Wednesday, April 2, 2008

WBW #44: French Cabernet Franc

Today marks the monthly meeting of the meme called Wine Blogging Wednesday, which was originated by Lenn Thompson of LennDevours back in the autumn of 2004. For the theme of this 44th edition, this month’s host, Gary V at Wine Library TV, chose French Cabernet Franc. For many of the participants, I expect this might open the door to new tasting experiences. For me, on the other hand, it’s a no-brainer.

Sure, there’s the occasional Bordeaux blend that’s dominated by Cabernet Franc, particularly in the northern crescent of Saint-Emilion. Think of Châteaux Cheval Blanc, Jean-Faure and some of their neighbors, for instance. And for those who go out of their way to find them, there’s the occasional oddball Franc from the hinterlands of the southwest corner of the country. In fact, I could have just taken the lazy way out of today’s assignment by recycling an old post on Irouléguy Rouge. However, when one thinks of French Cabernet Franc, all roads ineluctably lead to the Loire Valley, the undisputed center in France – and the globe for that matter – for the cultivation of Cabernet Franc.

Not only am I a Loire enthusiast, I’m also a Cabernet Franc adulator, a certified Breton-head and a firm believer in the vine’s overall merits. It gives birth to some of the most food capable red wines out there. I drink Chinon, Bourgueil and St. Nicolas de Bourgueil, not to mention various reds from the Anjou-Saumur, on a pretty regular basis. So the challenge for this event was not in finding a wine to review; it was deciding which ones to review. Again, I could have just recycled an old post, maybe the one from a tasting with F.X. Barc of the Chinons of Domaine Charles Joguet. In the end, however, I decided to write two new notes: the first because it ties into another posting I’m working on and the second just because I felt like it.

Chinon “Cuvée Fabrice,” Jacky & Fabrice Gasnier 2003
I’ll be pleasantly surprised if any other participants choose a wine from this estate, as Fabrice Gasnier produces some of the least talked about, most underappreciated wines of Chinon. This is his top red, produced from a specific vineyard of 60 year-old vines, a blend of 95% or more Cabernet Franc with just a peppering of Cabernet Sauvignon. It undergoes primary fermentation in cement vat, followed by Malolactic fermentation and aging for 12-14 months in barriques, 50% new and 50% from wines of one year. As such, it’s also the estate’s only modernist cuvée, new barrels being a relative exception to the traditional rule in Chinon.

I chose the 2003 from among the several vintages in my cellar because it comes from the growing season which immediately preceded my visit to the estate in February 2004 (a report on which will be coming soon). Also, I wanted to check in on the progress of a wine grown in the notoriously hot and dry conditions of 2003. I wasn’t completely happy with or terribly surprised by the results.

Aromas are of ripe red fruit, cocoa and dark baking spices. There’s plenty of red cassis and chocolaty richness in the mouth, and even a decent amount of muscle. But it’s all covered with a squishy layer of baby fat that makes the wine feel unfocused and atypical. Alcoholic warmth, both on the nose and on the finish, doesn’t help. It’s not the burn that comes from overly high alcohol but rather a slightly unbalanced glow, driven by alcohol that’s not fully interwoven with the wine’s physiological structure. I know from my barrel tasting notes that the alcohol is close to a degree higher than the listed 13%. While 14% (13.8, actually) may not sound high by modern international standards, it’s awfully high for Chinon, where the typical degree averages 12.5 to 13. In spite of all this, there’s an element to this cuvée, mainly in its round texture and gushing red fruit, which a lot of people might find easy to like. Though I enjoyed it on release, this is now just not singing. All things considered, a strong sign that 2003 is a vintage to drink up rather than hold. $20 on release. Labeled at 13% alcohol. Natural cork. Imported by Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Chinon “Beaumont,” Catherine & Pierre Breton 2005
No technical notes for this one. I’ll leave that to someone else, as I expect to see one or the other of Catherine and Pierre Breton’s Bretons (yep, I had to do it) in any number of this month’s WBW submissions. Heck, I’ve already noticed this exact cuvée among Dr. Vino’s notes. The Breton’s, who produce wine in both Chinon and Bourgueil, are among the current crop of natural wine growers who have been attracting a lot of high energy attention of late.

This is classic if young and slightly disjointed Chinon. Electric energy flows through the fruit, letting your palate know it’s alive. There’s lean sinew here; no baby fat. Wild red berries, rhubarb and red cassis ride a frame of crackly acidity and firm yet light-handed tannins. Its sense of disjointedness stems not from any imbalance but rather from a feeling that the wine’s parts have yet to harmonize into a whole, a feeling that’s exacerbated by a slightly plastic flavor that snakes its way through the wine’s center. I need to try this again in three months, maybe six, or even twelve. Why not just make it all of the above. There’s promise here, assuming everything integrates and resolves, for serious mid-term enjoyment. $16. 12.5% alcohol. Nomacorc. Imported by Louis/Dressner Selections, New York, NY.


