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The Time to Buy and Drink Chinon Is Now. Don’t Wait.

The climate of this Loire Valley region is perfect right now — but for how long?

Wink Lorch By June 16, 2022
caves in tuffeau cliffs of Cravant-les-Coteaux near Chinon
Ninth-century caves in tuffeau cliffs of Cravant-les-Coteaux near Chinon, belonging to the Gasnier family. Photo courtesy of Gasnier.

An aroma of bell pepper or capsicum used to sound a negative note for a Chinon, but today it’s a characteristic that forms a delightful part of the complexity of many a Loire red from the signature Cabernet Franc grape.

Sylvain Grosbois of Domaine Grosbois in Chinon, the Loire’s biggest red wine appellation, muses, “Wine drinkers from outside France often tell me they don’t like Loire Cabernet Franc because of its vegetal or pepper notes, but that’s history, now.”

Today any bell pepper notes found in a Chinon tend to be reminiscent of sweet red peppers, not the green ones, and marinated or cooked peppers, which do not give raw or bitter flavors, or indeed vegetal ones. So, what changed?

Everything all at once

Chinon is the largest single red wine appellation in the Loire Valley, with 6,000 acres producing about 90% red wine plus a small amount of rosé and white, and it is also the most important varietal Cabernet Franc appellation anywhere. About 5% of the world’s Cabernet Franc is grown in Chinon.

A steadily warming climate combined with changing attitudes to the grape-growing and winemaking methods have culminated in glory days for Chinon. Whether they are redolent of soft red berries ideal for immediate drinking, or more elegant and firmer, chalky reds that benefit from cellaring, the time to try Chinon is now, although this risks being a tipping point in time.

There is an undercurrent of concern. Vintages like the very warm 2018 gave high alcohol, but sometimes lacked the requisite support from acidity to allow them to age for long. There are only a few cooler, north-facing vineyard sites, for example, Château de Coulaine’s La Diablesse, and owner Jean Bonnaventure doesn’t hesitate, “If another north-facing vineyard parcel became available, I would grab it right away.”

Climate change has brought higher risks of spring frosts here, as elsewhere. Bernard Baudry, officially retired, but still often at work at the eponymous estate, has witnessed climate change first hand over nearly five decades since founding his domaine in 1975. “The last 20 years the big advantage we’ve had is climate change …” he says, almost apologetically, but he quickly adds, “There has also been much better attention from the vignerons, especially from the younger generation.”

His son Matthieu elaborated, “From the 1990s, my father began to take me around the vineyards. It’s amazing how much Chinon has changed. Very often Cabernet Franc was not physiologically ripe — the tannins were not ripe, and as everywhere else,” the technique of chaptalization, where sugar was added to the grape juice at fermentation, “was much used.”

He continued by evoking the rare warm vintages of the past, which were ideal for reds — 1976, 1988, 1989, 1990, and 1996 — but “the big change began in 2002.” Statistics show, he said, that during these last two decades, picking has been on average seven to ten days earlier than before.

Producers now aim for lower harvest yields to give more concentration and take greater risks in leaving the grapes hanging longer. Chaptalization is rare. “Before, we always worried about rain spoiling the harvest, but now the harvest is earlier, that risk is much lower,” continued Baudry. 

Fabrice Gasnier, the current president of the appellation, with vineyards in the same village of Cravant-les-Côteaux, the most planted in the appellation, sums it up succinctly. “Right now, the climate is perfect for Chinon, but climate change must stop.”

All about Chinon

The Chinon sector is also the warmest, the sunniest, and the driest part of the long Loire River Valley with the vineyards sheltered by forests on two sides and with moderating influences from the Loire River to the northwest and by its tributary, the Vienne River running along the southern part. Vineyards are mainly between the two rivers, with some on the left bank of the Vienne too.

These rivers cut through the distinct yellowy-white tuffeau bedrock — the local limestone — used as the building blocks of walls, houses, churches, and castles throughout the streets of the small town of Chinon, and the nearby villages.

High above the rivers are cliffs of tuffeau, where there are man-made caves dug out more than ten centuries ago for building materials. The most distinctive are those below Chinon’s dominant castle, but there are also caves in the wine villages used as cellars. Of course, this tuffeau influences the wines themselves too.

Domaine Grosbois winery

Domaine Grosbois winery showing the tuffeau stone — a local limestone of the Loire Valley of France. Photo courtesy of Sylvain Grosbois.

Topsoils in the vineyards are categorized into three zones: the alluvial, sandy, well-drained gravels found close to the rivers give the earlier maturing Chinons, which show vibrant red fruit; secondly, a series of limestone plateaux and hillocks, known as puys, some with outcrops of siliceous or flinty clay, allow a more intense, yet fine, almost stony Chinon to emerge from later ripening grapes. 

The third zone is the most prized, with slopes of clay-limestone, often where the tuffeau bedrock — not to be confused with volcanic tufa — is closer to the surface and with outcrops of a fossil-rich, sandy yellow tuffeau, named millarge. Here is where Cabernet Franc thrives to make the most long-lived and structured wines.

