\u201cCabernet Franc is about to become one of the world\u2019s great grapes,\u201d says Thierry Germain, owner/winemaker of Domaine des Roches Neuves in Saumur-Champigny.\r\n\r\nHe\u2019s right. It\u2019s a great time to enjoy Cabernet Franc from the Loire. The grape yields so much more than light, easygoing selections to sip young or even slightly chilled. Today, the wines are increasingly rich, vibrant and long lasting.\r\n\r\nA succession of superb vintages (2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018) has only helped solidify the idea that Cabernet Franc bottlings from the central Loire Valley deserve to be taken seriously.\r\n\r\nFour appellations, often organic or biodynamic, are the heartland of this transformation: Saumur-Champigny, Chinon, Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. These appellations produce red wines made from Cabernet Franc that are increasingly impressive. They offer smoky perfumes, rich berry fruits and fine structures.\r\n\r\nCabernet Franc was first planted in the central Loire Valley more than 700 years ago. Vineyards now stretch across\u00a0its bucolic appellations, lining the slopes that face the Loire and Vienne Rivers from the fairy-tale castles of Saumur, in the west, to Chinon and close to Ch\u00e2teau d\u2019Uss\u00e9, the inspiration for Disney\u2019s Sleeping Beauty castle, in the east.\r\n\r\nIt\u2019s unclear why Cabernet Franc was chosen or became widely planted because, for centuries, it didn\u2019t ripen beyond 10 or 11 degrees of alcohol. Regardless, today\u2019s selections can now naturally reach up to 13.5% alcohol by volume, which results in wines of greater color, concentration and complexity.\r\n\r\nDive in to these four appellations and experience Loire\u2019s golden age of Cabernet Franc.\r\n\r\n\r\nSaumur-Champigny\r\nSaumur-Champigny is a dynamic appellation made up of 3,900 acres just southeast of the castle town of Saumur. It exhibits the enormous change that Loire Valley Cabernet Franc has undergone over the last 25 years. Once the source of low-alcohol wines for Paris bars, Saumur-Champigny now produces rich, pure expressions with complexity allied to wonderfully pure red-fruit cores.\r\n\r\nIn 2017, the iconic Clos Rougeard estate, including its 25 acres in Saumur-\u00adChampigny, was sold to telecom tycoons Martin and Olivier Bouygues for roughly $17 million. It was a reality check for growers throughout this small appellation.\r\n\r\nThe Foucault family, which previously owned the estate, had built a formidable reputation for their biodynamic wines. They left behind disciples like Thierry Germain of Domaine des Roches Neuves and Matthieu Vall\u00e9e of Ch\u00e2teau Yvonne, both of whom also work biodynamically.\r\n\r\nGermain, originally from Bordeaux, is now one of the high priests of French biodynamie. His passion is coupled with practicality: His nearly 70 acres of vineyards are densely planted and only plowed using horses, and all the vines come exclusively from his own nursery. He has 14 employees, one for every five acres, and a goal to produce intensely fruited, well-structured and ageworthy wines.\r\n\r\nThe vines of Roches Neuves, divided into 61 parcels, are spread from the northern boundary of the appellation, with its sharp drop to the Loire River, to the southwest edge of the plateau, which slides gently into the Thouet Valley.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nPhilippe Vatan of Ch\u00e2teau du Hureau, on the other hand, illustrates how even the most established producers have changed. No newcomer to Saumur-Champigny, he\u2019s a fourth-generation winemaker whose daughters, Lisa and Agathe, are poised to carry on the family tradition into the next generation.\r\n\r\nThe ch\u00e2teau is perched on a ledge above the Loire River, with a spectacular cave for wine production created by quarry stone. Some 30 years ago, the wines were well made, but light and for early\u00a0 enjoyment.\r\n\r\n\u201cI can tell you that with climate change, it\u2019s getting ripe more regularly, so no need to chaptalize,\u201d says Vatan.\r\n\r\nHureau\u2019s wines like the Les Fevettes, from 75-year-old vines, and Lisagathe,\u00ad named after Vatan\u2019s daughters, are ripe, dense and aged in wood. Produced from organically grown grapes since 2009, they celebrate Cabernet Franc in all its ripe, rich glory.\r\n\r\nDomaine des Roches Neuves 2017 Les M\u00e9moires; $68, 94 points. Sourced from a vineyard at the highest point of the appellation, close to the village of Dampierre, this is a serious, concentrated wine. It's dense, with layers of black cherry fruits, rich tannins and acidity. Wood-aged in massive 660-gallon barrels, it has a firm structure, which will allow it to age well. Drink from 2022. Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant.\r\n\r\nCh\u00e2teau du Hureau 2015 Lisagathe; $40, 93 points. Named after fourth-generation winemaker Philippe Vatan\u2019s two daughters, Lisa and Agathe, this wine is produced only in top vintages. It comes from selected parts of the estate\u2019s best vineyards, located above the underground cellars. It\u2019s ripe, warm and generous, with a dense texture and rich fruits. It\u2019s almost ready to drink, but wait until 2020. Charles Neal Selections.