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Project Cabernet Franc
Increasing the appeal of Loire reds

Cabernet Franc is one of the forgotten grape varieties that rarely gets any of the limelight afforded to star varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. [Aside: did you know that Cabernet Sauvignon is actually the result of a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc?] While in Bordeaux it’s a variety that is used as a blending component, in the Loire Valley Cab Franc is a solo performer, and does really well. 

Loire reds, though, are underappreciated, and have little presence in export markets. With this in mind, the official body for Loire wines, InterLoire, devised a special initiative to adapt Loire reds for the 21st Century and then tell people all about them. Named ‘Project Cabernet Franc’, it brought in wine consultant Sam Harrop MW (below) to work with the InterLoire technical team to write a winemaking protocol for producing more export friendly reds.

This protocol aims to optimise fruit-driven styles without compromising the terroir-driven characters that make these wines special. ‘Sam isn't telling us how to make wine in the Loire Valley,’ says  Jean-Max Manceau, President of the Wines of Chinon AOC Association. ‘After all we've been doing it for centuries, but he does have some good ideas and we're getting some great results.’ As well as looking at winemaking and viticulture, Project Cabernet Franc aims to forge closer links with the UK trade and reaching out to the consumer, so communication is a strong emphasis – another of the well-connected Harrop’s strong points.

As part of this communication drive, a blind tasting exercise was initiated to select a group of the best Cabernet Francs from the Loire to act as ambassadors. I participated in this tasting in 2008 as a judge, and it was a really good experience. A team of four – Jim Budd, Sam Caporn, Sam Harrop and myself – tasted for two days through a large range of Cabernet Francs, mostly from the 2006 vintage. From this we selected out what we thought were the best wines to go through to a final judging process, where we picked the best of the best to be used as ambassadors for Project Cabernet Franc. A short film of the tasting process is below.

Overall the quality was high. There’s something very attractive about Loire Cabernet Franc when it’s ripe and well made, as most of these wines were. And because they are sensibly priced, they’re often total bargains. I also had a chance to taste some of the ambassadors selected in 2007, and my notes are below.

Domaine Bel Air ‘La Fosse aux Loups’ Chinon 2005 Loire, France
Lovely focused berry and blackcurrant fruit nose is sweet and smooth with a bit of spice and minerality. The palate shows definition, ripe fruit, some freshness and nice minerality with some chalkiness. Tasty. 89/100

Cave Saumur Saumur Champigny Selection 2005 Loire, France
Deep coloured.
Sweet vivid, bright blackcurrant fruit nose is really smooth. The palate is fresh with a chalky, spicy edge to the pure fruit. Nice balance here: it tastes like Loire Cabernet Franc but has a modern edge. 90/100

Domaine Charles Pain Chinon Cuvée du Domaine 2006 Loire, France
Open, smooth bright nose with a distinctive chalkiness. Ripe and smooth. The palate shows bright blackcurrant fruit with a lovely fresh chalky edge and good minerality. There’s a little bit of greenness but it’s really fresh. 88/100

Domaine de la Closerie 2006 Bourgeuil, Loire, France
There’s a vivid spiciness on the nose along with sweet blackcurrant fruit. The palate is a but grippy with nice freshness. Finishes quite tannic. Ambitious. 87/100

Domaine de la Chevalierie ‘Galichets’ 2006 Bourgeuil, Loire, France
Deep coloured.
Smooth ripe dark fruits nose: blackcurrant with some spice. The palate has a lovely sweetness to the fruit. Vivid, open, fresh and accessible with good concentration and a bit of tannin on the finish. A lovely wine. 90/100

Domaine de la Noblaie Les Chiens-Chiens 2006 Loire, France
Smooth dark nose is very intense and rich with a spicy edge. The palate is supple with lovely focused fruit. Well structured and mineralic. A lovely savoury, intense but forward wine. 90/100

