Cabernet Franc, the most important red grape of the Anjou-Saumur and Touraine region, is a close relative of Cabernet Sauvignon. It ripens earlier than its more famous cousin, making it better suited to the cooler climate of the Loire. It probably originated in Bordeaux, where it is mainly used for blending, but it is so well suited to conditions in the Loire Valley that it stands alone in such famous wines as Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny.
Cabernet Franc, also called Breton locally, came to the region no later than the 14th century. It was praised by Rabelais, the great epicurean writer who was born near Chinon, and Cardinal Richelieu selected it for exclusive planting at St Nicolas de Bourgueil, where it has been grown ever since. It is only in recent years, however, that its particular affinity for the climate of the Loire Valley has been widely recognized and planting has increased markedly as a result. The success of Cabernet Franc in the Loire Valley has sparked interest elsewhere, and winemakers in cooler climates in the New World (notably in New York State) have planted the grape with very good results. However, as with Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, international standards for Cabernet Franc are set in the Loire Valley.
Cabernet Franc can make lighter bodied, less tannic wines than many other red grapes and they are generally ready to drink soon after bottling. However, a reputation for refreshing, youthful wines should not obscure the fact that there are full bodied wines made from Cabernet Franc that are capable of aging magnificently over many years. In its youth Cabernet Franc has the aroma of red raspberries and cherries, but it develops more complex notes as it ages.
Fine old Cabernet Franc wines can, in the words of one Loire Valley winemaker, be reminiscent of the aromas of a forest after a rainstorm.
Young Cabernet Franc is an ideal red wine for summer. It is sufficiently fruity that it can be refreshing when served slightly chilled, yet it has enough structure to stand up to the flavors of a barbecue. Older, bigger wines are delicious with roasted meats and are probably the ideal accompaniment to the traditional roast leg of lamb with flageolet beans.