a growing appreciation for cabernet franc. It’s the smell that always gets me – cabernet franc is fragrant in a way that you could almost wear, all flowering redcurrant leaf and sweet-savoury promise. This shimmering fragrance makes itself felt in Bordeaux reds even when cabernet franc makes up as little as 5 or 10 per cent of the blend and it is particularly key to wines from Pomerol and Castillon, Côtes de Bordeaux.

Grown in even warmer places cabernet franc can take on a more sumptuous, cushioned quality with a flavour that sometimes seems slightly tinged with drinking chocolate. Pulenta Estate in Mendoza in Argentina makes a famous and gorgeous single varietal cabernet franc (Pulenta Estate Gran Cabernet Franc is stocked by Ocado at £32.99 if you want to try it).

But it’s to the Loire that you need to head in order to find cabernet franc at the heart of a wine region. Loire cabernet franc has a tingle. The wines are lighter (but far from wishy-washy) with a leafy freshness, scent of pencil shavings and summer pudding flavours that work well when it’s drunk slightly chilled.

You can find really good, casual drinking, co-operative-made cabernet francs in the Loire – simpler reds that speak to a tumbler of wine and a bavette-frites or chicken kebab sort of an evening. Wines from the cooperative once called La Cave des Vignerons de Saumur and now rebranded as Robert & Marcel Co are particularly good. I’m including the name in case you’re thinking of visiting – the cellar is quite a place, with six miles of underground tunnels carved into the limestone that were occupied by the Germans during the Second World War.

But these guys make wines that are often bottled under different labels for different retailers so it’s not a name you need to know if shopping here. For instance, they make Les Nivières Saumur 2017 France (13%, Waitrose, £9.49) which is one of the best wines I know for under a tenner and an absolutely cracking example of Loire cabernet franc – though I do need to point out that this wine sometimes sells on promotion, and that it isn’t on promotion at the moment.

Chinon, Saumur, Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil and St Nicolas de Bourgueil are the appellation names you do need to know if you are seeking out Loire cabernet franc. And while cabernet franc is very often drunk young and fresh, the better wines do age beautifully. Cabernet franc may be milder-mannered than cabernet sauvignon but it does also possess an architecture that opens up in a stately way over time rather than unravelling and collapsing in a shapeless heap. So don’t rule out putting one of the more structured, better bottles away and leaving it a few years.

Wines of the week

Domaine des Ormes Saumur Rouge 2016, France

(12.5%, Co-op, £8)

Vividly redolent of summer pudding, this is a cabernet franc with a thirst-quenching edge. Try it with a lamb burger and redcurrant jelly.

Domaine Yannick Amirault La Coudraye 2017, Bourgueil, France

(13%, Lea & Sandeman, £16.95/14.95 single bottle/mixed case price)

Yannick Amirault began his own domaine when he took over his grandfather’s vineyards in the 70s. He’s added parcels since, and now works the land with his son. This is a beautiful expression of cabernet franc – all about the outdoors, with a hint of forest floor, woodland, brambles, redcurrant leaves and cool earth. Spot on.

Domaine Filliatreau Chateau Fouquet Saumur 2017, France

(13.5%, Yapp.co.uk, £14.50)

Yapp has some older cabernet francs that you could try, including a Filliatreau from 2009. This is a younger wine, made from organically grown grapes in the Saumur appellation. Reminiscent of elderberries and summer berries.