For a long time, the bistros of Paris would have all but run dry if not for a deep lake of red wine from the Loire Valley. The wines weren’t complicated or terribly serious, but they were hearty and utterly drinkable.
The Loire is a long river, the riparian heart of France, and it encompasses a huge range of wines and grapes. In terms of reds, there is the generally (and unfairly) overlooked grolleau, which is a bit like grenache on a body high—mellow in acidity and not sharp in its edges. There’s gamay, which more or less migrated from Beaujolais, and pineau d’aunis, which is a love-or-hate grape, thanks to its intense peppery side, one that variously comes across as the scent of tequila or marijuana (or, if you’ve been swept into the ‘80s revival, cocaine).
You could find them all along the river, including the Touraine area east of Tours, for instance, which doesn’t make tons of red wine but is a great place for it, especially from grolleau and gamay. But the heart of the Loire’s red-wine zone is in the Anjou and the western part of Touraine, more or less from the city of Angers in the west through Saumur, Bourgueil and Chinon, towns whose names are synonymous with exceptional wines from the grape we’re concerned with today: cabernet franc.
Franc is the perpetual underdog, catching endless shade from its more famous progeny, cabernet sauvignon. But it has also taken that plucky side and run with it—making a case for the beauty of pure fruit flavors and a savory herbal side at a time when Bordeaux and California alike were all about very ripe cabernet. (The other cabernet.)
It’s the bistro worldview that largely defined both franc’s fortunes and the region’s wines in general for a century or more. And it’s not for lack of romance: The chateaux that dot the Loire are among the most beautiful buildings in a nation of beautiful buildings, and the charm of the wines (and the town of Chinon itself) were famously extolled in Pantagruel by Rabelais, its most famous native son, nearly five centuries ago. Yet with the occasional exception, like the long-aging sweet examples of Vouvray, the charm to the wines has mostly been in not overthinking things.
Of course, those who follow a less-obvious path in wine have been seeing that charm forever, perhaps nowhere more than in Chinon, now synonymous with a franc-based red that far outperforms its modest prices. Thanks in part to exceptional vignerons like Olga Raffault and Bernard Baudry, who farmed impeccably and took a cautious, traditional hand in winemaking, Chinon has been quietly excelling for a long time. And, more recently, the same has been happening in neighboring Bourgueil, where dynamic types like Jacky Blot have believed in the extraordinary potential of the limestone-based soils.
Recently, though, the reds of the Anjou have been aiming for even more. It’s an aspiration reasonably traced back to the rise of the franc-based red of Clos Rougeard, a historic property dating to 1664 that blossomed in the 1970s, when the diligent Foucault brothers saw the opportunity to make world-class wine. Rougeard has been around for a long time, but only recently did it become a sort of folk hero for this other cabernet—an example that greatness can come from a place that never was meant for a star shot.
In the past five years, a handful of additional counterparts have arrived, mostly from the Saumur area, taking themselves and their farming more seriously and asking for consumers to pay well beyond bistro prices—which is to say, $40 to $60 in most cases. Not cheap, but certainly well under the markups for cabernet in Bordeaux or Napa.
This includes names like Antoine Foucault at Domaine du Collier, a place seen as Rougeard’s descendant because, literally, he is the son of Rougeard’s Charly Foucault. But it has grown to include other neighbors like Château Yvonne, Domaine Guiberteau and Chateau de Brézé. All these cellars are known equally well for chenin blanc, and in some instances more so. In each case, hard work has offered proof that the region can exceed mere modesty.
This newer, shinier gang is only one part of the allure of Anjou. It was also one of the earliest beachheads for French wine’s naturalist movement and, today, is home to many of the most revered names in that movement, especially Olivier Cousin, whose battles against the French bureaucracy are legend. But there are dozens more, like the Mosse family and Mark Angeli of La Ferme de la Sansonnière. (That said, much of the work in western Anjou is focused on white wines like Savennières.)
