Wine 101: French Wine Regions: Loire Valley: Cabernet Franc & Chenin Blanc

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On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers wraps up the Loire Valley with a look at the middle of the region where Chenin Blanc fades and Cabernet Franc becomes the focus. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, I just found out the first person to be convicted of speeding was going eight miles an hour. Definitely not from New Jersey.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair Podcasting Network, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers and I am the tastings director of VinePair. Hello.

Today we are going to the middle of the country of France. We’re going to the Loire Valley, and we’re dialing in all the way to the middle of the Loire Valley to talk about Chenin Blanc and Cab Franc. Cab Franc cleaning.

OK, in Season 3, we talked a lot about wines from the Loire Valley. We talked about Muscadet coming from the far eastern part of the Loire Valley. We went all the way to the other end and we talked about Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Then we went into the middle and we talked about Vouvray and Saumur and Champigny. What emerges from this is a really great way to understand the Loire Valley through the varietals that thrive in certain parts of it. The Loire Valley is basically broken up into three parts, and certain varieties are part of those quadrants. Over in the east during the Muscadet episode, we learned that Melon de Bourgogne and Folle Blanche were the varieties used there. We went all the way over to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, and we understood that Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are the varieties there.

In the center of the Loire, we talked about Saumur-Champigny, we talked about Vouvray, and how important the Chenin blanc grape is there. This brings us to our final focus on the Loire Valley. In the center of the Loire, Chenin blanc reigns supreme, but so does another variety, a variety I’ve talked about in the first season of the Cabernet Sauvignon episode, and in the Merlot episode. A grape called Cabernet Franc. There are two very important wine regions in the center of the Loire that deal with the grape Cabernet Franc. It’s a fading in and fading out of Chenin Blanc where Vouvray and Saumur, and Saumur-Champigny are dealing mostly with Chenin Blanc and some Cab Franc, which I had mentioned in those episodes. As we go west into the town or region of Chinon, we encounter a region that primarily does Cabernet Franc, but also does Chenin Blanc and does it very well.

As we move a little bit north of Chinon, we go into a place called Bourgueil. This is a 100 percent Cab Franc, no Chenin Blanc. We’ve watched this fading in and fading out of Chenin Blanc into Cab Franc, which means we have to focus in a little bit more on these two last awesome appellations. If you’re looking at a map of the Loire River and you get to around where these appellations are, a tributary breaks off called the River Vienne. I believe it’s pronounced that way. V-I-E-N-N-E, very similar to the town. In the Southern Rhône we talked about, but no connection really, on the map, it looks like it’s going about due southeast, between that river and just north of it is the Loire, which is just continuing. That space of land right there is called Chinon, named after the town of Chinon on the River Vienne.

Here, just like in the Southern Rhône and probably the Northern Rhône, and all across Europe, Romans were here and kings were here. French kings, English kings. There were castles everywhere on the Loire, especially in and around Chinon — there was a very famous castle in Chinon — and popes were here and bishops and they all loved wine and they all really loved the wine they were drinking in and around Chinon and the Loire Valley that was made from that orphan grape from Basque country I talk about in the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot episode, Breton, which is what they called Cab Franc and they also call it that today.

The thing is, the wines of Chinon are all over our market and what’s interesting is we don’t talk a lot about Chinon and wines like Burgundy or Bordeaux, or Champagne. The wines of Chinon traditionally in Chinon are more for drinking in their youth within the first five years. Yes, some can age, but it’s a very — the wines made here are just a little bit different. Jancis Robinson, the Jedi wine master, says in the “Oxford Wine Companion” that the wines of Chinon are a Frenchman’s wine, meaning it was a country wine. It was a wine for the locals and people would know where to go to find the best wines of Chinon made from Cab Franc but for us, we fell in love with Cab Franc through Chinon.

One of the reasons Cab Franc is made throughout the United States in small amounts is because people are always trying to match that aromatic equal because Cab Franc is a very scented wine. It almost is peppery at times because it has those pyrazines in it but there is often a distinct dividing line between the fruit and the acidity and the pepper and those lines do blur a little bit, but the majority of the wines we see on the American market from Chinon are very light, very high in acid, very aromatic. People say pencil shavings and blackberries when they smell this stuff and this is because a lot of the wine that is made in Chinon, not a lot of it, but a good amount of it goes to merchants that then label it and put it onto our market to give us a sense of it, and it’s not that expensive. But if you were to hone in on Chinon, there are two distinct styles of Cab Franc that come out of this wine region and it really comes down to the soil.

Along the River Vienne, east and west of the town of Chinon are these low-lying plateaus that are made up of that famous tuffeau soil we talk about in Vouvray and Saumur but also limestone, happy drainy soil, south-facing slopes, gets all that sun to produce good fruit while retaining pyrazine, which is that peppery note we know in Cab Franc. This produces a medium-fat fruit where that peppery note, or the herby aromatics, are woven into the fruit a little bit and it has a little bit of a weight on the palate, but the acidity is still high enough to give it tons of refreshment.

