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"Cabernet, I am your Father..."
Getting Frank about Cabernet Franc

Posted: September 26, 2011

By Jared Thomas, Special to BTI

Anyone who has read a wine label in the last fifty years knows all about Cabernet Sauvignon. With its bold, berry fruit flavors and robust, masculine delivery, Cab Sauv (as the kids call it) has become the signature grape for our burly modern times. And why not? Flashy and charismatic, Cab Sauv is the preening, fast-talking life of the party, easy to enjoy and fun to be around. But, follow it home, after the party’s done, and you’ll find dear old Dad waiting up, reading a book. Dad doesn’t talk as much or as loudly but once you get it started, and really decide to listen, Daddy Cab Franc is positively bursting with wisdom and charm.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. The bright, happy pizzazz, it gets from Mom. But the depth, complexity and brooding red fruit flavors, that’s all Big Daddy. Cabernet Franc, at its best, tastes like a subdued Cabernet Sauvignon. The fruit flavors aren’t as bold, or as sweet, but they possess a quiet density which doesn’t need to shout to be heard. It’s generally lighter in body than its muscular son but by no stretch of the imagination could it be considered light. It also generally ends on a much more rustic note, often possessing hints of earth, pepper and tobacco.

Cabernet Franc can be traced back to 17th century France when Cardinal Richelieu (of The Three Musketeer’s fame) ordered vines to be planted in the Loire Valley. From there, it quickly made its way up to Bordeaux where it was blended with Merlot and Cab Sauv. Its international fame is based on its presence in Bordeaux blends but the Loire remains its spiritual home, with places like Chinon, Bourgeuil and Saumur Champigny producing world-class expressions.

But, now, New World winemakers are getting into the mix. Having already established themselves as new classic styles in Cab Sauv and Merlot, they have their sights firmly set on Cabernet Franc. California vintners have been planting and experimenting with Cabernet Franc for at least 50 years, often using it in Bordeaux style blends, called Meritage in America. In the last 20 years, however, pioneers in cooler wine producing regions, such as the Pacific Northwest, New York and Virginia have found Cabernet Franc capable of producing wines of exceptional quality in their decidedly frosty climates.

You must understand Cabernet Franc likes cold weather. It doesn’t need a tremendous amount of sun and heat to ripen to its full potential. This trait is the basis for its success in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux, two of France’s cooler areas as well as Washington State and the Finger Lakes, whose weather is more like Northern France than Southern California.

As for what you can expect, California Cab Franc is, predictably, the richest and ripest of all U.S. expressions. It generally possesses all the big berry flavors of Cab Sauv but without the overwhelming largess. The more northerly you venture, the closer you’ll get to the French style. In Washington State, you’ll find darker berry fruit and a dazzling array of flavors. In the recent BTI review of Mary Hill’s Cabernet Franc (92 points), “pomegranate, cocoa, sandalwood, thyme and grilled tomatoes”, were just a few of the wide-ranging descriptors.

On the East Coast, a lighter style is dominant with vibrant red fruit and less of the brooding depths of French or Washington styles. “Rich aromas of cherries, plum sauce and cocoa with a silky, dry medium body.” (Atwater Cabernet Franc 2007, 88 points)

As these emerging New World wine regions find their footing, Cabernet Franc will take its rightful place, front and center. And as American palates continue to mature, desiring complexity over flash, depth over boldness, quiet wisdom over youthful bravado, wine drinkers will find more and more to love about Big Papa Cab Franc.

Recent US Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon Reviews

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