\r\n\r\nFamille Duveau 2016 Cabernet Franc; $22, 89 points. This fruity wine is full of ripe red-cherry flavors, with a touch of smoky tannins. It has a delicious, juicy character, very open while also having a balanced structure. From vineyards to the east of the city of Saumur, the wine is bright and ready to drink. Franck\u2019s Signature Wines.\r\n\r\n\r\nChinon\r\nChinon\u2019s wines are about power and richness. At their best, they have depth, concentration and sometimes astonishing ageability. But, with approximately 5,700 acres of vineyards, Chinon is also the most variable of the four Cabernet Franc appellations, if only because of its size.\r\n\r\nWithin the appellation, three distinct areas produce differing styles. The two banks of the Vienne River, centered on the fortress city of Chinon, produce the most structured selections.\r\n\r\nThe right bank of the Vienne is home to many of the top domaines, like Ch\u00e2teau de Coulaine, Domaine Bernard Baudry and Domaine Fabrice Gasnier, as well as major n\u00e9gociant and estate owner Couly-Dutheil. On the left bank, a smaller vineyard area has two top domaines: Domaine Charles Joguet and Domaine de la Noblaie.\r\n\r\nFarther west, on the V\u00e9ron peninsula where the Vienne meets the Loire River, sandy soils and a flat plain produce generally light, fruity wines. However, there are fine producers like Domaine Olga Raffault, run by third-generation Winemaker Sylvie Raffault and her husband, Eric de la Vigerie.\r\n\r\nRaffault sees a change in Chinon. \u201cGrowers used to use a lot of wood to mask unripe grapes,\u201d she says. \u201cNow, [we] don\u2019t need to. We can let the fruit shine.\u201d\r\n\r\n\u201cWe have had a change of style, in general, in Chinon,\u201d says Thomas Ven, tasting room director at Domaine de la Noblaie. \u201cThere is now less extraction, less sulfur used in the winemaking and riper grapes, meaning less stalky wines. The change really came in the 2014 vintage for us, but earlier with some producers.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe domaine, owned by the Billard family, is in a quiet, isolated valley in the hills south of the Vienne. It\u2019s an organic estate that\u2019s full of vines up to 60 years old. Visitors can ascend a steep stepladder to peer into a cave that houses a circular stone fermenting tank. It\u2019s used for the estate\u2019s top wine, Pierre de Tuf, which exemplifies how well Chinon can age: The 2005 bottling, still rich and full of fruit, has just started to approach maturity.\r\n\r\nDomaine Olga Raffault 2014 Les Picasses; $30, 94 points. Chalk soil on the slope up to the plateau above the town of Chinon gives this organic wine its mineral texture, which is allied to great fruit and spice. Wood aging lends generous, ripe tannins, the layers of black fruits are impressive and have aged well. Enjoy this fine wine now. Louis/Dressner Selections.\r\n\r\nCouly-Dutheil 2015 Clos de l\u2019Echo; $35, 92 points. This producer's top single-vineyard wine is richly structured and full of ripe berry fruits. A strong smoky character comes through the rich fruits and acidity to produce a classic Cabernet Franc flavor. It's still surprisingly young, and will be better from 2020. Cynthia Hurley Wine Imports.\r\n\r\nDomaine de la Noblaie 2016 Les Blancs Manteaux; $20, 90 points. Named after the pale cream-colored chalk soil of the vineyard, this wine is full of fruit, but also with plenty of structure that will allow it to age well. Blackberry fruit tones are shot through with acidity, and it finishes with spice and a tangy structure. Drink from 2020. Jon-David Headrick Selections.\r\n\r\n\r\nBourgueil\r\nBourgueil is all about a slope and a plain, which correlate to structure and lightness. The two sides to this appellation can often be apparent in wines from the same producer. Those from the chalk and clay slopes show off the structure and aging potential of Cabernet Franc. Conversely, wines from the gravel plain, which extends two miles away to the banks of the Loire River, are lighter in\u00a0 feel, with fruity freshness.\r\n\r\nTake the wines of Catherine and Pierre Breton, who farm their vineyards biodynamically. They have a perfumed, light-hearted bottling named Trinch, produced from the gravel soils of the plain.\r\n\r\nAs a contrast, their top selection is from the slope, the coteaux, named after one of Bourgueil\u2019s best vineyard site, Les Perri\u00e8res. It\u2019s aged in wood for up to 24 months, depending on the vintage, and packed with tannins when young, but develops into a ripe, spicy wine as it matures.\r\n\r\nEven producers who have only vines on the slope notice differences between vineyard sites. Midslope is best, according to Jacky Blot, who owns Domaine de la Butte. He came to the area from the Chenin Blanc vineyards of Montlouis and Vouvray with a desire to produce red wines solely from vines grown on the slope.