When people say they drink Cabs, the assumption is that they drink wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon. Almost without exception, that assumption is true; in the minds of many, Cabernet Sauvignon is king and the wines made from this grape are some of the most sought after, and pricey, bottles in the world.
However, there is another Cab out there that you may not have heard of. If you are familiar with it, you might know it as one of the blending grapes, behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, in the wines from Bordeaux. You might also have had wines made from this grape variety that you found were a bit rustic and a little vegetal, in a green bell pepper sort of way. Some grapes are sought after by consumers while others are hardly known. This grape just never seems to get its turn in the spotlight.
The grape is Cabernet Franc, and due to a series of favorable growing seasons and a lot of work by growers to reduce yields and increase ripeness, recent bottlings are showing more fruit character and roundness. Whether you are familiar with these wines or not, you really should take a good look at the other Cab.
What It Is
Cabernet Franc is a black-skinned grape variety believed to have been established in southern France sometime in the 14th century. The exact dates are not clear, but cuttings were later planted in the Loire Valley and in Bordeaux. Today, it is grown in most of the world’s wine-producing countries.
Wines from Cabernet Franc exhibit aromas and flavors of raspberry, cherry, plum and red currant, along with some spicy notes of licorice and black pepper. They can also show some hints of mineral and tobacco, and floral notes of violet. In cooler vintages or when not ripened properly, the wines can be thin, vegetal and weedy. When fully ripened, Cabernet Franc exhibits more dark berry fruit aromas and flavors.
As a blending grape, its low tannins, low acidity, and strong fruit flavors and aromas take the edge off of stronger wines without dominating the blend. It adds finesse, plus fruit and floral aromas, to the wine.
In 1997, DNA profiling showed that Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet Franc ripens about a week or two earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, so it is more suitable in cooler climates. It is thinner-skinned, lower in acidity and lower in tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon.
Since Cabernet Franc was established in France early on, it stands to reason that some of the world’s classic areas for producing wines from this grape are there. In Bordeaux, it is one of the three main grapes in the blend, and in the Loire Valley, where the cool climate prevents other red grape varieties from becoming fully ripe.
Some of the best Cabernet Franc grown in Bordeaux comes from the limestone soils of the Right Bank appellation of Saint-Emilion, and some of the best Cabernet Franc grown in Saint-Emilion comes from Château Cheval Blanc. Unlike the most other producers in the area where the majority of the blend is Merlot, at Cheval Blanc it is the opposite. The vineyards are a slightly warmer micro-climate which explains the richness of the Cabernet Franc.
In the Loire Valley, Cabernet Franc stands alone in the wines from the appellations of Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny. Here, the cool climate and soils are especially suited to growing quality Cabernet Franc. While wine has been produced here for centuries, a large number of young producers are farming organically, reducing crop yields and harvesting when the grapes are fully ripe, so there are more great Cabernet Francs on the market today than ever.
Outside of France, there are some excellent Cabernet Francs coming from other parts of the wine-making world. Encouraged by the success of the wines from the Loire Valley, producers from Italy, the U.S. and Argentina, to name a few, are paying more attention this grape variety.
A Few to Try
Following are some wines that I have recently tasted made with 100% Cab Franc. Two are from the Americas and the others are from two of France’s classic Cabernet Franc areas.
2014 Keuka Spring Cabernet Franc. This wine from New York’s Finger Lakes combines aromas and flavors of cherry, plum and blackberry with silky smooth tannins, leading to the fresh finish. Enjoy with pasta and marinara sauce, pizza and sirloin steaks hot off the grill. Priced at about $20.
2012: Bressia, Monteagrelo Cabernet Franc. This wine from Mendoza, Argentina, got me looking at Cab Franc again. It offers the rich fruit flavors of cherry, blackberry, cassis and plum, with a hint of green bell pepper. It’s bold without being overbearing, with round tannins on the finish. Enjoy with burgers, steaks and grilled vegetables. Priced at about $25.
2014 Château du Coudray Montpensier, Le Grand Bougueteau Chinon. This wine from France’s Loire Valley is a beautiful deep ruby color with aromas of red fruit and lightly smoked wood. The finish is bright and well-balanced with smooth tannins. Perfect for a juicy burger, topped with blue cheese. Priced in the mid-teens.
2014 Gauthier, Jour de Soif Bourgueil. This wine from France’s Loire Valley is made with certified organic grapes. The nose is a blend of black cherries, dark berries, a touch of dark chocolate and a gentle note of earth. The palate is full-bodied and juicy with a hint of tannin on the complex and long finish. Pair with steaks, aged goat cheese, pizza and grilled vegetables. Priced in the upper teens.
Cabernet Franc wines are food-friendly, complex and a great value. Since they’re lighter than Cabernet Sauvignon but similar in flavor profile, consider them as great go to reds for warm weather sipping. Cheers.
Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a wine specialist at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, in Annapolis and holds a certification diploma from the Sommelier Society of America and intermediate and advanced certificates from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at [email protected].