Domaine des Ouches ‘Vingt’ 2006 Bourgeuil, Loire, France
Very dark, intense, smoky, mineralic nose with dark fruits to the fore. The palate has a lovely open fruit character. Nice stuff with definition and freshness. 89/100

Couly-Duthiel Chinon ‘Domaine René Couly’ 2006 Loire, France
Smooth, chalky, minerally dark fruits nose is sweet and supple. The palate is supple with lovely freshness and a subtle green edge to the dense fruit. Nice structure and weight. 89/100 

The Project Cabernet Franc protocol: a summary
(taken from the InterLoire website: it's a bit geeky but I though it might interest the technoheads)


  • Pruning: to get yields down and to restore balance to the vineyards. Canopy management critical and ensure shoot removal carried out in over vigorous vineyards. Also leaf plucking critical at the start of veraison to reduce herbaceous flavours.

  • Harvest timing: Winemakers must inspect and taste the fruit on a regular basis leading up to harvest. Timing of harvest is paramount to have a riper richer more balanced style of Cabernet Franc - harvest should ideally commence when fruit and phenolic ripeness are optimum. In warm years flavour ripeness will come earlier than phenolic ripeness and in this instance timing of harvest should be linked to flavour ripeness and not phenolic ripeness to ensure that typical fruit flavours of the variety and region are preserved.


  • Winemaking techniques to be employed to make more balanced wines should work to preserve fruit, minimise phenolic extraction, and achieve stability during elevage and at bottling.

Summary of Recommendation

Harvest and pre-fermentation

  • On a normal harvest day, fruit should be in the cellar before 11:00am when the ambient temperatures are still relatively cool.

  • Consider the use of triage to remove dried berries.

  • Avoid using the crushers - this will ensure the wines have less bitterness and more ripe fruit flavours.

  • Pre-fermentation maceration is a technique used a lot with Cabernet Franc and it can be used to good effect if the fruit is ripe enough. Too often it is used on green unripe fruit. In this instance the process merely enhances the unripe, herbaceous notes and this should be avoided if the winemaker cannot guarantee the fruit is ripe enough at harvest.


  • Producers to avoid spontaneous fermentation and to inoculate with select yeast strains to ensure a healthy and complete fermentation. Trials were carried out at one producer with a yeast strain that minimises the herbaceous flavours drawn from the fruit during fermentation.

  • If the fruit is ripe, a fermentation temperature of 24 degrees C of the juice to enhance the primary fruit characters through definition. If the fruit is green a fermentation temperature of 26-28 degrees C.

  • By checking the temperature 2 x a day you will get better control over fermentation.

  • Ease off on the timing and frequency of remontage – be gentle.

  • Consider using more Delestage if tannins are ripe certainly after 2 days of fermentation.

  • Consider each parcel separately depending on the quality of the fruit during the extraction process.


  • Wine should be kept at 20°C during post fermentation maceration to aid the extraction process.

  • Check sulphur levels on wines 1 x every two weeks, post MLF fermentation and adjust to keep levels at 25ppm to avoid MLF and oxidation.

  • For hygiene and quality use a lactic acid bacteria culture to start MLF. Keep the temperature at 20°C and monitor the MLF closely. As soon as the MLF is complete add SO2 to ensure the wines do not oxidise.

  • With ripe fruit consider pressing a small percentage of production into barrels and allow wines to carry out their MLF in barrel for added complexity and texture.

  • Do not blend wines too early. Keep separate to give more flexibility at blending.

Bulk Storage / Elevage

  • Check SO2 levels in tank and barrel frequently after MLF.

  • Ensure no lag between primary and secondary fermentation by inoculating with appropriate culture. This will minimize the chance of rogue yeast and bacteria activity and limit the production of off flavours and Brettanomyces will be detected early.

  • Only consider oak use if the fruit is ripe enough both in sugars, flavour and body.

  • Pad filter wines a week before bottling. Put through a membrane filter 1 micron at bottling.

Wines tasted 07/07  
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