A Serious Side to Franc
By James Laube, senior editor
Cabernet Franc, once the doormat of Bordeaux varieties in California, is finally showing signs that it deserves to be taken more seriously.
Plantings have increased substantially in the 1990s, with a focus on matching the grape to the right climate and soil. More importantly, the quality of the wine is rising to new heights. The evidence? Some lush, sumptuous wines.
Cabernet Franc will never replace Cabernet Sauvignon as the king of California reds, but it doesn't have to, and that's the key to appreciating it. The grape needs to be made into complex and distinctive wine, and the new breed of Francs is just that.
It wasn't too long ago that Cabernet Franc was little more than an afterthought in California. Most vintners used it to blend with their Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, in keeping with the Bordeaux recipe. But there are areas in BordeauxÑnotably St.-EmilionÑwhere Franc plays a much more important role than Cabernet or Merlot.
Exhibit A is Château Cheval-Blanc. This plush, voluptuous, enormously concentrated wine is typically about two-thirds Franc and one-third Merlot. Cheval-Blanc is unique in the world, and it sets a lofty standard. Elsewhere, in the Loire Valley and in Italy, Franc tends to be a lighter-styled wine that shares some of Cabernet's currant flavor and herbaceous tendencies.
California's new wave of Cabernet Francs impressed me with depth, range of flavors and polished tannins. As a group, they aren't as tannic or as deep as the best Cabernet Sauvignons, but the flavors are similar, and they're elegantly balanced. With the state's plantings having grown tenfold this decade to nearly 2,500 acres, Franc is now as widely planted as Petite Sirah and Sangiovese and within sight of Syrah, another fast-growing segment of wines with tremendous potential. Here's a getting-started list of Francs to consider:
Pride Sonoma County 1997 (93 points, $34). Winemaker Bob Foley can't seem to miss with Pride's mountain-grown reds. This one packs in lots of ripe, juicy plum, wild berry, spice, cedar and blackberry, with a long, tapered finish that reminds me of Cheval-Blanc.
Beringer Howell Mountain Third Century 1996 (92, $75). Put winemaker Ed Sbragia together with any grape from this Napa appellation and you're almost guaranteed to have a winner. This bottling has lots of spice, cherry and plum flavors, finishing with a touch of earth and supple tannins.
Chateau St. Jean Sonoma Valley St. Jean Estate Vineyard 1996 (92, $30). Tight and spicy, with a sharply focused core of currant, plum and black cherry, it finishes with pretty toasty oak and integrated tannins.
Del Dotto Napa Valley 1997 (91, $45). Lots of toasty, vanilla-scented oak, but with the fruit flavors to match; a range of black cherry, tobacco, sage, coffee and tar makes it complex.
La Jota Howell Mountain 1996 (91, $36). Concentrated and earthy, but not as dense as the Cabernets from this area. Lots of black cherry, berry, spice and mineral flavors.
Niebaum-Coppola Napa Valley 1997 (91, $32). Winemaker Scott McLeod has shown steady improvement with this estate-grown wine. This bottling is smooth and fragrant, with layers of plum, black cherry, wild berry and raspberry.
Crocker & Starr Napa Valley 1997 (89, $27). New, with former Spottswoode winemaker Pam Starr in charge, this wine delivers a wonderful grapey perfume and ripe plum and cherry flavor.
Lang & Reed Napa Valley 1997 (88, $18). The Skupny family is betting the farm on Franc, with two styles: one lighter, more Loire Valley-inspired; and a second, Premiere Etage, a sturdier, more expensive Bordeaux-ish creation. The lighter version is ripe and supple, serving up a range of tobacco, berry, currant and cedar notes.
Most of these wines find success in their direct ties to single vineyards. In the past, overcropped Franc vines yielded wines with stalky, earthy flavors, not the kind of bright, ripe fruit concentration evident in these bottlings. Now, California Cabernet Franc is about to get a well-deserved second chance.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)