For those who assume Santa's little helper is a young lass dressed in a flared red skirt, think again. Santa's little helper could be the cabernet franc grape, assisting cabernet sauvignon in bringing joy to the wine world. Cabernet franc is mainly known by wine buffs because it's one of the five legally permitted grape varieties grown in the Bordeaux region. On its own, cabernet franc produces wines that are less tannic and less saturated in colour than the more famous cabernet sauvignon, but these wines rarely get the same attention. Too often, cabernet franc's sleigh is laden with disparaging descriptors such as 'green pepper', 'vegetal' or 'stemmy', which at times are fair judgment. However, green characteristics emerge in many red grape varieties, including cabernet sauvignon, when grown in excessively cool climates, under indifferent conditions or when over-cropped. Good-quality cabernet franc does emanate a slight herbal note, but definitely not an off-putting green pepper or green asparagus aroma. The best cabernet franc wines - and there are many instances of the grape leading Santa's sleigh - are distinctive and complex. Cabernet franc is grown throughout Bordeaux; in the Medoc section, home to famous properties such as Chateaux Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild, it comprises about 15 per cent of a typical vineyard. On the opposite side of the river, on the so-called Bordeaux Right Bank, which is further inland, cabernet franc thrives in St Emilion's cooler, moister soils. The most famous cabernet franc-based wine in the world is St Emilion's Cheval Blanc, in which the variety is 65 per cent of the final blend. Cabernet thrives in northern France's Loire Valley, where the chilly air accentuates the variety's desirable lead pencil and herbal aromas, the finest examples grown on the slopes of Chinon village. These wines, though of modest colour, are well-structured and have excellent ageing potential. Loire cabernet franc is rarely oak-aged and is lighter in weight than jolly sauvignon, which means it pairs better with holiday poultry, fish and charcuterie. Cabernet franc thrives better than cabernet sauvignon in cool vineyards because it buds and forms grapes earlier. By budding earlier, it's able to take advantage of a long, cool growing season, becoming far riper and therefore less harshly tannic before the winter chill sets in. If you fancy a quick kiss from Santa's little helper, seek out cabernet franc from the Loire Valley, the St Emilion or Pomerol districts in Bordeaux, chilly upstate New York, Italy's Veneto region or Shaanxi, China.