These past few years we’ve been particularly fascinated by the beautifully rustic, simple, and very drinkable red wines of Chinon, France, in the heart of the Loire Valley. Reds there are primarily made from Cabernet Franc, or Breton as the grape is called locally. Unlike in Bordeaux however, where Cabernet Franc provides an accent to a full-bodied wine, these wines show off Cabernet Franc as medium bodied and the star of the show. Found in a soft-shouldered bottle, they are generally sumptuous and ready to drink, with red and black fruit forward notes and a nice amount of spice and grip on the finish.
In 2014 we found what we thought would make a great match for this style at the Los Amigos Vineyard south of Healdsburg, California, in the warm northeastern area of Sonoma County’s Russian River AVA. With the warmth and sun, we anticipated no problems in ripening the fruit. With a properly trained canopy we hoped to avoid the overwhelmingly green, “pyrazine” notes sometimes associated with unripe Cabernet Franc — yielding instead fruit with an intriguing herbal spice.
With ripening done right in the vineyard, to make a simple, drinkable red table wine we decided that controlling the substantial tannins in Cabernet Franc skins would be our primary challenge in the winery. To do that, we decided on the time-honored Loire Valley practice of carbonic maceration (a lazy, or busy, man’s approach?): letting the fruit sit untouched, whole cluster for some number of days in a non-oxygenated environment. Traditional approaches involve sealing the fruit in a container where some of the skins that break naturally release juice that begins to ferment, giving up CO2. That CO2 creates the non-oxygenated environment for the subsequent carbonic maceration to take place over time — where fermentation takes place *inside* the whole berry through a different pathway, a so-called glycolitic fermentation. Side effects include the softening of skin tannins, fruit forward flavors, and finished wines with lower alcohol. (Sounds good!)
So, we dumped the clusters in a bin and added a bunch of dry ice, then shrink wrapped the whole thing and left it alone.
11 days later, we contemplated what we had done.
There were some outrageous aromas! The glycolitic fermentation does not consume all of the sugar; at 11 days, we were at about 5% alcohol, and approximately 12-15 brix. So, next, yours truly walked on the clusters for about 45-60 minutes, to break all the skins and release the delicious juice, and to initiate a natural, alcoholic fermentation driven by native yeasts to dryness.
About five days later we pressed into neutral french oak barrels, where it was conditioned until bottling the following summer.
Is the result that drinkable, scrumptious medium-bodied red table wine we set out to make? Let us know what you think!