Then when you come off that plateau towards the river, the soil’s more clay and gravel. This is where we get all of the very light, lean Cab Francs, which have a little bit less fruit, more pepper, good acidity, but still have some structure to them, so when you’re out there buying Chinon, you should ask for one or the other.

I want a more full-bodied Chinon. I want a lighter Chinon. The majority of the Chinon you’re going to get is on the lighter side so definitely maybe ask for the bigger Chinon. Chinon is also known for Chenin Blanc. They make very good, very delicious Chenin Blanc. It’s a little bit higher in acid, they’re great, and you’ll find them. If you see Chinon white, it’s going to be a Chenin Blanc and it’s beautiful, but beyond the Chenin Blanc, I gotta say one of the most exciting things about Chinon and Bourgueil, which we’ll talk about in a second, is their rosé.

I can’t explain really how wonderful a well-done Cab Franc rosé from Chinon is. It is not like anything you’d ever have. The fruit is fat and round, the pepper is there, the acid is high, and there is just a — on the palate, everything comes together. There’s such an active, interactive, I should say, palate to this particular rosé. It’s like it takes the lean style of rosé and steps it up a notch with a little bit of fat fruit and some pepper. Also, when they make these into sparkling wines over in Saumur — oh, so, so good. Those are the wines of Chinon. It’s a very famous place. It’s been held by English kings and French kings. This is really a very well-known place where Joan of Arc had the meeting with the king to prove — I can’t remember the story, but when you’re in Chinon, which is a beautiful town, they have a statue of Joan of Arc there. It’s impressive stuff. I said Chinon is popular. It’s on the American market, but there is an appellation north of Chinon.

You’re going from the Vienne River through the Chinon region up to the Loire River. You cross over the Loire River and you enter into the region of Bourgueil. This wine region is not as prevalent on our market, but I really think it should be. In America, in the U.S. when we drink Cab Franc, it’s often a bigger, fuller style of Cab Franc. Sometimes in the United States, exposure to oak can sometimes mask the peppery pyrazine nature of Cab Franc. In the town in the appellation of Bourgueil, hard to say, hard to spell, they don’t do Chenin Blanc. They only do Cabernet Franc, or Breton, in red, and a little bit of rosé. It’s on this side of the river where limestone and gravel come together. The result is red wines made from Cab Franc that are undeniably meaty.

I know that’s a weird word to talk about with wine, but there’s something about these wines where there is a density of fruit. You can actually smell the dense fruit, and woven into that fruit are the little flecks of pepper. It all comes together so wonderfully on the palate. They’re sometimes a little bit viscous, a little bit chewy, and they’re on the level of if you had a really great Syrah from the Northern Rhône. They affect you a little bit. When you’re drinking you’re like, man, it just hits you. Wow, the balance is out of this world. Now, yes, in Bourgueil there are lighter styles and more fuller-body styles, but you’re really dealing with much more medium to full across the board.

It’s here where Cab Franc can age a little bit. Yes, there are some places in Chinon, there’s every exception to every rule. In Chinon, there’s wines that can age 10, 15 years, but Chinon is known for its “drink it in its youth,” enjoy the refreshment. In Bourgueil, that’s true as well. These wines can age a little bit longer, five-plus years. Not much longer, but five-plus years. The thing about it, though, is these wines are really good in their youth. They’re absolutely stunning and beautiful. I’ve had the opportunity of being in the Loire, drinking wine from Bourgueil and eating the food there. I think it was one of the best wine experiences I’ve ever had.

The thing about Bourgueil is it’s not always on the American market, but it is definitely something to seek out because if you have a Bourgueil and then you have a Chinon, you’re literally doing a study in Cab Franc. It’s absolutely phenomenal. As Cab Franc made its way down to Bordeaux, it became a blending partner with everything else, which is very cool. The blend of Merlot and Cab Franc on the right bank in Saint-Émilion is just stunning. To actually have a 100 percent Cab Franc, and to have it be that big and full-bodied, is just awesome.

Chinon will give you these bright pepper notes and mild fruit. They can be a little bit full-bodied, but you don’t want to chill them. There are poets who write about sipping Cab Franc Breton on the banks of the river in the summertime. That’s how refreshing it was for them. Then you go to Bourgueil and you get these beautiful medium-to-full-bodied, meaty Cab Franc, love them. Along with Muscadet, Vouvray, Saumur-Champigny, Sancerre, and Pouilly-Fumé, you now have Chinon and Bourgueil. From Melon de Bourgogne and Folle Blanche to the most important Chenin Blanc and Cab Franc, to Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir.

That is the Loire Valley, and it’s a big place. This will give you a really good sense if you’re looking at a wine list, or if you’re at a wine shop, you now understand Loire Valley through and through. You know what you’re getting in different places when you see the labels. Next week, we’re going south. All the way south, but not all the way south, southwest. See you next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazingly wide spectrum of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. (Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast.) Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. Visit today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.