This week I am featuring Cabernet Franc almost as a sequel to my last blog on Merlot. Cabernet Franc and Merlot are both regarded by some as maligned grapes. You may have gathered I’m not a big fan of Merlot; the opposite is true of Cabernet Franc.
Until I moved to Virginia I had honestly never even recognized the existence of such a grape.
In the early 2000s my first experiences of Virginia Cabernet Franc were not good. I readily agreed with friends who described the all too typical flavors of pale, watery wines tasting of green peppers with graphite and pencil shavings; I was definitely not a fan.
What happened to change my thinking was once I started actually growing the grape. I became more and more enamored with it. We started off well in 2002; our Cabernet Franc won a gold medal in the Virginia’s Governor’s Cup after only two years of us being in the business. 2002 was literally a drought year and our newly planted vines ripened beautifully. Though I say it myself, it was a good wine. There were none of those pesky green, vegetal flavors; the red fruit was bright, and most importantly of all, the wine had mature tannins that gave it body and finish.
I was hooked. Or, perhaps, I had a single glimpse of how good Cab Franc could be if the grapes got sufficiently ripe.
Whatever aspirations I had of making great Cab Franc were dashed by the next year, 2003, that was basically a washout. The differences in the wines were astounding; not so much in the fruit flavors as in the tannic structure and lack of any discernible body. From that point on, making a great Cab Franc has always been a challenge.
I can count on one hand the number of years we’ve been able to make a reserve Cab Franc; 2006, 2007, 2017 and 2019. 2010 was a great growing year, but we decided to put the best Cab Franc into what was then our Vintner’s Reserve – our Bordeaux blend.
I’m writing this background because recently there has been an uptick in chatter about Cabernet Franc, an uptick that might make Cabernet Franc a lot more popular than it already is.
The first is an article about Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley in France; the country and region of the grape’s origin where most of the Cab Franc is sold as a single varietal.
What the article says is that Loire Cab Franc is much better than it has ever been and admits that up till now there were many reasons not to drink Cabernet Franc from that region. This message was well known to most drinkers of Chinon and Bourgeuil.
“The Dark Days are Over,” an article by Rebecca Gibb MW (Master of Wine) in Vinous tells about what Cabernet Franc has become and what was wrong with it in the first place.
To quote the article, she recounts that Julia Harding who did her Master of Wine dissertation on the marketability of Loire Valley Cab Franc when she wrote “Cabernet Franc’s cause has not been helped by producers who defended a slight greenness as a badge of terroir.” This declaration is a perfect English understatement.
Last week, I waxed prolific about terroir as it applied to Merlot. I did not mention the fact that originally the term “terroir” was a negative term that enabled consumers to tell where a wine was from not because it was so good, but because the wine was so bad. Those nasty green vegetal flavors that smelled like and tasted like asparagus was actually a marker of Loire Cab Franc.
In the typical old style of winemaking, underripe grapes were subject to prolonged maceration and high fermentation temperatures, resulting in over-extracted tannins that were chewy and harsh, typically euphemized as being “rustic.” In describing the old styles Gibb admits that frequently the wines were reductive, meaning that they smelled of bad eggs and were often contaminated with a spoilage yeast called Brettanomyces; do you get the picture?
Revelation! Those terroir features are now a thing of the past. Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley is at last a wine you can actually enjoy. She segues into how climate change has affected not only the tannins but the much higher alcohol levels are attributed to increasing temperatures in the region.
Bring on “Cabernet Franc’s Shot at Glory” by James Lawrence in Wine Searcher – or how climate change is good for Cab Franc. He starts:
“Marginalized by Bordeaux’s appellations; derided by winemakers; subjugated by Merlot – Cabernet Franc’s history is less than glorious. Part of the problem is a longstanding antipathy from the heartland of luxury booze.”
These comments may well be why I am such a big fan of Cab Franc – I always support the underdog. Reading through the reports from Bordeaux and Bolgheri in Italy it seems that it is not so much about Cab Franc’s inherent qualities as much as Merlot is consistently over ripening and Cab Franc is the best alternative.
In Italy, particularly in Tuscany and in the territory of the “Super Tuscans,” Andrea Franchetti, owner of Tenuta di Trinoro goes on to say:
“Cabernet Franc is richer, more complex and the variety is far more durable than Merlot, particularly as it gets warmer in our changing climate. In the 21st century, Cabernet Franc is now substituting the role of Cabernet Sauvignon as the prime red grape of Italy and southern Europe.”
This is echoed by Axel Heinz of Ornellaia another top Bolgheri Super Tuscan producer:
“Cabernet Franc has a remarkable capacity to resist even extremely hot weather. It manages to maintain a lot of its proverbial aromatic lift and complexity. At Ornellaia it has been key to the success of hot vintages like 2003 or 2009″
And to put another nail in the Merlot coffin, from Stephanie Barousse of Chateau de la Dauphine in Fronsac France:
“Merlot is a wonderful variety, but its tendency to ripen early can be a problem in hotter years. I don’t want my alcohol levels to become unbalanced, so we’re going to use more Cabernet Franc in upcoming vintages, as it ripens later.”
Then, a cheer from Andy Erickson — who makes Screaming Eagle and Ovid, a couple of Napa’s most expensive wines — he said:
“I just love the complexity of Cab Franc. It has all these exotic aromas like lavender, cumin and Asian spices, as well as great density and richness.”
The common theme as you may have guessed is that climate change in France, Italy and California is giving Cab Franc a stab at the big time. All the more important for us because Cab Franc is the most planted red grape in Virginia and second only to Petit Verdot as our flagship reds.
Our 2017 Cab Franc Reserve was our last big winner with a gold medal in the San Francisco wine competition and a gold in 2020 Virginia Governor’s Cup. Our latest release 2020 Cabernet Franc is a lovely wine particularly if you like bright red fruit and floral aromas. 2020 was a challenging year, to say the least but Emily and the cellar team were able to capture what I think are the flavor characteristics of Cab Franc even though the palate weight leaves something to be desired.
Our 2020 Cab Franc is what I call a quaffing wine bright, fruity and in its own right absolutely delicious. So get it while you can. We didn’t make much because of the double whammy frosts in 2020.
All you need to know and a bit more about our beloved Cab Franc.
Thanks for reading and don’t forget to keep celebrating Virginia Wine Month right up to Halloween.
Be safe and Happy Halloween!
Raconteur and Dilettante