Cabernet Franc collaboration

While white and sparkling wines from the Loire are selling well, Cabernet Franc suffers. Rebecca Gibb MW takes a look.

Nicolas Emereau, CEO, Alliance Loire
Nicolas Emereau, CEO, Alliance Loire

For wine producers who have little in common apart from sitting close to a 1,000km-long river, working together can’t be easy.  Varieties and methods vary along the Loire from Muscadet to Sancerre, and many styles of white, red and rosé are produced. Red wine production is concentrated in a much smaller area west of the city of Tours, however, and now, in the face of a decaying domestic market and flat exports, there are signs that the Loire’s red wine producers are finally realising the value of collaboration rather than individualism. 

In the spring of 2018, regional wine association InterLoire invited red wine producers from the Loire to come together. In advance of the meeting, InterLoire president Jean-Martin Dutour, a wine producer in the appellation of Chinon, said: “We are getting everyone together – it has been years since we [red wine producing syndicats] all met up. The context of this meeting is to look at future prospects. We have the same problems – they’re not the same as [those of] the white wine or sparkling wine producers in the Loire – and we are hoping that the group will be dynamic and want to work together.”

Their problems include stagnant export sales. The US is the region’s biggest export market, representing nearly one in four bottles leaving French shores, followed by the UK and Germany; however, growth is currently driven by white and sparkling wines. Cabernet Franc exports from the Loire in 2017 stood at 24,588hl versus 25,060hl in 2009. Yet there is hope: demand grows for fresh, fruity, lower alcohol reds without overt oak influence, and Cabernet Franc ticks all the boxes (as does Loire Valley Gamay and Pinot Noir).  

The effort to collaborate also comes in the face of declining domestic sales for the Loire’s biggest producers. “Producers have not made a great effort to export,” says Bernard Jacob, managing director of Orchidées, Maisons de Vin, formerly known as the Ackerman group. “I think that they now know it is the right time to export because the French market is declining.”  

This is not the first time that the Loire’s red producers have realised that something needs to be done to stop the rot. In the early 2000s, New World wine sales were enjoying major sales gains but while the Loire’s whites were in growth, it was a different story for the reds. In 2004, Julia Harding studied the styles and commercial prospects of wines from Anjou-Saumur and Touraine for her Master of Wine dissertation and discovered that “Cabernet Franc’s cause has not been helped by producers who defended a slight greenness as a badge of terroir”. She suggested improvements including an “investment in quality” in the vineyard and winery, “for example to eliminate green flavours, dilution and hard tannins”. 

At that time, InterLoire invited consultant winemaker Sam Harrop MW to run what became known as the Cabernet Franc Project. This program set out to improve the region’s viticulture and winemaking techniques in an effort to win over the palates of overseas drinkers, notably the British market. The initiative, which ran from 2005 until 2008, was initially met with resistance: Cabernet Franc has been in the Loire since the 11th century, so what could a London-based New Zealand winemaker do for their red grape? 

The answer was quite a lot. Growers gathered together to understand the barriers to market: underripe grapes, overextraction in the winery, high fermentation temperatures and overuse of sulphur dioxide were some of the culprits.  Protocols were put in place and growers that rarely left their villages, let alone the Loire Valley, tasted Cabernet Francs from around the world. Looking back, Harrop MW says: “The project was a catalyst for change management; getting the producers to talk to each other and work on a common identity.  It was really an opportunity for discussion and to get them to think and challenge their way of thinking – not following the same recipe that their father did.”

One grower who has taken over from his father and much improved the quality and style at his family’s winery is Jérôme Billard of Domaine de la Noblaie. In addition to participating in the Cabernet Franc Project, he worked at Château Petrus in Pomerol, Dominus Estate in Napa and Sacred Hill in New Zealand to gain a better appreciation of the world’s wine styles and markets. Billard explains: “Before returning to la Noblaie, I had travelled and realised that the local style of making leafy Cabernet Franc with dry tannins wasn’t satisfactory and I had already changed our way of working in the vineyards and winery.” The project was more important for improving his understanding of the British palate and meeting press and buyers; now, he sells as much as 30% of his production to the UK market.  That said, small vintages in recent years have put the brakes on the region’s red export and marketing efforts.

