With Cabernet Franc, very diverse microclimates and terroirs lead to very different wines. Loire Cabernet Franc wines bear the stamp of their cooler northern climate; refreshing and fruity, Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny are hard to beat, though some can be too leafy for many palates.
Budd’s stand-out estate: Château de Villeneuve
Jean-Pierre Chevallier is single-minded in his pursuit of quality for both his Saumur-Champigny (100% Cabernet Franc) and Saumur Blanc (Chenin Blanc).
His vigneron parents bought the 25-hectare Château de Villeneuve in Souzay-Champigny in 1969. They restored the château, which in part dates from 1577, and 12 years ago bought back the cellars under the château from sparkling wine house Veuve Amiot. Work has started on installing a vinification plant ready for the 2016 vintage; previously the wines were made in the neighbouring commune.
In 1993 Chevallier took full control. He marked his arrival with the first release from the five-hectare Le Grand Clos vineyard – now consistently one of the Loire’s top Cabernet Francs. Quality starts with meticulous work in the vineyard. Since 1999 every bunch in Le Grand Clos has been shaped – pruners cutting off the ‘wings’ and making sure that bunches are well spaced out.
Over the years Chevallier has changed the style of his Cab Franc. ‘In the 1990s I picked the grapes when they were very ripe, used a lot of extraction and the wines were more marked with wood. The 1995 and 1996 Le Grand Clos vintages had 14% alcohol – today I look for 13%. We have been fully organic since 2013, and now our grapes are phenologically ripe at lower degrees of sugar.
‘Today I look to pick my Cabernet Franc when the grapes are ripe, not overripe, and use gentle extraction. I want my wines to be typical of the Loire – fresh fruit, soft tannins with lightness and freshness on the finish.’ Le Grand Clos used to be aged in barrel but now spends about 14 months in 12-hectolitre wooden vats to reduce the wood influence.
The wine ages brilliantly – gaining in complexity. My dwindling stock of 1995s and 1996s are now reserved for special occasions. Fortunately the recent vintages can be enjoyed younger than earlier examples.
One of the most impressive things about Chevallier is his insistence that he will only release Le Grand Clos when satisfied it is of sufficient quality. If not, it and the Vieilles Vignes are included in the domaine wine. This means that in off-vintages the ‘basic’ cuvée is often remarkably good – and great value
Jim Budd is the Decanter World Wine Awards Regional Chair for the Loire.