Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste-Along: Cabernet Franc


[Photo: Robyn Lee]

Do you ever wonder how two really ugly parents produce a beautiful child? Or on the flip side, how two really hot parents make an ugly kid? Or in my case, how two really short parents produce two...well...average-height kids?*

Well, we find a similar conundrum in the epic romance of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Here's the full historical account: a long time ago, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc fell in love. After an appropriate number of years had passed, The Stork came and delivered them a baby named Cabernet Sauvignon, which grew up to be a thick-skinned, black grape very unlike its parents. The end.

Why is Cabernet Sauvignon such a surprising (baby) grape? Well, Sauvignon Blanc—as you probably know—is a floral, tart, light green grape, and Cabernet Franc is a thin-skinned, aromatic black grape. In contrast to the big, bold, tannic wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon (popular enough to earn the pet name "Cabernet" over its own parent),  Cab Franc offers medium-bodied wines with lower tannin levels and more earthy and herbaceous qualities. This week we'll get to know this underappreciated grape, delving into the specifics of where it's made, what it tastes like, and what bottles to seek out.

*As Indian females, my sister and I are relatively happy with our 5 feet 4 inches although my sister clings to an extra 1/3 inch—as she claims, "I've always been taller than you. What do you think the 'big' in 'big sister' means?"

Where It Grows

France has more Cabernet Franc vineyards than any other region in the world, with the two major areas of production being the Loire Valley and Bordeaux—each of which has its own winemaking style with this grape.

In Bordeaux, Cab Franc is more often blended with Merlot and/or Cabernet Sauvignon to add more aroma and to supplement the fleshiness and structure from the other grapes. These wines are usually age in French oak (you know...keeping it local), which impart flavors of vanilla, caramel, butterscotch and toast to the wine.

In the Loire Valley, we're more likely to encounter Cabernet Franc flying solo. And also unlike the Burgundian counterparts, we see more examples of wine with little to no new oak treatment, letting the pure, young Cabernet Franc flavor come through. As a result, these wines typically require less age before popping open. The major Loire appellations to watch out for (as with other French wines, the varietal name is often left off of the label) are: Anjou, Bourgueil, Chinon, and Samur-Champigny. Since we're more focused on pure, unadulterated Cab Franc for the purposes of this post, all of the French bottles we're focusing on today are from the Loire.

You'll also find Cab Franc in a sprinkling of other European locations: Spain's Penedes, Romania, Hungary, the Balkans, and the Friuli region of northeastern Italy.

Turning toward the new world, the biggest Cab Franc producers in the US are California, New York, and Washington. In warm regions like Napa, the heat can result in more prominent tannins than you might see in other regions, but the grape still offers elegant aromatics. Similar to Bordeaux, you might see California Cab Franc as part of red blends with its bolder baby grape Cabernet Sauvignon, but pure Cab Franc wines are also becoming more common.

In New York, the two major regions featuring Cabernet Franc are Long Island and the Finger Lakes. The cooler, more moderate climate is thought to give these wines less fruity characteristics and more earthy, vegetal qualities (you might have heard green pepper as a descriptor of these wines). In addition to New York, we should mention Canada as another cooler climate New World producer of Cab Franc.

Cab Franc and Food

Serve this wine around 65 degrees Fahrenheit in order to get the most out of the distinct and sometimes delicate aromas Cabernet Franc has to offer. And while it's delicious on its own, there's a lot to be said for drinking Cab Franc with food. Try it with rosemary-rubbed pork, charred Neapolitan-style pizza, smoked tea duck, mushrooms, and even grilled tuna or salmon.

A Few Favorite Bottles

We've tried a batch of seven Cabernet Francs recently, and turned up a few seriously tasty wines.

One of the New York winners was the Fox Run Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2008 ($14). This wine had a unique and savory—almost meaty—aroma that came through on the palate much more delicately, like dried rosemary. The subtly vanilla-laced juice was complemented by hints of warm baking spices that kept the wine in balance.

From the group of French Cabernet Franc wines from the Loire, we were especially impressed with Domaine de Matabrune Bourgueil 2009, which sells for around $10. This black cherry-scented liquid had a full mouthfeel with a lovely complexity of flavor and a lingering finish. The spicy black pepper notes were balanced by savory hints of black olive. I'll note that this wine would benefit from some airing out or a little decanter action. Don't be afraid to pour it into a regular pitcher if you don't have a decanter handy.

We also really enjoyed the Red Newt Cellars Cabernet Franc 2010 ($21) from New York. This wine's velvety texture made for very easy drinking, with prominent fruity notes of sour cherry and pomegranate. The flavors were quite well balanced, as even the tobacco-smokiness of this wine was lifted by a lavender-like herbal sweetness. While this wine is lovely on its own, it's even better with food.

We haven't tasted much Canadian wine, but we were thoroughly charmed by the Château des Charmes Cabernet Franc VQA Niagara on the Lake 2007 ($18). On the nose, this tasty wine had a deep, earthy, barnyard scent, but hit your palate with refreshing ripe blackberry flavors. This wine has good structure, with decisive, but not overpowering tannins, complemented with bright acidity and mellow alcohol. The smoky and mushroomy flavors of this wine would be great with grilled meats or even—dare I say it— with cheese and crackers as an I-just-had-a-long-day-at-work-and-need-a-glass-of-wine snack.

The Rest

It doesn't get much easier-drinking than Domaine de la Pépière La Pépie Vin de Pays du Val de Loire 2010 ($14)—it's a light, fresh-tasting wine with a floral nose. The vibrant, juicy acidity is refreshing, but some tasters wished for a bit more complexity. This is weeknight wine—try it with goat cheese or pizza.

The Domaine Filliatreau Saumur-Champigny La Grande Vignolle 2009 ($17) started with a musky scent and with each sip, offered tangy, fruity acidity reminiscent of red currants that lingered. A pronounced minerality in this wine supported the fruity notes, and while the alcohol and firm tannins were in check, some tasters found the tart acidity overpowering. The answer: serve it with food! Try baked ziti or an antipasto plate.

Our tasters felt a little let down by the Remy Pannier Chinon 2010 ($19), especially given the price. The whiff of pine on the nose translated to an herbaceous flavor that reminded one taster of patchouli. With a mellow, musky finish, this light-bodied wine might be enhanced with food—grilled meat or a salty cheese.

Have you tried any Cabernet Franc recently? Any bottles you'd recommend (or discourage) us from trying? Let us know in the comments section!