Project Cabernet Franc, 2008

Cabernet Franc needs no introduction; I suspect most wine drinkers know the variety well, after all it is one of the big three red varieties that dominate Bordeaux (although it is certainly ‘third-place’ in the trio), and it seems to get on quite well elsewhere, especially the Loire, and also further afield in California and Niagara. But how many of us really know Cabernet Franc? This latter question was one addressed at a recent meeting and tasting for the Institute of Masters of Wine chaired by Sam Harrop MW, with the able assistance of Richard Kelley MW (below right). As Project Cabernet Franc specifically concerns the variety in the Loire appellations, Richard Kelley opened with a fascinating talk on the history, geology and climate of the Loire Valley, and I have woven some of the data he presented into the text below. Then Sam Harrop enlightened the attendees as to the story behind the project, and his approach to the variety and its wines, while we tasted through ten exemplars of Cabernet Franc (although in truth one turned out to be a Malbec), all products of the project.

Project Cabernet Franc

Returning to my first point, I suspect only a minority of wine drinkers really know Cabernet Franc. When asked of the variety the Bordeaux-centric wine writer will naturally push you in the direction of Cheval Blanc, where this variety dominates the vineyard. But tasting a blend merely dominated by the variety is a poor substitute for the real thing, and the price of Cheval Blanc today somewhat precludes this experiment anyway. Look further afield, however, and you will find in the Loire an extensive vineyard where in places Cabernet Franc rules in isolation, where it is not considered a mere bit-player in a blend. This is perhaps Cabernet Franc’s true home; legend has it that the variety was selected by Cardinal Richelieu and introduced to the vineyard at the Abbaye de St Nicolas de Bourgueil by an abbot named Breton, which perhaps explains why Breton remains a local synonym for the variety. There are references to it in ancient documents, dated as far back as 1152, whereas references to Cabernet Sauvignon do not appear until several centuries later. This is only natural; genetic studies at UC Davis have shown conclusively that Cabernet Sauvignon is the result of a crossing between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, so Franc could perhaps be considered the original Cabernet, father to the more famous Sauvignon. And this original Cabernet is best experienced in the Loire, in the wines of Chinon, Saumur, Bourgueil and Touraine.

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