Feeling the purse strings tighten on your Bordeaux collection? Consider a Loire Valley red instead. The Loire's three most renowned red wine appellations are in the Touraine region. Smack-dab in the middle of the Loire Valley, Touraine's vineyards surround the city of Tours on sites known as the 'Garden of France' because they are warmer than the grape-growing regions to the west and milder than the temperamental climates to the east. The finest red wine appellations of the Loire Valley are Chinon, Bourgueil and St-Nicolas de Bourgueil. All three produce wines made almost entirely from cabernet franc, the grape variety that produces what many regard as Bordeaux's finest wine, Cheval Blanc. Cabernet franc is a 50 per cent contributor to two other noble Bordeaux wines, Ausone and Lafleur. In fact, cabernet franc plays a role in almost every red wine produced in Bordeaux but it seldom commands the attention it deserves. It is no surprise that cabernet franc became the Loire Valley's signature red grape: Touraine was the favourite playground of King Henry II of England, whose spouse, Eleanor of Aquitaine, held dominion over Bordeaux. Locally, the cabernet franc variety became known as breton. No one knows how the grape gained its nickname. Perhaps it was because in the 11th century, transportation of wine and grapes on the Loire River was managed by ferrymen from Brittany known as les Bretons. Or because in the 15th and 16th centuries, the powerful Le Breton family (Claude Le Breton was the king's secretary of finance) managed many chateaux in the region and may have planted the variety. Pundits have also speculated that the name is derived from abbot Breton, who was asked by Cardinal de Richelieu in the 17th century to plant grapes on his Chinon and Bourgueil properties, thus appearing on notary certificates as 'plant de l'abbe Breton' and later, 'plant Breton'. The abbey theory is displaced, however, by the work of Francois Rabelais (1494 to 1553), widely considered France's finest - and funniest - Renaissance writer. He mentioned the red variety two centuries earlier, 'Ce bon vin Breton, lequel poinct ne croist en Bretaigne, mais en ce bon pays de Verron.' It means, 'This good Breton wine, which doesn't grow in Brittany, but in this good country of Verron' (Verron being a site within Chinon). Rabelais might have thought the region 'good country', but it is northern France after all and the wine can vary markedly from vintage to vintage, with cooler years producing wines that are tart red, leafy and vegetative (a term meaning reminiscent of asparagus and green beans). In warmer years, when the grapes ripen fully, the Loire's finest red is immediately identifiable by its vivacious violet flavours and raspberry and blackberry fruit. Of the three red wine appellations, Chinon produces the most elegantly structured wine, which is easy to remember as the name brings to mind the graceful chignon hairstyle first popularised in the Tang dynasty. In fine years, Chinon sings with vibrant red summer fruits and can age a decade or so before peaking. In lesser vintages, Chinon is a light-bodied cherry-red wine best for immediate enjoyment. Bourgueil is earthier and more rustic than Chinon and can take longer (four to five years) to hit its stride. St-Nicolas de Bourgueil is lighter bodied and best drunk while young. Although the Loire Valley is renowned for its crisp white wines, no self-respecting Parisian bistro would be caught without a red from the region on its list - so why should we? Chinon is available from Topsy Trading (tel: 2556 8268 or e-mail email@example.com ).