Matthieu Baudry describes millarge as a quality terroir, insisting that “when the bedrock is close to the surface, one forgets the grape variety, as it gives a complexity of flavors bringing minerality and trace elements.”

But he concedes that the grape counts too, “Once, Cabernet Franc was considered too austere, but now everyone is starting to talk about its fine character, more akin to Pinot Noir than to Cabernet Sauvignon.”

Changed farming practices

The influence of the soils has become more apparent since the ongoing move away from chemical weed-killing and toward plowing or working the soils. In terms of organic practices, the Chinon appellation as a whole is remarkable, with more than 45% of vineyards currently either fully certified over 25% or certified in conversion. Many estates use biodynamic methods too.

With evolving farming practices — working with organics and lower yields — comes better quality fruit. Cabernet Franc is thick skinned and the quality and amount of tannin in the wines is a particular focus for many quality winegrowers. Destemming the grape bunches is normal practice here, and there is an increasing emphasis on ensuring the grape berries arrive in the fermenting vats uncrushed and intact.

Grosbois says, “Cabernet Franc is very sensitive and fragile in terms of the extraction of tannins.” His winery is laid out to allow working by gravity, treating the grape berries as gently as possible after destemming. For the same reasons, many Chinon winemakers limit pump overs or punch downs to the bare minimum, just making sure that the cap of berries remains wet.

cat in a vineyard

A cat roams the Chinon Clos du Noyer vines. Photo courtesy of Sylvain Grosbois.

Many Chinons from the sandy gravel soils are aged only in tank, whether stainless steel or concrete, whereas the finest cuvées from the tuffeau soils are often at least partly oak aged for anything from six to 18 months, but using low percentages of new oak barrels.

There is a wide selection of Chinon wines available in the U.S. — half of the appellation’s export’s head here, and some older vintages are on the market. Gasnier recommends that the best recent vintages for long aging, up to 15 years, at least, are 2010, 2014, and the most recently available, 2020. Once aged, these wines offer more truffle-like, woodland flavors and somehow evolve more like a fine Bordeaux.

Even the approachable fruitier wines age well for five years, and they are some of the most versatile reds of the moment. The following recommendations are all from certified organic producers, most practicing biodynamics.

5 Cabernet Francs to try:

bottle of Domaine Fabrice Gasnier Les Graves Chinon

Fabrice Gasnier Les Graves 2020 (~$17)

From stony, gravelly vineyards with vines around 35 years old farmed biodynamically since 2008, this great value Chinon is an example of the early drinking, fruit-forward kind, aged in concrete tanks. Despite the warm, almost jammy red fruit nose, there is a lovely freshness on the palate, giving a hugely pleasurable Cabernet Franc that epitomizes the juicy character that can be found in Loire reds.

bottle of Chateau De Coulaine Chinon Rouge Bonnaventure 2019

Château de Coulaine Chinon Rouge Bonnaventure 2019 (~$20)

Château de Coulaine, situated west of the town of Chinon, was the first here to convert to organics, way back in 1994. Drawn from a single large 6,000-liter oak foudre or vat, which is a little over ten years old, Bonnaventure comes from a vineyard on a plateau with clay-rich, sandy yellow tuffeau. It gives the wine a stony minerality, almost a smoky character on the nose and some salinity on the palate. The wine is approachable now with fine, concentrated and intense red fruit combined with soft tannins that will allow it to age for a few years. 

bottle of Domaine Grosbois Gabare Chinon

Domaine Grosbois Gabare 2018 (~$21)

The Gabare cuvée, a blend of different vineyards from this young biodynamically-run estate, expresses each vintage very differently, the sign of fine Chinon. The 2020, waiting in the wings, has incredible floral character, and is elegant and juicy, whereas the 2019 shows more classic sweet red bell pepper flavors. This 2018 shows the power of the vintage with plenty of muscle and richness of dark red berry fruits, almost jammy. The length of flavor indicates that this will become more subtle, and after six or seven years will evolve into a softer, spicier wine.

bottle of Domaine Bernard Baudry Les Grézeaux Chinon

Bernard Baudry Chinon Les Grézeaux 2019 (~$28)

Les Grézeaux is from the oldest vines of Baudry’s estate, 60 to 70 years old grown on stony siliceous-clay gravels. In the past the wine was oak aged, but these days Matthieu prefers aging in neutral concrete tanks for around 15 months before bottling. The wine from 2019 has more herbal, ripe bell pepper character than red fruit, with peppery tannins and deep, dark fruit. It will take five years to show its true colors, or if you lack the patience, decant the wine to help age it.

bottle of Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon Le Clos Guillot

Bernard Baudry Chinon Le Clos Guillot 2019 (~$38)

The south-southeast facing Clos Guillot vineyard lies on millarge soil, the prized yellow tuffeau clay-limestone, giving wines that combine silky tannins with great fruit intensity as here with a note of almost macerated cherries, or kirsch liqueur. Aged for a year in old barriques, this wine is a keeper, and even though 2019 was a very early harvest, there is no question that this has the balance to age for a couple of decades. It will be wonderful in future to compare this with the Grézeaux cuvée.