Cabernet Franc: A World of Versatility
Christy Canterbury M W
Wine drinkers owe a big thanks to Cabernet Franc. Not only is it impressively versatile in style, it is easily transplanted to vineyards around the world. Moreover, this generously productive variety has not simply cranked out its own grapes. It has bred actively…more like a stallion than a mare. Cabernet Franc worked its mojo with Sauvignon Blanc to create Cabernet Sauvignon and with Magdeleine Noire de Charentes to produce Merlot. Separate or alone, this triumvirate of black grapes—operating solo or in collaboration – captivates the palates and imaginations of drinkers the world over.
However, Cabernet Franc is rarely heralded as a varietal wine, so the time has come to rectify this injustice.
Cabernet Franc needs some help to elevate its status. After all, this grand, red grape variety predominates in one of the world’s most expensive wines, yet there’s no mention of grape variety on Cheval Blanc’s label.
More broadly, Old World naming conventions have not helped to publicize Cabernet Franc’s true importance. On its home turf in France, the grape does not identify the wine. Its appellation of origin does. For example, in the Loire, Cabernet Franc goes by Bourgueil, Chinon, Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil or Touraine. Moreover, regional naming conventions mean Cabernet Franc could be referred to as Breton in the Loire or Bouchet on Bordeaux’s Right Bank.
The Italians don’t help either. “Cabernet” is often found on labels from Friuli, where Cabernet Franc is effectively indigenous on account of having been cultivated there for centuries. But if a Friulian producer merely labels a wine as “Cabernet” and ships it anywhere (even within Italy), consumers are very likely to assume that the bottle contains Cabernet Sauvignon.
Despite these oversights and indignities, Cabernet Franc is gradually emerging from the shadows, particularly in the New World. Plantings there are on the rise. While this noble variety remains primarily a team player in Bordeaux-style blends, varietally designated versions are increasingly common along with bottlings in which Cab Franc is the main component.
Perhaps the Loire’s recent renaissance deserves some credit for refueling interest in the grape, but the New World’s Cabernet Franc shows a distinctly different expression. In many instances, these renditions exhibit higher ripeness levels and greater fruit abundance. Still, the Old World makes generous expressions of Cabernet Franc, too. Take, for example, Le Macchiole’s Paleo from Tuscany.
The USA leads the New World planted acreage by far, and pricier bottles are the norm. However, Cabernet Franc’s strengths aren’t going unnoticed in regions that can produce less expensive bottlings. Among other places, it is gaining traction in China, and it is also rising in unexpected outposts like Brazil.
There are good reasons for experimenting with varietal (or near-varietal) Cabernet Franc in a range of different locations. Its lighter styles from cooler climates can rival the versatility and finesse of Pinot Noir while its richer genres can mimic the breadth and depth of Cabernet Sauvignon. Unoaked, lower alcohol renditions take well to a light chill and are generally gluggable as soon as they hit the retail shelf. By contrast, weightier, barrel-aged versions can – and usually do – benefit from cellaring for several years.
Cabernet Franc’s tendency to produce an abundance of clusters can result in delayed or incomplete ripeness, making it prone to poor color and a lack of well developed fruit flavors. However, most New World climates are warmer than the variety’s Old World homelands, greatly reducing the risk of
Classic Cabernet Franc scents include raspberry, blueberry, plum and dried twigs. Of course, these classic notes aren’t always in evidence due to less-than-optimal conditions. For example, when warmth prevails in the vineyard, flavor ripeness arrives before tannin maturity. Waiting for tannin ripeness can sacrifice varietal typicity, morphing the resulting wine’s flavors into stern black fruit characteristics more akin to Cabernet Sauvignon.
By contrast, when cooler climates or lesser vintages rule, Cabernet Franc’s intense aromas don’t always appeal. Its most undesirable trait tends to be a green bell pepper, pyrazine-driven note. This can also surface in warm-ish growing regions where vintners concerned about over-ripeness may elect to harvest a bit too early.
Fully ripe Cabernet Franc has low-key, finessed tannins. Slightly less-ripe styles, especially along with aggressively toasty new oak, can contribute scruffy tannins, even on riper styles. Examples on this end of the spectrum recall the variety’s synonym, Noir Dur, or “hard black”.
Hard tannins can be magnified by the variety’s usually perky acidity, which resembles that of Cabernet Sauvignon. However, über-ripe versions tend to have lazy acidity more akin to Merlot.
In cooler climates, Cabernet Franc produces lively, these shortcomings as long yields are held to reasonable levels. moderate alcohol wines. However, in warmer climates, it can make chunky wines clocking-in over 14.5%. Below 13.5%, Cabernet Franc shows its unique identity. Over that threshold, it melds into expressions more reminiscent of its offspring.
Texsom International Wine Awards Winning Cabernet Franc
12 Barrister Cabernet Franc Columbia Valley Washington 2011 Bronze
18 College Cellars Cabernet Franc Clarke Vineyard Walla Walla Valley Washington 2012 Bronze
10 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Franc Stepping Stone Napa Valley California 2012 Gold
20 Cosentino Winery The Franc, Cabernet Franc Lodi California 2013 Bronze
14 Darioush Cabernet Franc Napa Valley California 2012 Gold
11 Domaine de la Chevalerie Galichets Bourgueil AOC France 2011 Bronze
17 Domaine de la Guilloterie Tradition Saumur-Champigny AOC France 2012 Bronze
5 Hearst Ranch Winery Lone Tree, Cabernet Franc Paso Robles California 2010 Bronze
3 Kontokosta Winery Cabernet Franc North Fork of Long Island New York 2012 Bronze
1 Macari Lifeforce, Cabernet Franc Unfiltered North Fork of Long Island New York 2013 Silver
2 Maquis Cabernet Franc Gran Reserva, Colchagua Valley Chile 2011 Silver
6 Messina Hof Cabernet Franc Barrel Reserve Texas Texas 2012 Gold
21 Messina Hof Cabernet Franc Double Barrel Private Reserve Texas Texas 2013 Bronze
15 Oveja Negra Cabernet Franc-Carmenere Estate Bottled Reserva Maule Valley Chile 2013 Silver
22 Pearmund Cabernet Franc Toll Gate Vineyard Virginia, Fauquier County Virginia 2013 Bronze
23 Peter Franus Cabernet Franc Napa Valley California 2012 Bronze
16 Pollak Vineyards Cabernet Franc Estate Grown Monticello Virginia 2012 Bronze
9 Revelry Vintners Cabernet Franc Weinbau Vineyard, Block 13 Wahluke Slope Washington 2012 Silver
7 Ridgeback Wines Cabernet Franc Paarl South Africa 2012 Gold
13 Tabor Hill Cabernet Franc Lake Michigan Shore Michigan 2012 Bronze
4 The Infinite Monkey Theorem Cabernet Franc, Grand Valley Colorado 2013 Bronze
19 Three Knights Cabernet Franc Sonoma County, Knights Valley California 2011 Bronze
8 Villa San-Julliete Cabernet Franc Small Lot Reserve Paso Robles California 2012 Bronze
Reprint from TEXSOM presents SOMMELIER Volume 000, pages 36–40