In truth, it’s not worth spending too much time worrying about the taxonomy of these wines and just where they fit into the wine universe. And it’s not ironic that Loire reds have wandered into fashionability; these wines have always been a delight, even if they were made in a way more competent than good. That’s why Parisians (and many others) have chugged them with delight. That you can age a good Chinon for ten or 20 years is one of those valuable pieces of information that those of us who caught the bug a while ago are hesitant to share. But for every bottle of Olga Raffault from the 1970s that’s now being released to prove an obvious point about durability, there are bottles from producers like Luc Sebille or M. Plouzeau that aren’t so concerned with being timeless. They just want to be good right this moment.
CLASSIC | Tie
2014 Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon | $20
Chinon is the very heart of the central Loire’s reds, and Baudry has long been one of its top domaines, today run by Bernard’s son Matthieu. This wine, their basic estate bottle, captures the pure beauty of franc in a clean, unadorned way: aged for about a year in older wooden vats and barrels, it shows a quintessential mix of smoke, a bit of chile pepper, a bit of mineral brightness, a bit of juniper and tangy fruit (2014 was a relatively cool vintage). Importer: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant [Buy]
2013 Olga Raffault Les Barnabés Chinon | $20
Olga Raffault was one of those who helped build Chinon’s current fashionability. After her death her granddaughter Sylvie and Sylvie’s husband Eric de la Vigerie took over. Their work continues, and compared to Baudry these wines always offer something a bit more aggro and exotic. Barnabés, grown on sand and gravel, is fresher and younger-drinking, showing aromas of lavender, mashed cherry and celery, with bracing acidity that hints at its other virtue: Even the most basic of these wines age stunningly well, which is why the estate is still releasing back to the late 1970s, nearly all still in beautiful shape. Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections [Buy]
See also: Charles Joguet, Philippe Alliet, M. Plouzeau, Jerome Lenoir, Domaine de la Chevalerie, Domaine Antoine Sanzay.
2015 Château de Brézé Clos Mazurique Saumur Red | $17
The chateau in this case dates to the 15th century, the site of historic vineyards in Brézé, which is generally seen as the best village of the Saumur area. Currently the wines are overseen by Arnaud Lambert from nearby Domaine de Saint Just and the property is now in the process of converting to biodynamics. Amid all the chenin there is essentially just one red here, grown on tuffeau and silex. It exudes a great smoky side, full of a warm poblano-like chile pepper and ripe fruit. Skillfully done and, for the moment, a relative bargain. Importer: Grand Cru Selections [Buy]
See also: Domaine Guiberteau, Domaine du Collier, Château Yvonne, Château de Fosse-Sèche and, yes, Clos Rougeard.
2014 Domaine de La Butte (Jacky Blot) Le Pied de la Butte Bourgueil | $21
Blot isn’t exactly an outlier for the Loire: He’s one of the most talented winemakers in Montlouis and Vouvray, making Loire whites with an eye toward Burgundy. Following his acquisition of Butte in 2002, he has proven that he can do red, too. This wine and its sibling, Haut de la Butte, were among the best in our tasting. There’s a perfect grace and balance in the wines—the scent of black sesame seeds, fresh plummy fruit and more than anything: texture. The tannins are beautifully silken instead of showing the (not necessarily bad) rough edges franc often has. Quoth one of my PUNCH counterparts: “A velour tracksuit tannin rather than an AstroTurf one.” Importer: VOS Selections [Buy]
See also: Catherine and Pierre Breton, Les Roches Sèches, Clau de Nell, Clos des Capucins.
2013 Sébastien David L’Hurluberlu St Nicolas de Bourgueil | $21
Sébastien David’s winemaking is in that current minimal mode. Very little sulfur is used and the Hurluberlu is made using carbonic maceration, as in Beaujolais, which explains why it’s so atypical for Bourgueil, which is typically brooding. Instead, there’s a floral, bright, spicy side and the light flavors of freshly mashed red berries. Franc can be really charming this way, although David’s other wine, Kezako, is also worth seeking out for its richer, gutsier interpretation of the local area. But more than anything, I love that he continues to use the appellation on these wines, rather than the naturalist tendency to default to “vin de France.” All the better to defend the home turf. Importer: Goatboy Selections/T. Edward Wines [Buy]
See also: Benoit Courault, Sébastien Bobinet, Olivier Cousin, La Grange aux Belles, Luc Sebille.