-Jancis Robinson Editor of the Oxford Companion of Wine – referring to Cabernet Sauvignon
Did you know there is a wine from California called “Marilyn Merlot”? Well how about a Virginia Cabernet Franc called “Franc Sonata” it’s catchy; just like I wanted to call our bubbly in which we use Cabernet Franc – “Blanc de Franc” and one other thing I have to get out of the way is how do you pronounce ”Franc” is FrAnk as any American might say or is Fra-ua-nk with a nasal intonation that you might say if you were visiting friends in Paris? These were my first thoughts when I decided to write something about Cabernet Franc,one of my most favorite and probably the most planted red grape in Virginia.
Like pretty much every grape used in what are now called the International Grape varieties Cabernet Franc originated in France. Probably first in the Loire valley where Cabernet Franc had been selected by Cardinal Richlieu as a well respected wine of south west France. The grape was planted at the Abbaye de St Nicolas de Bourgueil by an abbot called Breton whose name persists in the region as a synonym for Cabernet Franc. Remember Bordeaux did not come along until the Dutch drained the swamps of the upper Medoc in the sixteenth century and Cabernet Franc called Bouchet in that region took hold on the banks of the Gironde.
Cabernet Franc is particularly well suited to cool inland climates like the middle Loire valley, the right bank of the Gironde and the state of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson never showed much interest in Cabernet Franc his preference was to the wines that Robert Parker extolls. Nevertheless Cabernet Franc did not get to Virginia until the late seventies when Gabriel Rausse working with the Zonin family at Barboursville undertook to plant vitis vinifera- grapes, the grapes from Europe in place of French-American hybrids and Norton that were the mainstay of Virginia viticulture following Prohibition.
I am not exaggerating to say that Cabernet Franc has always been in the shadow of its own offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Many of you have heard me say that the biggest problem for Cabernet Franc is that it is called “Cabernet” at all because Cabernet Franc is so different from Cabernet Sauvignon. If you’ve ever wondered where the word “Cabernet” comes from there is no definitive answer except for the tautology that it is a grape from the Bordeaux region of France, a name derived from the Medoc dialect.
The crucial point in distinguishing Franc from Savignon is the thickness of the grape skins. We all know that pretty much all the flavor components come from the skin of the grape, the thicker the skin more colored, flavorful and tannic are the wines. Cabernet Franc like Pinot Noir is a relatively thin skinned grape and consequently the wines are paler in color and softer in their tannic structure; causing some critics to consign Cabernet Franc as more feminine -”The Queen of the Loire valley in contrast to the muscle bound tannic strengths of Sauvignon. And talking about tannins along with those guys come high sugar levels and with that Napa Cabs Wines like Amorone, Châteauneuf du Pape, Ribero del Duero, with monstrous concentration of fruit and alcohol levels in the 15- 16% abv alcohol levels that would blow a breathalyser off the scale.
Talking about ripening and high alcohol levels the main difference between France and Virginia is that here we are on very different latitudes relative to one another. Virginia at 37.4316º N is way further south than either Bordeaux 45th or the Loire Valley 47th parallel. In Europe the other major growing area for Cabernet Franc is in Italy. Most famously in Tuscany but also in Friuli and Veneto in the northeast region both considerably further north from where we are in Virginia. Other New world regions that are planting evermore Cab Franc include Argentina (Mendoza) and South Africa (Swartland).
Cabernet Franc vines bud early that makes them more vulnerable to spring frost, but they definitely ripen earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. The big bugaboo in Virginia is the tendency for Cabernet Franc wine to taste too vegetal, like asparagus,and green peppers. Those flavors are attributed to substances called methoxy- pyrazines and these bad boys abound when there is insufficient sunlight, often the case in the cloud covered summers that we have too often experienced. The greenness seems to equate with under ripeness seen by many as a flaw. On the other hand there are many that say a Cabernet Franc is not a good Cabernet Franc without a bit of that ”herbaceous” character. Admittedly what is herbaceous to some is tinned asparagus to others, but to me herbaceous implies floral, delicate herbs of Provence or what the French in southern France call “Garrigue.” A lot of those green flavors can be eliminated in the wine making process by co- fermenting the Franc with oak chips. In the same vain and often associated with those green characters are what people describe as graphite and a descriptor that none of our grandchildren would ever know, “pencil shavings.”
So here you have it when you get to taste our 2019 Cabernet Franc or any Cab Franc you will know what to expect. First floral aromas that are sweet and reminiscent of dried herbs, next think of red fruits like raspberry, cherry and strawberry sometimes you might catch a hint blue berry even blackcurrant mollified with some plum or Damson.
When you taste the wine expect just a little acidic brightness from the red fruits that you appreciated in the aroma but now the fruit flavors are more intense and complex. Feel the wine in your mouth, swish it around your tongue and palate and you will experience a fullness of the palate with soft rounded tannins that after the fruit are followed by grilled herbs and a hint of black pepper and espresso. The after taste is complex and lasting, the hallmark of good wine.
That’s it folks Virginia Cabernet Franc in all its’ glory, we are releasing our 2019 version today. You can now order yours HERE.
Emily and I will be doing a virtual tasting July 23rd, at 7:30PM EST. We will be comparing our 2017 Cabernet Franc that is and was one of our very best Cab Francs with the newly released 2019. Grab the bundle, and we hope to see you on July 23rd!
Overheard in the waiting room:
“Doctor I got a case of Veritas!”
“Really, was it on special?”
Chief Bottle Washer Retd.