RougeAndBlanc said...

Question to you: Back in those days when Catherine & Pierre Breton still produces their Les Picasses bottling, would you say that it is a notch higher than the Beaumont? I have never compared them side by side and therefore have to ask a pro like you.
Too bad their Les Picasses is no more.

David McDuff said...

Good to hear from you, R&B. Yes, the "Les Picasses" is a more intensely structured cuvée than the "Beaumont." Because of its natural characteristics, it's aged in barrique (vs. stainless for Beaumont) and, in a good year, would be a candidate for extended cellaring.

RougeAndBlanc said...

Thanks David. A follow-up question: I know the '02 was excellent. But for Breton's '03 Les Picasses (their last vintage), is it worth socking 1 or 2 bottles away?

Joe said...

interesting comments on the Breton - I thought my Baudry also needed a bit of time to come together - nothing bad, just not yet 'harmonized' - excellent notes.

Wicker Parker said...

You know, I drank the '05 Trinch about a year ago and while I thought it was fine, I wasn't impressed. Your post encourages me to take on more Breton but show some patience before I dive in! It's not that I wrote the Bretons off or anything, it's just that I allowed my attention to stray.

Sorry to hear about the '03 Gasnier. My only recent experience with an '03 Chinon was Baudry's Les Grezeaux and it clearly has an amazing life ahead of it; but given the vintage I'd hardly be surprised if it's the exception among Loire reds. (I've found a similar dynamic among '03 Loire whites, often finding fat where there's normally sinew.)

Dr. Vino said...

David -

Was your bottle really only $16? I paid $18 in NYC. Maybe there's a grain of truth to the PLCB party line on prices?


David McDuff said...

In spite of my comments on the current state of Gasnier's '03 Fabrice, I'm still planning to save the other couple of bottles for at least another year or two just to see if I can prove myself wrong. In other words, yes, I think it would be worthwhile to snag a couple of '03 Breton "Les Picasses" and to try them now and over the next few years. I just wouldn't expect them to go the long haul; for that, look for the 2002.

Not ready to move on from Chinon, I drank the 2005 Baudry last night. Though young, it's already lovely -- darker and more toothsome than the Breton, though with a little sourness on the finish. Even though it's the estate's basic cuvée, I think it will develop beautifully.

As mentioned in response to R&B above, I'm actually hoping I'll be able to prove myself wrong about the Gasnier, as I'm a fan of his wines. I hate to generalize about a vintage, mainly because there are always exceptions. Your experience with Baudry's '03 is a case in point. That said, 2002 and 2005 should definitely prove to be longer distance runners than 2003.

Doc V,
Breton at the PLCB? Surely you jest. Maybe, and I do mean maybe, by special order in case quantities but, otherwise, ain't no way. The $16 price point came from memory. I went back to Cellar Tracker to check... I actually paid $17 (at Chambers Street).

Lyle Fass said...

There is a an '04 Breton Picasses that is outasight that will be hitting shores soon. That is the last vintage. I cannot believe I missed this WBW. Right up my alley.

David McDuff said...

Thanks for the heads up, Lyle. Save me a few bottles, would ya?

Lyle Fass said...


Of Course

Nicolas Ritoux said...

This "Cuvée Fabrice" Chinon sounds like a disappointment. It's amazing how fast some Cab Franc from the region lose their strenghts. Did you try to cool it down to a 10-12°C? I guess that would be the best workaround.

I had more luck with my WBW44 Chinon from Alain Lorieux.

By the way I quoted you on the Vinismo page for 2003 Cuvée Fabrice.

This is the first time I read your blog but I'll come back for sure. Very good wine writing.


David McDuff said...

Welcome Niko, and thanks for the kind comments and the cross-quote. I'll be sure to check out your sites.

If I didn't know Gasnier's wines so well and didn't have such high expectations of them, I might not have been quite so hard on this one. Your serving temperature idea is a good one as it may have helped to tame the ever-so-slight alcoholic edge. It was more the wine's chubbiness that I was concerned with.

In any event, as I mentioned in response to Rouge & Blanc above, I still hope to prove myself wrong as I'll hold onto my other bottle or two for another couple of years. Perhaps it's only going through an awkward adolescent phase.

Steve L. said...

While we're on the subject of Cabernet Franc, some related observations. A 2003 Joguet Chinon 'Varennes du Grand Clos' was recently quite vegetal, something I didn't expect of that vintage. Even more recently, a 2005 Breton Bourgueil 'Clos Senechal' was perhaps the best young Cab Franc I've tasted.

David McDuff said...

Welcome Steve,
I'm surprised to hear about the vegetality of the "Varennes du Grand Clos" as well, not in general but certainly given the conditions in '03. I haven't opened any of my Breton "Clos Senechal" yet but I'm looking forward to giving it a try.

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