Each time I walk through my local grocery store, I see two trends running on a collision course. In the meat aisle, I see one shopper after another striding straight past the beef on a beeline toward the lightest meat in the store: Boneless, skinless chicken breast. In the wine aisle, I see many more customers peering at reds than whites, with most focusing their attention on the heaviest wines in the store: Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. Of course, there's no way to know for sure what happens once people get this stuff home and into their kitchens. But I've got a fairly good idea, and it isn't pretty.
On the wine side of the equation, we know that more than 90 percent of all wine purchased in the United States is consumed on the day it is purchased. On the food front, it seems very unlikely that people are buying ultra-low-fat chicken breast and then beefing it up with a robust, high-fat preparation. So, the seemingly unavoidable conclusion is that there are a lot of big Zinfandels and Cabernets out there beating the mortal daylights out of a lot of little chicken breasts.
I'm often tempted to intervene right there in the store, but don't do so for fear of having the daylights beaten out of me as well. Better to intervene here: If you love red wine but eat lightly prepared white meats like chicken or turkey or pork loin, and if you want to actually taste your food when enjoying it with your wine, you'd better lighten up on your reds. What's the right type for the job? One of my first choices would be wines made from Cabernet Franc in France's Loire Valley.
These wines are not widely known here. They are even less widely understood. Nevertheless, along with certain bottlings of Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Tempranillo, the Loire's Cab Francs are among the world's Great Middleweights. In many cases, they are really light-bodied rather than medium-bodied, and usefully so if you're having chicken breast for dinner. However, for cheerleading purposes I prefer "Great Middleweight," since "lightweight" carries a negative connotation in general and -- especially in America -- regarding wine in particular. Ours is a relatively young country when it comes to appreciating wine, and one of the indicators of our immaturity is an adolescent infatuation with wines that are big and (depending on one's perspective) either burly or buxom.
From a food standpoint, this bigger-is-better vinous prejudice makes no sense. The key to getting good matches between foods and wines is hitting a balance between the robustness of the two. If either overwhelms the other, the "match" is actually a mismatch. So, if you frequently eat light foods (and either you do or you die) and care about how they work with your wines, your choices are pretty clear: Drink whites, which generally have less tannin and intensity than reds, or find your way to reds with relatively light body, alcohol and tannin.
Fine, you might say, but if these Loire Cabernet Francs are so great, why haven't I heard of them? Perhaps you have, though you'd have encountered them under specific appellations such as Chinon, Bourgueil, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Saumur-Champigny, Anjou or Touraine. Dispersal among these various appellations has contributed to the obscurity of Loire Cab Franc here, which starts with a strike against it for being on the lighter side. Interestingly, this doesn't count against a wine among the French, who (regardless of what you may think of them at the moment) know a thing or two about wine and food. Whereas many lesser retail shops here don't carry any of these wines, it could take you days of searching to find a Paris bistro that doesn't have at least of couple of Chinons on its wine list.
Why do the French value these wines so highly? Because they carry much the same flavor profile as Cabernet Sauvignon, but on a leaner frame that is more versatile with food. Cabernet Franc is in fact a genetic parent of Cabernet Sauvignon (along with Sauvignon Blanc). Franc is the earlier-ripening and lighter of the two Cabernets in Bordeaux, where both are widely planted, with Cabernet Sauvignon being the more highly regarded grape. To the north in the Loire, Cab Franc is even lighter, but there the roles are reversed, with Franc being valued above Cabernet Sauvignon. The Loire is near the northerly climatic limit at which reds can be ripened, and though Cabernet Franc tends to produce light wines there, the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon yields juice that is routinely green and weedy.
In cool and/or wet years, Cabernet Franc-based wines can likewise be green or vegetal, but more often they just have a lightly herbal aromatic note. When this note isn't dominant, it lends complexity and "typicity" to the wines, and I regard it as a virtue. Most bottlings are oaked moderately and in proportion with their weight, enabling their aromas and flavors of berries to lead a parade of notes that can include smoke, spices, tobacco and dried herbs, among others.
Prices vary widely, as you'll see when scanning the wines I've recommended below. Please note that higher prices don't correlate closely with greater concentration and intensity, as is often the case with wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon. Indeed, a $10 Saumur-Champigny will often be weightier than a $30 Chinon, and if the Chinon's price were justified, it would be on the basis of complexity and sophistication rather than power. Recommended wines appear in order of preference, with approximate prices and D.C. wholesalers indicated in parentheses:
* Catherine & Pierre Breton Chinon "Les Picasses" 2000 ($36, Wines, Ltd.): Deeply colored and flavored for the breed, with light herbal notes and well balanced, smoky oak.
* Bernard Baudry Chinon "Les Granges" 2000 ($12.50, Wines, Ltd.): Ripe, soft and generous, with sweet fruit notes and excellent integration.
* Barnard Baudry Chinon "Les Grezeaux" 1999 ($19, Bacchus): Ripe, supple fruit has largely absorbed all the oak employed in making this wine, which is nicely mature and very classy.
* Domaine de la Chanteleuserie Bourgueil "Cuvee Alouettes" 2000 ($13, Winebow): Relatively small in sheer size but long on complexity, this is a lovely wine with layer upon layer of subtle flavor nuances.
* Domaine Saint Vincent Saumur Champigny "Lea" 2000 ($18, Winebow): Conspicuously dark and concentrated, with ripe, meaty flavors recalling dark berries. With medium-plus weight, this calls more for a veal chop than a chicken breast.
* Domaine Filliatreau Chateau Fouquet Saumur 2000 ($16, Wines, Ltd.): Delicious, impressive stuff, with relatively robust fruit that is fully ripe and nicely braced by spicy oak.
* Domaine de la Chanteleuserie Bourgueil "Cuvee Beauvais" 2000 ($15, Winebow): A delicate but flavorful wine with light weight but lots of interesting little complexities.
* Logis de la Giraudiere Anjou "Cuvee des Deux Millenaires" ($11, Touton): A marvelous overachiever at $11, this features fully ripe fruit with little whiffs of spices, leather and herbs.
* Domaine de la Colline Chinon 2001 ($11, Touton): Subtle, smoky and nuanced, this packs a lot of class for 11 bucks.
* Domaine Saint Vincent Saumur-Champigny 2001 ($9.50, Winebow): Soft and generous, with ripe berry and black cherry fruit, this wine offers excellent value.
Michael Franz will offer additional recommendations and answer questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.