Getting To Know the *Other* Cabernet

Cabernet Franc, the workhorse of Bordeaux blends and the grape behind Loire Valley Chinon, is finding its way into American bottles.

courtesy Karamoor Estate

courtesy Karamoor Estate

Say the word “cabernet” to most American wine drinkers, and they’ll immediately associate it with the thick-skinned grape behind their favorite big and jammy offering from Napa or Chile or a dry and grippy blend from Bordeaux that requires years of cellaring.

It’s time to have another member of the family over for dinner.

However, it’s not an easy invite. “The general consumer still doesn’t know much about cab franc,” says Tyler Elwell, the owner and winemaker for Halcyon Wines in California, who makes his wines at Punchdown Cellars, a custom crush facility in Santa Rosa, CA. Especially since much of it comes from France where it’s labeled not by the grape but the region (Saumur-Champigny, Chinon and Bourgueil in the Loire Valley, for example). These wines tend to be vinified in a delicate and aromatic style with signature notes of violets, sour cherries and a touch of green pepper.

In Napa, Elwell says, cabernet franc is stylistically like cabernet sauvignon--big and bold. In California as a whole though, styles are a bit more varied. Halcyon has tended to mirror bottles coming out of the Loire, which he says “has it all: the aromatics, the weight and the structure without being overly ripe or heavily oaked,” (and is a great match for Margherita pizza, he adds). But the pendulum is swinging and he’s considering picking later to create wines with amped up structure.

When to harvest cabernet franc is the real challenge, he says. As the grape ripens you can literally taste bell pepper; once it goes away a window opens. In small doses though, pyrazines can lead to intriguing flavors of roasted peppers and olive tapenade; but when it’s too overt it takes on a canned pea or asparagus flavor that’s too vegetal to be palatable. There is evidence that not only hang time but pruning techniques (especially controlling leaf growth) can keep those pepper notes in check. But if you pick too early or too late, Elwell bemoans, you have to wait an entire year to try again.

When it’s perfectly ripe, Genevieve Janssens, chief winemaker for Robert Mondavi, says cabernet franc has “great finesse, silky tannins and beautiful aromatics that can range from blackberry, violet, raspberry and plum to more spicy and earthy notes such as black pepper, cedar, coffee, tobacco, earth and leather, depending on where it’s grown.” She has long used cab franc sourced from the To Kalon vineyard as a blending grape for their cabernet sauvignon reserve; the fruit has been so consistent that a few years ago they began holding some for a stand-alone bottling. The 2015 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Franc Oakville “delivers great fruitiness and floral notes balanced by mouthwatering acidity and firm structure.”

Janssens admits that the grape takes longer to ripen than other red varietals, but it gets a boost from the warm days, ample sunshine and cool evenings found in Napa’s Mediterranean climate. All translate to a cab franc that’s fruit-driven with great acidity—perfect at the table with everything from rich cheeses, pâté and charcuterie to grilled duck, beef, lamb, pork and salmon to roasted vegetables.

It’s not just California that has seen success with cab franc, however; it also thrives in Virginia, where some microclimates are decidedly a bit trickier with higher rainfall, humidity levels and the pest and mildew challenges that come with both. Still, it’s emerged as the state’s most widely planted red grape, notes Ben Jordan, winemaker for Early Mountain Vineyards in Orange, Virginia.

Early Mountain will be releasing four different varietal expressions of cabernet franc in 2019 (from the 2017 vintage). “They range in style from a fruit-driven and light-bodied/silky-textured style from two vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley to a more robust, structured and ageworthy bottling from our mountainside Quaker Run Vineyard.”

Since Virginian climate and soil is more persnickety than that of California, choosing the right site for cab franc is paramount, Jordan says. “Our best wines come from mountainsides with lots of rocks [to drain the soil], and the type of rock [limestone, granite, greenstone] further details the expression.” Warmer areas and lower elevations render profound ripeness, darkness and extraction that lends comparisons to Bordeaux; cooler sites and higher elevations give aromatically-driven wines with softer tannins. Jordan predicts that cab franc will prove itself in the next generation of plantings to be “transparent of terroir” and the most expressive varietal across varied sites in Virginia. Because Early Mountain produces different expressions of cab franc, pairing it with food can be both challenging and exciting. “The fruit/herb/sauvage trio of flavors to complement the umami/heat/flavor party that has become more rule than exception.”

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Another East Coast winery, Karamoor Estate Wines in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, has had success with cab franc. Their 2015 cabernet franc won a Gold Medal at this year’s New York International Wine Competition, and winemaker Kevin Robinson sees a distinct style emerging in his neck of the woods: “approachable at a young age, soft, round with velvety tannins and ripe berry fruit notes that I would describe as elegant and delicious.” The trick is maintaining the viticultural practices to accomplish all that in such a short growing season, which is similar to the Loire in terms of wetness and humidity but warmer--necessitating spraying the vineyards to combat diseases.

Robinson has been told by guests who have been to the Loire that Karamoor’s cab franc is as close to what’s being made in Bourgueil as you can get, and says he hasn’t seen the varietal perform better domestically than it does in the Mid-Atlantic. (As a California transplant who graduated from UC Davis and had thirty years as a Northern Cali vintner under his belt before transplanting to Pennsylvania, he knows what he’s talking about.) “It definitely is a stand-alone varietal here, whereas in Northern California we used it mostly as a blender to soften and add body to merlot and cab sauv.”

Education is still needed, as most guests asking for cab mean sauvignon. “We’ll always take the opportunity to educate our customers on the differences when this occurs, and they do appreciate the softer tannins and weighty mid-palate with cab franc along with the touch of earth, forest floor, and/or mossy notes to go with the ample dried berry fruit,” Robinson explains.

If these winemakers have anything to do with it though, it won’t be long before wine fans will know—and appreciate—the differences between these two related but distinct grapes. As Janssens muses, “it’s wonderful to see this ancient grape finally being discovered and appreciated by U.S. wine lovers as [one]... that can stand on its own as a complex and elegant wine.”

Wines to try:

2017 Halcyon Wine Camino Alto Cabernet Franc ($30), a soft and easy-drinking wine that’s perfect for barbecue and grilled foods.

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2015 Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Franc ($40), a blend of 80% cab franc and 20% cab sauvignon with mouthwatering acidity and dark fruits highlighted by violet and savory notes.

2016 Early Mountain Vineyards Shenandoah Valley Cabernet Franc ($34), a bottle that the winery describes as “more Burgundy than Bordeaux,” with silky rather than tannic structure and ripe fruit along with classic herbal notes.

2015 Karamoor Estate Cabernet Franc ($32), with inviting aromas of baked cherry pie, cedar, fennel and cocoa, soft tannins and a palate of raspberry sorbet, fig and olive.

2015 Cana Vineyards Cabernet Franc ($30), another hailing from Virginia, this wine skews toward the more fruity and spicy side. This 2018 NY International Wine Competition gold medal winner would be perfect with a poultry or pork roast dinner.

2016 Hosmer Vineyards Cabernet Franc ($20) NY state is also a big chapter in the North American cab franc story. At this Fingerlakes winery, the 2018 NYIWC silver medal-winning wine is made in a plush and berried style, with purple wildflower aromatics and sturdy, but approachable tannins.