A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Blanc de Franc (White Cabernet Franc) - Chinon, Loire Valley, France

If I only gave you two out of the three pertinent pieces of information about today's wine, you would rightfully be wondering what on earth I was doing writing about it.  If I told you, for instance, that today I was writing about a wine made from the Cabernet Franc grape from the Chinon region of the Loire Valley, you might think that I had finally abandoned the conceit of this website and decided to just write about any old thing that ended up in my glass.  Well, I haven't, and today's wine, while made from a very well known grape in a very well known region, is one of the more unusual wines I've ever tried.  It's a white wine made from the red Cabernet Franc grape.

How is that possible?  Well, for those of you unfamiliar with grape physiology, the fleshy pulp in the middle of a grape is almost always white and, when pressed, will give white juice.  To make a red wine, you need for the juice to be in contact with the skins of the grape for an extended period of time so that the pigments in the skins can be leeched out into the juice.  There are a few grapes that have red pulp in the middle, but they're fairly rare.  They're called teinturier grapes and there are only a few species that are used to make wines (Alicante Bouschet is probably the most common and Saperavi is the only one that we've covered on this blog).

So to make a white wine from red grapes, all you really need to do is press the grapes gently and do everything possible to minimize the amount of time that the juice spends in contact with the skins.  This is common practice in many areas where sparkling wine is made as two of the three most common sparkling wine grapes are actually red grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).  But in still wine production, it's a very rare thing indeed.  The only other examples I have ever seen have been German Pinot Noir wines that were made into white wines (I hope to be able to write about a few of those in the future).

There are probably a lot of reasons that we don't typically see white wines made from red grapes.  Red wines, as a general rule, tend to command higher prices than white wines, so it makes more sense for people with red grapes to go ahead and make red wines.  The skins of red wines are also loaded with compounds that add a great deal of complexity to a finished wine and many winemakers are probably very uncomfortable with throwing away anything that can add character and complexity to their wines.  Finally, there are white skinned grapes that make white wines, so why would you bother to try and do the same kind of thing with a grape with a red skin?

For winemakers in sparkling wine regions and for those making white wines from Pinot Noir in Germany, the reason is probably because their climate is so cool that they have a very hard time getting those dark-skinned grapes to ripen fully.  Under-ripe red grapes tend to have weedy, vegetal flavors and tough, unpleasant tannins that become more pronounced if the juice spends a lot of time in contact with the skins.  These growers get around that by just jettisoning the skins and making wine from the white juice that is pressed out.

Which is all well and good for those growers, but why would someone want to do that with a grape like Cabernet Franc in an area like Chinon in the Loire Valley where the grape usually thrives?  To be honest, I don't have a clue.  It could be that they made a selection of grapes that weren't ripe enough to make it into one of their red cuveés and decided to make a white wine from those as an experiment.  The most likely explanation is that they just decided they wanted to try it and went for it.  It's hard to say, especially because the wine itself isn't listed on the producer's website at all.  All I can say for sure is that someone decided to give it a shot and I was able to taste the results.

The producer in question is Couly-Dutheil, a well-established estate in the Chinon region of the Loire Valley.  The bottle itself is technically a non-vintage bottling and technically we aren't supposed to know what grape it was made from.  The AOC laws do not recognize white wines made from Cabernet Franc grapes in this region, so the only category available for this to be bottled as was vin de table which, by law, is prohibited from mentioning any regions, grapes, or vintages.  Proprietary names are allowed on the bottle, though, so the house decided to call this "Blanc de Franc," which is technically still legal since it doesn't mention the full name of the grape on the label though it gives us a huge clue as to what's inside the bottle.  As for the region, since we know where the producer is located, it's easy for us to fill that blank in as well.  The vintage is usually indicated in some kind of code somewhere on the bottle, but I didn't spend a lot of time searching for it.  Other online sources that have reviewed this wine all seem to have a 2008 bottling, so there's a good chance that this is from that vintage as well.  I've read on a few of those that only about 25 cases of this wine made it into the US, so good luck trying to find a bottle for yourself.

The bottle I picked up cost $29 from Cardullo's in Harvard Square.  In the glass, the wine was a pale, silvery lemon color.  The nose was very aromatic and puzzling.  It had aromas of raspberries and peaches with some ripe apple and something like pie dough mixed in.  It's a disconcerting feeling to look at a glass of white wine and smell red fruits in it, but that's what was happening here.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There was light raspberry and apple fruit with a biscuitty, pastry dough kind of character to it.  If you had blindfolded me and had me try this wine, I probably would have sworn it was a rosé or a very light bodied red wine.  It was probably more interesting than it was good, but it was still a very cool wine to try. 


Anonymous said...

Interested to read this article - we recently had a lunch at the Comptoir de Genes restaurant, which also doubles as an outlet for Cotes de Castillon (Bordeaux, France)wine producers. The property owned by 'La Patronne' produces a white from Cab Franc grapes. We noted that the wine was a vin de France- but there was also a fairly explicit account of what was in the bottle, and if we recall correctly, the vintage. Very easy drinking, and as you said could be picked as a rose if tasted blind.

Anonymous said...

Lucas Vinyards in interlaken ny (Fingerlakes AVA) makes a nice Cab Franc dry Rose'.
You can see it on their web site.

I think they are one of the best overall Fingerlakes winerys. Their Seyval Blanc is sublime, showing what this complex grape is capable of.