\r\n\r\nThen Blot went deeper. He looked at the differences between the top, the middle and the base of the incline. He decided to produce three wines: Le Haut de la Butte, Mi-Pente and La Pied de la Butte. The Mi-Pente, or \u201cmidslope,\u201d is the most structured and ageworthy, while La Pied de la Butte, from the foot of the slope, is the smoothest and freshest, full of bright red fruits.\r\n\r\nThere\u2019s much history in these Bourgueil vineyards. Cabernet Franc was first planted here by the monks of Bourgueil Abbey during the 10th century, possibly brought up-river from the port of Nantes and originally from Bordeaux.\r\n\r\nThe abbey is still standing, with a walled Cabernet Franc vineyard, Le Clos de l\u2019Abbaye, one of the oldest vineyards in the Loire, to the side.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nDomaine de la Butte 2017 Mi-Pente; $40, 94 points.\u00a0The name Mi-Pente means \u201cmidslope,\u201d and this is considered the best point of the slope, neither too high nor too low. The wine is bold, dark and very rich. Black currant and berry fruits are prominent, as are the tannins that will allow this fine wine to age. Drink from 2023. Skurnik Wines, Inc.\r\n\r\nAlliance Loire 2017 Domaine de Chanteloup Vieilles Vignes; $20, 90 points. This wine comes from old vines on a 27-acre family vineyard. It's a generous, concentrated wine with firm tannins, as well as blackberry flavors. It's smoky, richly fruited and structured, and it's likely to age well. Drink from 2020. Fruit of the Vines, Inc.\r\n\r\nDomaine les Pins 2017 Le Clos; $30, 90 points. This ripe, smoky wine is all about attractive fruit and soft tannins. The fruit, expressed in flavors of fresh red berries and cherries, is still young and developing, with intense acidity. Wait until 2020 to enjoy this attractive selection. T. Elenteny Imports.\r\n\r\n\r\nSaint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil\r\nA mad dash around the vineyards of Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil in Xavier Amirault\u2019s battered white van reveals an appellation with a distinct personality. It\u2019s by no means an afterthought to neighboring Bourgueil.\r\n\r\nThe vineyards of Saint-Nicolas are mainly on the sand and gravel alluvial plain of the banks north of the Loire River. These sites produce the lightest style of Cabernet Franc from the four appellations. They\u2019re wines for pleasure, but their lightness doesn\u2019t make them less worthy of attention.\r\n\r\nDomaine Amirault\u2019s 58 parcels, all farmed biodynamically, are scattered across the appellation. Some are close to the Loire, while others are on the deeper gravels that give way to the small portion of the slope that runs through Saint-Nicolas. A few are on the slope itself, including vines that cover the family\u2019s cellar full of old bottles, which is reached by an almost invisible green door in a bank, like a Hobbit dwelling.\r\n\r\nHe characterizes the appellation in one sentence: \u201cOne village, one grape variety. It\u2019s very simple.\u201d\r\n\r\nWhile Amirault doesn\u2019t mention the importance of vineyard sites, it\u2019s highlighted by three of his wines. Le Val Renou, from the chalk and clay slope, and Le Fondis, from a deep gravel layer spread over a clay base, are structured. Les Gravilices, from deep gravel on the plain, is balanced and full of cherry and plum flavors.\r\n\r\nAround the corner from Amirault\u2019s Clos des Quarterons is the cellar of Fr\u00e9d\u00e9ric Mabileau\u00ad, who has farmed his nearly 70 acres of vines biodynamically since the 2018 vintage.\r\n\r\nThe change of wine style in this appellation and throughout the Loire is a common theme. Mabileau\u2019s eyes were opened by the 2005 vintage.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe had never made such a rich wine,\u201d he says. \u201cIt was a revelation.\u201d It was his starting point to create wines that would revel in the fruit while, \u201coptimizing what the vintage gave us.\u201d\r\n\r\nMabileau\u2019s story is like the journey taken by so many of the top estates in this corner of the Loire, one that has put Cabernet Franc on a different, exalted level.\r\n\r\nXavier et Agn\u00e8s Amirault 2015 Le Fondis; $44, 93 points. Produced biodynamically from clay and gravel soils, this single-vineyard wine is richly endowed with firm fruits, ripe tannins and fine berry flavors. Wood aging has added a touch of spicy complexity. Drink from 2022. Vineyard Brands.\r\n\r\nFr\u00e9d\u00e9ric Mabileau 2015 Les Coutures; $30, 92 points. This is a lightly wood-aged wine. It has a smooth texture to go with the rich blackberry fruits and acidity. Fine perfumes and a dense texture from the old vines are now showing well, so it can be enjoyed now. VOS Selections.\r\n\r\nPascal & Alain Lorieux 2015 Agn\u00e8s Sorel; $45, 91 points. This is a ripe, smoky wine, with soft tannins and swathes of red fruits. It is still young, with a stalky character, but it will fill out as it matures because the weight and the tannins are very present. Drink from 2020. It is named after a mistress of King Charles VII of France. Serge Dor\u00e9 Selections.