If Cabernet Sauvignon is the patriarch of the grape family — stable, money-making, and well-respected — Cabernet Franc is more like the oddball brother who works in the family business but yearns to found a start-up or write a novel.
Cab Franc is most often a blending grape and is best known for being a small component of the traditional red Bordeaux blend. Its taste is closest to Cabernet Sauvignon — a combination of berries and herbs — but it has a more pronounced nose and a slightly less tannic body, and it likes to grow in a slightly cooler climate. When blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux, it rounds out the trio and gives the wine personality. (One of the greatest Bordeaux of all, Chateau Cheval Blanc, happens to be made predominantly of Cab Franc and must be tasted by anyone with even a passing interest in this grape.)
But in the Chinon district of France’s Loire Valley, Cab Franc gets to stand on its own all the time. This area is almost entirely planted with the grape, and the wines are a great demonstration of what it can do when given a chance. When I look at a restaurant wine list, I always look to see if there are any Chinons available; because they’re often inexpensive, it’s a good indication of how serious the restaurant is about value.
I’m not entirely sure why Chinons are so cheap, but it’s all part of Cab Franc’s undeniable appeal. Take Charles Joguet, one of the best producers in Chinon (Olga Raffault is my other go-to name there). The entire line of wines is under $50, and the two least expensive offerings are true miracles of affordability. Charles Joguet Chinon Cuvée Terroir 2005 ($19) epitomizes what Cab Franc is all about — it’s dominated by an elegant sour cherry taste, with a bit of bell pepper that some people hate but I love; together these flavors spread out on the palate and stay with you on a long finish. Chinons rarely get that jammy character so familiar in wines from warmer climates, and that’s exactly what I love about them. These crisp and focused reds are usually better food matches than their sweeter counterparts.
For a mere two dollars more, Charles Joguet Chinon Les Petites Roches 2005 ($21) kicks up the intensity a few notches. As a colleague of mine pointed out when he tried this wine, it tastes like stones — there’s a distinctive minerality that makes you curious and eager to try another sip. (The wine’s name, in fact, translates to “the little stones.”) The red currant and pepper notes change and evolve in the glass from the moment you pour the wine, getting more interesting all the time.
It’s still the exception rather than the rule to see a stand-alone Cab Franc from outside of Chinon, but more and more California wineries are trying their hand at it. The Ehlers Cabernet Franc Napa Estate ($45) shows its oak aging a bit more prominently than a Joguet wine does, but it’s quite balanced overall, with a very pure berry character and a really pleasant finish (and with some of the proceeds going to cardiovascular research, this is a red wine that’s heart-healthy in more ways than one). It’s a little sunnier-tasting, as you’d expect from an American cousin, but it still honors the unique fingerprint of my favorite underdog varietal.
Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.