Alliance Loire, a cooperative boasting 4,000ha of vineyard and 600 growers across the Loire, also participated in the project. “It served to show producers that it was necessary to makes wines with more concentration and avoid aggressivity,” says CEO Nicolas Emereau. “Since then we have been working on the texture of Cabernet Franc, experimenting with oxygen and making the wines more round and accessible.” 

Yet despite a flurry of press surrounding the project and efforts to improve the quality of Loire Valley Cabernet Franc wines, increased sales have failed to materialise after 10 years.  “It is quite frustrating because everyone has raised their game,” says Chris Hardy, managing director of negociant Charles Sydney Wines, which sells Loire wines to the UK, Sweden, the US and Australia. “Loire reds represent about 20% of the wines on our list but in terms of resulting sales [they] must be no more than 10%. That said, I have sold more Loire reds in the last two years than in the previous decade. It’s growing little by little; as the wines get better people start to discover them.”

Perhaps it’s a lack of awareness of the variety: Cabernet Franc remains a little-known grape and it is hardly championed by producers, but this is not a new problem – it existed long before the Cabernet Franc Project began. Like most French appellation wines, the average shopper does not know what is inside a bottle of St Nicolas de Bourgueil or Saumur-Champigny, and the names are difficult for non-French speakers to pronounce.  

Understanding this potential challenge, Alliance Loire puts the name of the grape variety, in addition to the appellation, on its export labels. However, putting the name of the grape on the label is not a quick-fix solution, admits Emereau. “There are 68 appellations in the Loire and people know Sancerre, Muscadet, maybe Chinon and that’s it. Even for the French, it’s complicated. We need to display both the grape and also be firm on the fact that the wine is coming from one place and expresses a distinctive style.”

While the overall standard of red wine has improved since the inception of the Cabernet Franc Project, the region’s red producers have failed to maintain the momentum gained in terms of information sharing and marketing collaboration. “There was a purple patch when 30 or 40 people from four or five appellations would chat together, but it’s a big region with small, busy producers,” explains Harrop MW.  The project brought cooperation and enthusiasm within the Loire and greater attention from overseas but the impetus has been lost. Billard laments: “The project was not renewed and I think that was a shame at the level of press and buyers; I think a lot of the vignerons didn’t have the patience to wait for the commercial benefits.”  But in the face of dwindling domestic sales, producers collectively need to regroup, looking beyond their vineyards and the domestic market, and regain the impetus they need to turn the variety’s fortunes around.  

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Cabernet Franc’s climate change bonus

As well as producing fruity red wines that are approachable in youth and can be served chilled, there are plenty of light-bodied red wines in the Loire that are serious and ageworthy. “I encouraged producers to look at Burgundy rather than Bordeaux [for inspiration], and to make lighter styles but serious lighter styles with old oak rather than new. There were a few people doing that but others were going down a richer Parker style,” explains Sam Harrop. “The key for me is picking at 12.5%, and extracting less and accepting that Burgundy is a much more appropriate style for exploring their sites.” 

Given that Chinon and surrounding appellations sit at the cool latitude of 47˚N, ripeness has long been an issue, but producers are now benefiting from climate change. A study of six different wine producing areas across the Loire Valley by Neethling et al. (2012) published in Climate Research, found that mean temperatures during the growing season have increased by 1.3˚C and 1.8C between 1960 and 2010.  Over the 50-year period, the harvest dates for Cabernet Franc in Chinon and Bourgueil were significantly earlier: 15 and 16 days respectively.  The resulting grapes are naturally riper, shedding their green edge, as the seasons have warmed. What’s more, the human element of terroir has become increasingly professional: younger vignerons have winemaking degrees and many have travelled to gain experience overseas. This has led to the production of more consumer-friendly styles of wine.

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