Franc: The Other Cabernet
Cabernet Sauvignon is perhaps the most widely known red grape varietal. But its close relative, Cabernet Franc, is much less well known, which for consumers is a shame, because it can be a wonderful contributor to a blend as well as making some very good wine on its own.
Cabernet Franc shares similarities with the better known Cabernet Sauvignon. Each is a red grape that produces currant flavours in wine, with added notes of spicy complexity. Tasted side by side one would notice that Cabernet Franc is probably slightly lighter in colour. Each will offer up black fruits on the nose, but supporting notes in Cabernet Franc usually tend toward leafy tobacco-like notes as opposed to the more familiar cedar notes found in many Cabernet Sauvignon. But the lighter body and lighter tannins of the Cabernet Franc is likely its most telling feature. In that regard it can be quite similar to Merlot, and shares with that grape varietal an early approachability.
Cabernet Franc is generally thought of as a blending grape, added to other Bordeaux varietals to play a supporting role while leaving the lead to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. As a blending partner to these better known varietals, Cabernet Franc can get forgotten and not recognized for the contribution it makes. Australia’s Red Head Studios made a wine of 45% Cabernet Franc (the rest Cabernet Sauvignon) that it called “Esule”. Esule is French for “outsider”, the winemakers using the title to make the point about Cabernet Franc being out of the main stream. Kevin Correll of Barrage Cellars (see our blog post) in Woodinville Washington makes a delicious 100% Cabernet Franc, which he calls “The Outcast”; again a reference to the wines status as outside the main stream.
All of these outcast references seem a little out of place when one considers that, genetically, Cabernet Franc is actually the parent of Cabernet Sauvignon (along with Sauvignon Blanc). Draceana Wines from Paso Robles, CA has built their winery around the grape and provided a very readable treatise on the grapes’ origins on their website. (It is a quick read and well worth checking out.) We asked Draceana’s proprietors Lori and Michael Budd: Why Cabernet Franc? “We fell in love with wines made predominantly from Cab Franc for their aroma, body and ability to pair with food. Secondly, once we visited Paso Robles, it became a natural fit to make Cab Franc from the outstanding growers in this region.”
Britain’s famed wine writer Jancis Robinson has written about Cabernet Franc that it is “subtly fragrant and gently flirtatious rather than massively muscular and tough in youth. Because Cabernet Sauvignon has so much more of everything – body, tannin, alcohol, colour – it is often supposed to be necessarily superior, but I have a very soft spot indeed for its more charming and more aromatic relative, Cabernet Franc.”
Cabernet Franc tends to ripen earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon which can help hedge vintners’ bets in marginal climates like Bordeaux. But it also adds a delicacy to the blend as well as a good deal of aromatic complexity. While 5% to 20% is probably the most common percentage of Cabernet Franc in a Bordeaux blend, there are several outstanding wines from across the world where Cabernet Franc takes up a much higher portion of the blend, and to great effect. In Bordeaux, the Right Bank regions of St. Emilion and Pomerol is where you will find Cabernet Franc grown. Some of St. Emilion’s most coveted and expensive wines have significant percentages of Cabernet Franc. The famed Cheval Blanc has 50% in most vintages and its neighbours Ausone and Angelus can have similar percentages. Over in Pomerol, the ultra-recherché LaFleur usually has about 50% Cabernet Franc in its blend. Marchese Ludovico Antinori, former owner of Tenuta del Ornellaia, makers of Super-Tuscans Ornellaia and Masseto, has created a new winery near Bolgheri in Italy, called Tenuta de Biserno (see our blog post), where the flagship wine is 95% Cabernet Franc. In California, cult wines Dalla Valle Maya and Viader Proprietary Red Blend both use about 50% Cabernet Franc. Washington pioneer and super-star winery Woodward Canyon typically devotes about a third of its Estate Red to Cabernet Franc. With all of these top wineries coveting the grape, it is hard to see how it developed its outcast reputation.
We at Advinetures are big fans of Cabernet Franc and love the complexity it brings to a blend with its tobacco and bell pepper notes, its spiciness and its lighter texture. Here is a countdown of our top five wines where Cabernet Franc plays a leading role:
Kevin Corell, Barrage’s owner/winemaker, sees Cabernet Franc as generally a blending grape supporting Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, as an outsider to the world of varietal wines. But to us, this outcast just might be the best of his very fine line up. Blueberries and currants dominate the fruit profile of this medium body wine. Soft and smooth are definitely accurate descriptors but this is much more than just an easy drinking wine. Floral notes with a touch of herbs add complexity. We were pleased to note that the overt leafiness and strong tobacco notes that can dominate other 100% Cabernet Franc wines were not obtrusive here and stayed well into the background. A long, spice driven finish brings you back for another sip. Delicious! 60% Boushey and 40% Red Willow Vineyards.
