the other cabernet

The Wine:  Domaine de la Chanteleuserie, Bourgueil “Cuvee Alouettes”

The Grapes:  Cabernet Franc

The Region:  Bourgueil:  Loire Valley, Western France

Pairs Well With:  Pork (even hot dogs), game birds, tangy chesses (goat cheese, etc.), beet salad

Stay Away From:  Overly robust red meat (steak, etc.)

You Will Like It If:  You are looking more a medium bodied red with absolutely unique flavors

Cellar Potential:  Best now through 2015

It happened again the other day, and at this point it’s getting pretty frustrating. 

I stopped into an area supermarket, which was well stocked with an acceptable selection of quality and well priced wines.  Encouraged as usual by what a grocery store’s buying power can offer, I asked for a recommendation.   There was a brief scan and soon a confident smile.  I was in luck!  There were, it seemed, several wines within my requested style and price, and I was informed that most were very well regarded.  As I should have suspected (it has happened before), the recommendation was all about the score.

91!  90!  93!  The scores were rattled off like lottery numbers, taken from one of the many wine-related publications offering such ratings (supposedly tasted blind without any knowledge of producer or cost).  The scores were posted next to the wines like a 2”x 3” resume.

I was immediately dubious, having already tried many of these and was at least familiar with all.  Many were solid and acceptable but certainly not unique or worthy of special attention.  Big, rich, high-alcohol monsters designed to hit drinkers hard with up-front flavor, these were wines designed to court a high score by being louder than the competition.  This was all the recommendation I could get?  A regurgitation of a bunch of wine scores? 

My list of issues with wine publications’ use of and the greater industry’s reliance on the ridiculous wine scoring process is long, but we only have time for a few obvious points.  Maybe most importantly, blind tasting (the championed tasting method publications use supposedly to eliminate any bias) by its nature favors power over elegance and strength over complexity.  Imagine “blind tasting” a steak next to a barbeque bacon cheeseburger.  The steak’s subtle savory beef flavors would seem basic and boring next to the cheeseburger’s over-the-top appeal. 

Many modern wines take this cheeseburger approach of going gigantic, at the expense of general quality, to court high scores in blind tastings.  Make no mistake, the blind-tasting/scoring process is killing off wines of character, as everyone tries to fit the same mold like a bunch of would-be Playboy Bunnies.

And no matter how badly publications’ ‘super tasters’ would have you believe otherwise, tasting and evaluating wine is very much a subjective exercise.  I regularly taste wines (blind and otherwise) with well-regarded wine professionals, and opinions vary widely on flavor, complexity, and overall quality. Publications really have a genius scheme, offering generic assessments based on a quick blind sip.  If we don’t agree with the assessment, our palates must be inferior.  It’s not our fault, but we had better rely on the experts to lead us on the path of quality.

And the use of a numeric score as a reflection of quality is simply laughable.  Can you imagine doing this with other products subject to subjective assessment?  Can we use a similar scale for music?  How about your favorite books?  Jurassic Park got 91 “points” while The DaVinci Code received 88.  What?? 

Blind tasting and scoring can be a fun exercise, but it is no way to judge the quality of anything.  And as consumers, we should demand more from the wine industry.

In the end, I skipped the supermarket recommendations and went home to open Chanteleuserie’s Bourgueil.  Although this light/medium bodied Loire Cabernet Franc is generally well-regarded, the pundits will likely never give it a blockbuster score.  The epitome of subtle complexity, it offers interesting nuances of mineral, damp earth, iron, currant, and charcoal notes on the nose.  On the palate, flavors turn to tobacco with a pleasant note of undercooked meat.  The finish is surprisingly long and balanced, and all the flavors persist although the wine turns slightly tart toward the end. 

Bourgueil refers to a winemaking region in western France’s Loire Valley, where the cool climates are ideally suited to a number of delicious white wines.  French white favorites such as Vouvray, Puilly Fume, Sancerre, and Muscadet all hail from parts of the Loire.  But Loire reds, which rely on the earlier ripening Cabernet Franc grape to thwart to chilly climate, offer truly unique flavors.  Nuances of pipe tobacco, roasted nuts, and garden herbs are common, appreciated flavors.  Even a pleasant note of garden vegetable or green bell pepper can be a positive if kept in balance.

Cabernet Franc, a genetic parent to the heralded Cabernet Sauvignon, loses most of the spotlight to its younger sibling.  But even more than Cabernet Sauvignon (which has its own reputation for versatility), Cabernet Franc seems to thrive in a number of climates.  Cabernet Sauvignon ripens a bit too late to excel in many parts of Bordeaux, especially in St. Emilion on the region’s “Right Bank.”  It is the same in Loire, where late season cold snaps and the potential for harvest season rains make Cabernet Sauvignon a risky proposition.  But Cabernet Franc shines.  “Cab Franc” seems equally at home in warm climates.  It remains a staple of New World Meritage (Bordeaux style blends), offering a lighter bodied, more rustic foil to foil bigger, bolder Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

In Cabernet Franc and this Bourgueil in particular, we are offered a chance to taste a wine largely untouched by a wine industry clammering to make wines of power and opulence.  It is unabashedly lighter and one might even say on green side compared to current standards, true to a classic style made to reflect the cool climate in which it was produced.  Absent a triple digit score from the press, it deserves a place in the contemporary market.  We should all challenge ourselves with wines like this and refuse to accept convention. 

– b

All content and  photographs © 2010 jb’s pour house

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2 thoughts on “the other cabernet

  1. Cheers to you, Ben! You are merely echoing the sentiments of many. I truly appreciate your exposition of this under-appreciated varietal. Cab Franc is and always will represent, to me, a great find and well rewarded hunt for the true wine afficionado.

    and FWIW… I personally am offended by paying inflated prices bases on one or two persons’ “scores.” We’re not the only onles reading these “numbers” and I guarantee you that the local merchants are only too happy to fleece your pocket because of a 90+.

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