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Cabernet Franc's Time

The Cabernet in the shadows may be the next great varietal among American enophiles

Posted: Feb 12, 2015 12:20pm ET

By Ben O'Donnell

The era of Cabernet Franc is nearly upon us. That's the conclusion I reached after visiting wineries on both coasts last year and imbibing at not a few of Instagram's most-trending #wine bars. Reader, the excitement is palpable and the smell of pepper-bramble-tobacco-olive is in the air.

I don't mean as a mass-market blockbuster. That'll never happen. The attributes that make some sing the wine's praises—the gossamer structure, the tingly acidity, the earthy, spicy and, yes, sometimes-herbal notes—cause plenty of others to tune it out. Its name dooms it to be forever overshadowed by perhaps the most famous wine in the world.

But the Cabernet Franc bubble is swelling. Racines, a chic new natural wine bar in New York's Tribeca neighborhood, sports, by my count, nearly 50 Cab Francs from France's middle Loire Valley, where Franc reigns among reds. Patrick Cappiello's Pearl & Ash, also of recent vintage, boasts even more than 50. Both venues feature verticals of single-cru wines back to the 1980s, including large-format bottlings, from the Loire's best red riders: Bernard Baudry, Catherine & Pierre Breton, Olga Raffault, Charles Joguet, Yannick Amirault and more. A great appeal of these wines, as Cabernet Francophiles know, is that plenty can be had for under $40—at restaurants.

It's not just a Manhattan thing. Numbers from trade agency InterLoire show that in 2014, the United States imported 1.72 million cases of Loire reds and rosés, which, with a few exceptions, are typically Cabernet Franc–based. That's over three times more the 506,000 cases of a decade before.

As retailers are learning they can sell it, winemakers around the world, outside Franc's historical home in France, are discovering, gleefully, how well they can grow it and what it brings to their wines. "Cab Franc is the Chanel No. 5 perfume of any wine. It just lifts you, it's amazing," enthused John Geber, owner of Chateau Tanunda in Australia's Barossa Valley, who recently planted 100 acres and has increased the percentage of it in his Three Graces blend.

"I think it's as close to Burgundian varieties as you get for a Bordeaux variety," said Steven Mirassou, of Steven Kent Winery in California's Livermore Valley (of all places, you might think). By that, he means "how it reflects the temperature of the area it's grown in the wine, how much wood impacts the flavor and aromatic profile. You taste Bourgueil and you taste Chinon [Loire appellations], and there's this amazing searing acid line running through the wine that's really compelling." With the 2010 vintage, Mirassou began bottling the variety solo as well as upping the percentage of Cab Franc in his flagship Bordeaux blend.

In Napa and Sonoma, I met vintners who had become similarly bewitched in recent years. While tonnage hasn't really caught up with cellarmaster enthusiasm in the New World yet, Wine Spectator rated 82 Cabernet Francs outside France in 2014, from Washington to South Africa, 63 of them with scores at 85-plus points. Compare that with 59 and 31 in 2004.

You can probably figure out why winemakers and a certain breed of sommelier and drinker are so enamored of Cab Franc. "The elegance and the finesse of the wine versus the power" of others is how Gilles Martin, a veteran Long Island winemaker at estates like McCall, put it. "That's a wine that you can have with fish, as you do with Pinot."

Yes, our old friend Pinot, that other red that excels in cooler climates and produces site-reflective wines of medium weight, elegance, relatively high acidity and low alcohol—the darling of those who take issue with reds they find too fruity, too sweet, too alcoholic. (Incidentally, there are those who believe such clumsy-ballerina wines doomed the last "next big grape," Syrah.)

For winemakers who happen to farm in one of the many places Pinot Noir doesn't grow well, Cabernet Franc provides an intriguing possible alternative. "We've seen Cabernet Franc can be a lot like Pinot in the clonal selections, and that matching the clone to the area can be very important," said another Long Island longtimer, Rich Olsen-Harbich. Martin went further: "I think if people had known more about Cabernet Franc before they started out, this would have been the first variety planted on Long Island."

While Napa and Australia may have needed to come around to it, newer American wine regions like Long Island—places where viticulture is undeniably breaking out—often crown Cab Franc hometown hero as soon as they find how well it takes. Franc is the most-planted red variety in Virginia. It's equally comfortable in Missouri and Michigan, New York's Finger Lakes and even Niagara, where it's an unlikely vessel for ice wine. Burgeoning regions abroad hail it too: "In Israel, they have some beautiful Cabernet Franc," Bordeaux consultant—and recent Middle East maverick—Stéphane Derenoncourt told me. "This is the variety with which I was most impressed [there]."

The versatility and relative hardiness of Cab Franc make it an easier proposition for organic growing and "natural" winemaking, and the French farm accordingly. Such qualities prove you don't have to be a dainty vine to make an elegant wine.

Cabernet Franc unites francophiles, terroir snobs, locavores, "balance" freaks and plant geeks. It is complex and distinctive and often wonderful. Cabernet Franc is the wine for our moment.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.

