If you’re looking for a wild night, grab a few bottles of Loire Cabernet Franc, call a couple of friends, and swing by your local wine shop. I kid you not. My wife and I did this very thing yesterday evening, and it proved to be one crazy ride.
For the normal among us – those who prefer to spend their evenings at the theater, clubs, house parties, or sporting events – a Cabernet Franc tasting may not sound terribly entertaining.
But if, like me, you’re a wine geek – that is, if your idea of a good time is opening a bunch of interesting, obscure wines, tasting them with friends, and debating their relative merits late into the night – then listen up. I’m about to give you a recipe for the best night of your life.
Ok, so I oversold it a bit. It wasn’t the best night of my life. But it was a darn good night, a memorable night, full of intriguing textures, provocative aromas, and distinctive flavor profiles. As with all such experiences, much of the enjoyment must be chalked up to the company (some dear friends and several very cool wine merchants) and the venue (Solano Cellars in Albany, CA). But in this case, what made the tasting so wild were the wines being tasted.
More than any other wine I can think of, Cabernet Franc from France’s Loire Valley offers great potential for a ridiculously entertaining tasting. Loire Cab Franc’s lack of predictability – its proclivity to surprise you, to offer up wintergreen flavors in one bottle and burnt ends flavors in another, its refusal to be pinned down or summed up, its ability to make you laugh and cry in sequential sips – makes it an oenological adventure with few equals.
What accounts for this variety? I don’t know, honestly. But I think it has something to do with the immense influence that the winemaker and the weather have on the ultimate character of the wines. Sure, vintners and vintages matter to almost all wines. But the nature of the Cab Franc grape and the nature of the principal area in which it is grown make this influence far more pronounced than in most other wines.
Cabernet Franc possesses a wide range of potential flavors. It can be green, herbal, and vegetal. It can taste of leafy tobacco, tea, and leather. It can be full of raspberry, cranberry, and cherry flavors. And it can be all earth, tannins, and barnyard soils. The best Cab Francs borrow from several of these categories to create a profound, multilayered personality that knows no duplicate. The worst examples are dominated by one or two of these flavors, such that the wine will taste simply like weeds, meat, or fertilizer, and not much else.
Likewise, in the Loire Valley’s microclimate – one of the coolest and least sunny in France – the variation between a hot vintage like 2003 and a cool vintage like 2004 can be quite pronounced. Because only in the warmest years will the grapes ripen enough to create wines whose fruit is prominent, the door is often wide open for non-fruit flavors that usually lurk in the background to strut their stuff.
All this means that the winemaker’s craft (in choosing which of the Cabernet Franc’s many potential flavors to coax out of the grapes) and the weather’s fluctuations (in highlighting the effect of the natural coolness of the Loire Valley’s climate) play unusually significant roles in the unique variety that exists among Loire Cab Francs.
Matt, one of the Solano Cellars merchants we tasted with last night, likes to describe a good Loire Cab Franc as a raspberry truffle rolled through the dirt. He means this as a compliment. And I like the image, because it gets at the integration of apparently conflicting flavors that is so crucial to a successful Cab Franc. What’s more, it focuses on the explicit contribution of the Loire terroir to the distinctiveness of its wines. You like to eat raspberry truffles – but how much more would you appreciate them if you could taste the place from which they came in perfect balance with the sweet fruit, bitter chocolate, and silky texture that make them so appealing?
Truffles rolled through dirt are just the beginning of what these wines have to offer. Part of what makes tasting Loire Cab Franc an adventure is its tendency to give off unusual scents and flavors. The four wines we sampled last night (two from St.-Nicolas-de-Borgueil and two from Saumur) evoked a dizzying array of vivid descriptions – even though they all hailed from vineyards within a few square miles from each other. Matt’s raspberry truffle metaphor was accompanied by the following reactions:
-- “burnt pine cone”
-- “dry hay”
-- “asparagus and violet”
-- “like chewing on a Christmas tree”
-- “browned meat”
-- “rough, stoned fruit”
-- “faint scent of peanut butter”
-- “burnt ends without bbq sauce”
-- “wet concrete”
-- “V8 juice”
-- “hamime” (an Armenian dish made principally of red bell peppers)
Obviously, many of these images make for less than appetizing descriptions. But that isn’t really the point if you’re a wine freak. Sure, it’s wonderful to slurp down a delicious wine. (And many Cab Francs, including at least one we had last night, are delicious.) But it’s more memorable to meet a truly unique wine, a bottle that introduces you to flavors and aromas you’ve never before experienced in an alcoholic beverage. Loire Cabernet Franc offers this potential in spades.
Its unpredictability may account for why you don’t see all that many single-varietal bottlings of Cabernet Franc. The grape is most frequently found as a minority partner in red Bordeaux, where small portions of it are used to soften Cabernet Sauvignon- and Merlot-dominated blends. Cab Franc generally has less structure than its famous descendant Cab Sauvignon, but it also ripens earlier, thus making it a kind of insurance against cold vintages in Bordeaux.
Its early ripening helps explain why Cab Franc does so well in the Loire Valley. It is there, where most red wines are pure Cab Franc, that the grape finds its truest expression. But don’t look for the word “Loire” on the label. Instead you’ll see the name of appellations like Borgueil and St.-Nicolas-de-Borgueil, Chinon, Saumur and Saumur-Champigny, Touraine, Anjou, and others. General statements can be made about the kind of Cab Franc each of these regions produces. For example, Chinon, Borgueil, and St.-Nicolas-de-Borgueil tend to be more robust and age-worthy, whereas Saumur, Touraine, and Anjou tend to be lighter and more drinkable in the near term. But so much depends on each domaine and the exact location and soil composition of each vineyard that such generalizations only tell half the story. To know the full story, you must sit down with a collection of Loire Cab Francs from different makers, different vintages, and different regions and taste, taste, taste.
I think this is why I love Loire Cab Franc so much. Each bottle tells its own unique story. That’s true of all wine, of course (which helps explain why I can browse, taste, and talk about wine interminably without fatigue). But it’s especially true of Loire Cab Franc. Like stories, wine from most other regions fall within genres – Bordeaux are dramas, Beaujolais are comedies, Burgundies are romances, Australian shirazes are westerns, Napa Cabs are Jerry Bruckheimer films, California Chardonnays are horror flicks. But not Loire Cab Francs. Each bottle is completely distinctive, category-defying. The region, taken as a whole, doesn’t have a genre. If it did, maybe it’d be a thriller – you never know what’s around the corner (might be something wonderful, might be something terrifying).
Forrest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates.” He might have said, with equal accuracy, “A box of chocolates is like a mixed case of Loire Cabernet Franc.” You never know what you’re going to get.