Excellent – US $35 at the winery
#4 Tenuta di Biserno (Tuscany) – 2010 Biserno IGT (40% CF, 30% M, 20% CS, 10% PV)
This wine expresses a confectured cherry note that one participant at the dinner where we had this wine, described as (and quite accurately) “red nibs” and he noted the almost Gamay-like quality, which formed the attack. Then black cherries push their way to the fore and are accompanied by baking spices and gentle hints of pipe tobacco. The body is medium and a smart lick of acidity on the finish reminds you of its youth and assures you of the wine’s old world origins.
Excellent – CDN $170 form their distributor Trialto
#3 Viader Vineyards and Winery (CA) – 1997 Proprietary Red Wine (40% CF, 60% CS)
Medium red, faded at the rim. Sensational nose that shows both red and black fruits combined with spice that absolutely intoxicates! Medium body, there is a refined elegance to this wine that lets you know you are dealing with class. Beneath the fruit there are herbal notes and a slight leafy-ness. The body is smooth and long and caresses the palate. The finish was long initially but towards the end of the meal it seemed to fall off a bit. This bottle had sat on its side at 56 degrees since purchase in 2000 and was absolutely stunning.
Excellent+ (Current release can be found at Marquis for around CDN $170)
#2 Woodward Canyon (WA) – 2003 Estate Red Blend (44% CF, 41% M, 14% CS, 1% PV)
Definite wow factor! Very dark with little fade at the rim. Decanted, but nose was slow to evolve initially. Red and black fruits and leafy background note. Eventually a tiny bit of licorice. On the palate this was a stunner! Like a bowl of chocolate covered black cherries and raspberries. This is a big wine, youthful and structured, fruit forward and we would say only beginning to enter its plateau of maturity. Another strong decade would not surprise us for this wine. A New World version of a right bank garagiste. The medium to full body is kept in check with enough tannin to keep the fruit balanced. The finish goes on for at least a minute.
Extraordinary (Current release available at Marquis for CDN $100)
#1 Tenuta di Biserno (Tuscany) – 2011 Lodovico (95% CF, 5% M)
Made only in exceptional vintages. The wine is made of 95% Cabernet Franc and 5% Merlot and is a sensational wine by any standard. The floral nose was now in evidence as a part of the Biserno signature, but here it had shifted back toward the red end of the spectrum. Flavours of blueberries, plum and exotic spice shift and change and beguile you and send you back for another taste of their striking depth. For us it was the mouthfeel that set this wine apart from and above its bretheren: it was thick and plush and would turn the heads of the most ardent Pomerol-lover. This wine has already approached the status of its cousin Masetto, and as the now 12 year-old vines age, subsequent vintages could even surpass that storied wine.
Extraordinary CDN $300 through their distributor Trialto
While the above were all amazing examples of just how good Cabernet Franc can taste, as well as how well it can age, those are pretty expensive wines, and very difficult to get. But not all Cabernet Franc is so pricey, or so scarce. We reached out to Ali Hui at Marquis Wine Cellars in downtown Vancouver to see if she had any recommendations. She was very quick to respond and told us we had to try Lock and Worth, from BC’s Naramata Bench. She said to come down to the store that afternoon and she would open a couple of bottles to try. Marquis has recently renovated and installed a temperature controlled wine dispensing system that allows them to open bottles and provide samples by the glass.
As a special treat, she invited Matt Sherlock, winemaker, to join us. We had an absolutely wonderful conversation; Matt is as knowledgeable as he is passionate about wine. And not in that show-offy, wine-bore kind of way. He just knows his stuff and that comes through in the conversation. We tasted two of his wines, both made of 100% Cabernet Franc. I have to admit that the conversation was so engaging that I did not take tasting notes. But what I can tell you is that both of these wines were delicious! I believe that both wines were from the 2013 vintage. We started with his Square One Cabernet Franc. Medium red in colour, this Cab Franc was “varietally correct”, worthy of mention because we often see more over-extracted versions of the grape where it appears the goal is to make a wine that more resembles Cabernet Sauvignon. Not the case here. Its medium body allowed the nuances and secondary notes of tobacco leaf and earth to shine through. The wine was pop-and-poured and I noticed more complexity had developed as the air got a chance to loosen things up a bit. One of the great things about Cabernet Franc done in this style is that it is a foodies dream, pairing so well with so many different dishes and not being a show-stealer. Matt wanted to pour the Rose second because there is a tiny bit of residual sugar in the wine. This is a brilliant rose! Pale salmon/copper in colour, it sees only a few hours of skin contact. If served blind, I am not too sure that I would have picked up that it was actually off-dry. It has a terrific strawberry driven attack and lively acidity that keeps it fresh and does its job as a counter-balance keeping the wine from tasting sweet. This is now our go-to summer sipper on our deck! These wines and this winery deserve more attention than this article permits, so we will head up to the Okanagan this summer to do a more in depth piece on Lock and Worth. In the mean-time, you can find both of these wines at Marquis Wine Cellars, for what we consider to be very fair prices for this level of quality: around $30 for the red and $22 for the rose! More information can also be found on the Lock and Worth website: https://www.lockandworth.com/