Peter Vangsness
East Longmeadow, MA —  February 12, 2015 3:11pm ET
We have always enjoyed well made, aged Cab Franc. Jekel and Sebastiani made affordable ones many years ago - Pride has always offered one at a higher price. We recently enjoyed a 1999 Chateau St. Jean Cab Franc purchased at the winery in 2004. Stunning!!
Jason Carey
Oakland, CA, USA —  February 12, 2015 4:13pm ET
I love Cab Franc from NY. I have yet to have any except Bebame from California that is not too dense for my taste. I am sure there are some.. Have not had that many. I suggest the Eminence Road Cab Franc from Finger Lakes.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  February 12, 2015 8:01pm ET
I just tasted the new 2012 Cab Franc from Ehlers Estate in Napa Valley. What a fantastic wine! Dark fruit with a silkier texture than I am used to associating with this varietal. A revelation!

David Clark
For The Wine Connection
Leah Jorgensen
Portland, Oregon —  February 13, 2015 12:50am ET
This article is very exciting. I'm part of a group of emerging winemakers in Oregon who are exploring a Loire Valley style of winemaking. I trademarked the name "Loiregon" for my flagship Cabernet Franc, sourced from the Applegate and Rogue Valleys in Southern Oregon. I may be the only winemaker in Oregon who is 100% committed to Cabernet Franc - goes back to my days selling Dressner wines back in Washington, DC more than a decade ago. This wonderful article validates the hard work we're doing to represent what we think is a terrific varietal for Oregon. Stay tuned!
Steven Mirassou
Livermore Valley —  February 13, 2015 1:56am ET
Thanks for the shout-out Ben. As great as Cabernet Sauvignon is, and I'm a steadfast believer in it's mix of elegance and depth, there is nothing that approaches the sheer sexiness of a beautifully shepherded Cabernet Franc. Finding that sweet spot of CF herbal-ness (and not the unruly head of Pyrazine) while maintaining that essential momentum of acid/liveliness through the mouth, is where it's all at enologically. What the wine lover gets when it's right is the coquettishness of Pinot and the pragmatism of CS rolled into one.

Steven Mirassou
The Steven Kent Winery
Ron Brooks
Alexandria VA —  February 13, 2015 9:23am ET
The other night I was at a dinner where Bruce Neyers, president of Kermit Lynch importers and owner of Neyers winery in Napa, dazzled a small group of colleagues with Raveneau, Coche Dury, Tempier, Vieux Telegraph, Thierry Alemand etc. but the wine that opened everyones eyes was a 1993 Charles Joguet Clos de La Dioterie, it was spot on and still possessed a freshness one usually associates with "Great" mature wines. Worth seeking out for sure.

Would I ever have a list with fourty Cabernet Francs? Probably not. I guess the Jura is out of fashion this year. #sommelieroverkill
Ron Brooks
Washington DC
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  February 13, 2015 2:06pm ET
Leah Jorgensen, I just tasted a bottle of your current release "Loiregon" two days ago. My compliments to you! That wine is so light on its' feet and has such lovely fruit I thought I was tasting something right from the heart of the Loire Valley! There aren't very many American wines I can think of that have that kind of fine acid/fruit balance. I predict a lot of folks are going to be taking a closer look at Southern Oregon wines. Well done!

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  February 14, 2015 10:17pm ET
(groan) i'm sorry to be negative on your journalistic angle, but does there have to be a "next great varietal"? doesn't that just mean price inflation due to trending demand? god help us if anyone makes a movie about it.

i adore the floral (but not the herbal) qualities of cab franc, but seriously? no mention of washington? to date, they seem to do it best in the states.
Ray Everett
San Francisco —  February 15, 2015 2:46am ET
We did an impromptu Cab Franc tasting one weekend as we traversed Napa Valley. Tops on our list: Viader, Ehlers, Vinoce, Wolf. From down south I'd have to also add Jonata. If the Cab Franc can hold its own, it can be quite amazing. But it's not common to find it done so well that it can stand alone.
David Lerer
Indialantic, FL —  February 16, 2015 11:15pm ET
Ben, thanks for enlightening facts and potentially bright future for cab franc, but you forgot to mention that much of the wineries located in rolling Piedmont hills of North Carolina also focus on this varietal in both dry and off dry rose or red wines. In fact, one year while taking a road trip through North Carolina, my wife and I went wine tasting and happened upon a small family winery named Skull Camp, where we tasted both an off dry rose and the only dry red made of the same vintage. While the rose was pleasant and easy to drink as an aperitif, the red was much more compelling, complex, and truly well made, with elegant red fruits almost of a gelatinous quality, balanced with the right amount of acidity, and an herbal eesence quality, but low in alcohol, light and lively. We tasted these wines with the winery owner, and he saw and knew by our reactions how much we liked the red. After, when I asked him how much of each he produced, he shook his head with a slight bit of regret, wishing he would have made less of that popular crowd pleasing rose and more of that substantially more meaningful and wondrous red. Needless to add, we purchased half a case. I'm not sure if they even made another dry red cab franc, but here's to finding new wines that memorable.
David Homfray
Oxford, UK —  February 25, 2015 2:45am ET
Saumur-Champigny for me is the greatest example of Cab Franc, real depth and beautiful drinking. If you can find it, Antoine Sanzay is just a wonderful producer
Connie Mylak
Woodridge, IL —  February 26, 2015 11:05am ET
Pleased to see some love for Cab Franc finally. Napa Valley is coming around. Our yearly "must have" comes from Del Dotto. Both the regular Napa and the exquisite 7 Rows will leave you wondering why it has taken the rest of Napa Valley so long to realize Cab Franc as a stand alone varietal. For a special experience if you visit the winery and actually barrel taste this dazzling wine.

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