Couly-Dutheil, Les Gravières 2017 Chinon

Couly-Dutheil grape harvest in Clos de l'Echo, Chinon

A beautiful Cabernet Franc at a beautiful price.

From €12.40, £13.50, $17.99, 257.20 Brazilian reais

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I think I could honestly say that I approach every Cabernet Franc, in theory one of my favourite red wine grapes, in search of a replica of a couple of the finest red Loires I can remember.

I fell in love with their particular combination of perfume, freshness and fruit that the best can offer over a Lebreton 1990 Anjou-Villages that accompanied a meal chez Roellinger in Brittany in 1993. I know the date thanks to my description of it in my 1997 memoir Confessions of a Wine Lover (Tasting Pleasure in the US) in which I note I was rather a grumpy participant because my final deadline for the five-year task of compiling the first edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine was only six months away and the trip to Brittany would eat up an entire weekday. Such devotion to duty!

Unfortunately many of the Chinons and Bourgeuils I come across fail to spark joy. A Cabernet Franc that is anything less than ripe is a pretty mean thing. And many of the Cabernet Francs I encounter from regions warmer than the Loire lack that haunting perfume of pencil shavings and raspberries. 

Bottle of Couly-Dutheil, Les Gravieres

But Couly-Dutheil, Les Gravières 2017 Chinon tasted recently absolutely did the trick. The 2017 vintage was pretty tricky for Loire vignerons, many of whom, for the second year running, suffered considerable crop losses due to frost. But this seemed to encourage real ripeness in the reds, with in this case no sacrifice of refreshment and all-important perfume. My tasting note: ‘Silver medal at the Paris 2019 agricultural fair. Notably deep crimson. Smooth and silky texture. Lovely Cab Franc perfume with all that graphite and pencil shavings. Very fresh and inky. Needs food but it’s a true Cabernet Franc expression. Sweet fruit first followed by a textured, decidedly dry finish. Long and just what you want of an early-delivery Chinon. Good value.’ I gave it 16.5 but seriously considered a 17 and suggested a drinking window of 2019–24.

Arnaud Couly makes no fewer than eight different red Chinons and Les Gravières is 'merely' the basic, unoaked one but is none the worse for it. It's grown on gravelly terraces by the river Vienne. (The picture above is of Couly-Dutheil's pride and joy, their Clos de l'Écho facing the famous Château de Chinon.) An important distinction in the pragmatic Loire is that most of the grapes are hand-picked. Yields are a relatively low 45 hl/ha. After a two-week maceration, the wine developed in tank for seven or eight months before being bottled.

Couly-Dutheil was founded in 1921 when a Couly married his cousin Mlle Dutheil and has grown steadily ever since, Today they have nearly 100 ha (250 acres) of their own vines – a lot – and vinify grapes from a further 40 ha or so. Arnaud has taken over from his father and, together with consultant Anne Blain, has succeeded in banishing a reputation for herbaceousness in the wines. Viticulture is lutte raisonnée with an increasing emphasis on debudding in spring and deleafing around bunches in summer to encourage ripeness. Arnaud is one of the appellation’s later pickers and this wine is delicious evidence of this.

Arnaud and Rachel Couly of Couly-Dutheil in Chinon, Loire

Arnaud, pictured above with this daughter Rachel, took over a large, well-known domaine whose wines were competent without being outstanding. It must be quite difficult to change perceptions of such a famous name. He explained in an email (in French, so I hope my translation is accurate):

'I arrived in 1997 after travelling the world gaining experience in viticulture and vinification. I wanted to make changes to our family company but it was by no means painless. My aim was to rediscover the purity of Cabernet Franc, which meant jettisoning our barriques. We also adopted much gentler extractions of tannin. But the big change was picking later, when the grapes were really ripe, especially avoiding any 'greenness'. So I taste all the grapes in all the parcels as they approach full ripeness – and here in Chinon that can mean a harvest, as in 2017, as late as the end of October. You need determination and nerves of steel to pick really ripe Cabernet Franc!'

This lovely wine is relatively easy to find, with citing stockists in France, Germany, Scotland, several stockists in England, lots in the US – and one in Brazil for a change.

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