The Other Cabernet: Cabernet Franc Makes a Comeback
We’ve all seen Sideways; that film has style and substance — like a fine Cabernet Franc. But hey, you might say, what about Miles’ disparaging views on precisely that grape (and to a more severe degree, Merlot)? While Miles does indeed dismiss Cabernet Franc as ‘flabby and overripe’, a grape incapable of delivering greatness, the quiet clever irony is that his prized bottle of 1961 Château Cheval Blanc is half Cabernet Franc, half Merlot. Cabernet Franc has the last laugh. It’s ahead of the game. Get involved.
I liken Cabernet Franc to a refreshingly down-to-earth yet dazzlingly beautiful celebrity that you can’t believe is hanging out with you. It appears unaware of its seductive charm, and never vies for the limelight. ‘The Other Cabernet’ is understated and cool, and can be excellent value for its earthy-spicy-herbal complex profile. In recent years this humble grape hasn’t generated much excitement, but at one time, Cabernet Franc was more popular than its genetic grape-child Cabernet Sauvignon.
What makes Cab Franc compelling?
I predict a Cab Franc comeback. While this grape is known for being a key component in iconic blends, it can also stand alone; it has finesse and elegance, fruit, subtle floral perfume, and a compelling acid line that zips through it and infuses the wine with life. It doesn’t have the sexy fleshiness of Merlot, and it is more subtle than its famed offspring Cabernet Sauvignon; Cabernet Franc has that perfect balance of powerful structure, fruit, and nuance.
Bordeaux blending power
Cabernet Franc forms an integral part of some of the world’s most famous blends. On Bordeaux’s Right Bank (right of the river Gironde, and home to big shots St Emilion and Pomerol) Cab Franc is at the core of the grape blends along with silky and plush Merlot. As I mentioned, chez Cheval Blanc, two thirds of the vineyard is planted with Cabernet Franc, a grape that adds complexity and perfume to the legendary château’s blend.
Loire Valley Cabernet Franc is all about prettiness and freshness. In this cooler region, the grape is vinified alone and takes centre stage. Here, Cab Franc has a deeply rooted past which predates Bordeaux plantings of the grape by about 100 years. It is known locally as ‘Bouchet’, and enjoys the cooler climate; developing into wines that are brisk and delicately herbaceous, with aromas of bell pepper, crunchy red and dark fruit, and pencil shavings. These wines respond well to being lightly chilled and brought on picnics in the beautiful Loire Valley countryside, which is dotted with resplendent chateaux, floral and buzzing cities, and terrific food. The coiffed, scenic Loire region suits the grape’s style, which is elegant and composed.
I’m always on a Loire look-out for Cabernet Franc wines from Chinon, St Nicolas de Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny, where Cab Franc is the hometown hero for once; delivering win after win, or rather wine after wine, of excellent quality. There is still great value is to be found in these wines, maybe because they are not as glitzy and shrouded in prestige as their counterparts down in Bordeaux. Loire Valley Cab Francs at their best offer startling aromatic complexity, a certain freshness, and a feminine perfumed bouquet. Chinon is fantastic; it smells of delicious roasted red peppers, mushy raspberries, herbs, gravel, and has a refreshing ping of acidity.
While France produces the most Cabernet Franc by far, this grape also adapts well to other regions and climates. In Spain’s Penedes, single varietal Cab Francs offer intensity, floral perfume, fruitiness, and great value.
Tuscany is a large producer of Cabernet Franc, and this grape is often used in ‘Super Tuscan’ wine — premium wines that use grapes other than those indigenous to Italy, and therefore are declassified from the DOCG labeling system. These blockbuster Super Tuscans have big rich tastes — cherries, mocha, leather, cocoa, blackberries — and are often French oak-aged for additional body and rich flavour. Cabernet Franc often wiggles its spicy self into these expensive, characterful blends.
New World Cabernet Franc
Single varietal Cabernet Franc is creeping back into style in the New World. On a recent trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, I noticed that a lot of winemakers are making straight-up Cab Franc, sometimes with stunning results (hello Michael Shaps) I was very interested to see how this decidedly Old World grape would perform in this new territory, and was impressed with results that indicated that it was very well behaved indeed in its new home.
The Virginian wines were deep in colour, concentration, and dark fruit. According to the locals, these wines are getting better and better, losing the ‘Virginia twang’ and off-balanced overripe fruitiness of yore.
Worth a mention
For a more opulent fruit-forward style, look to the Sierra Foothills in California for a Cabernet Franc that is brimming with ripe raspberries, chocolate, and alcohol. Chilean and Argentinian Cab Francs are similarly rich, with buckets of dark fruit and spice. Look for wines from cooler vineyard areas for a leaner, elegant style. I suggest Casablanca Valley for New World Cabernet Franc with Old World sensibilities.
La Martinière St. Nicolas De Bourgueil 2015
€18.50 – Available at Mitchell & Son
A light and distinctly herbal expression of Cabernet Franc, with raspberry and redcurrant flavours on a silky palate. A perfect summer wine.
Domaine des Roches Neuves Saumur Champigny 2015
€26.95 – Available at Le Caveau
A ripe and harmonious palate, full of floral flavour, spice, and red fruit. Delicious and lively, with a long smoky finish.
Sugano Cabernet Franc 2014, San Simone, Friuli
€15.64 – Available at Wines Direct
Lightly herbal bouquet with dark berries on the palate and nice ping of acidity. A long finish with lingering cherry and licorice.
Naomi Ní Chatháin is a WSET-certified wine specialist from Co. Clare. She studied French and Philosophy in NUI Galway before pursuing a master’s degree in Wine Tourism (or ‘oenotourisme et projet culturel’) in Nimes.
Naomi loves French culture, and has lived in different parts of France over the years.
Her other passions include the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer, the music of Bob Dylan, and road trips across America. Naomi is also a professional baker, and founder of NaomiBakes.com.
She is a firm believer in eating delicious, healthy cakes every day, and has a small subscription-based healthy cake kit delivery business.