SOMETIMES the gallery of Bordeaux varieties resembles a dynamic trio of comic-book heroes: Cabernet Sauvignon is the beefy, muscle-bound brute -- Lord of the Medoc, as well as of Napa Valley and points beyond. Merlot is rather willowy by comparison but pleasingly so, a relative lightweight that gets by on finesse, sometimes at the expense of character. Somewhere between Cabernet Sauvignon’s intestinal fortitude and Merlot’s all-purpose weeniness a third variety lurks, a tween called Cabernet Franc.
Cabernet Franc is the Great Insinuator. When inserted into the classic blends of Bordeaux, California and Washington state, the variety is a subtle and fascinating addition. On its own, particularly in varietal bottlings from the Loire Valley, it’s a wine with oomph, but with a tender side too. In the right circumstances, few varieties on Earth are as recognizable as Cabernet Franc with its fine texture, its mid-level depth and pungent, characteristic herbaceousness.
Cabernet Franc is believed to be one of the genetic parents of Cabernet Sauvignon (the other is Sauvignon Blanc). It is grown all over the world in diminutive parcels, but aside from relatively new plantings in Italy, its most consistent and devoted expression is in the Loire and Bordeaux regions in France, with significant plantings in California and Washington.
In the Loire Valley, its reputation is centered in and around the Touraine area, and in particular the appellations of Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil and Chinon. These villages lie among a tangle of river branches and confluences, making the geography and the soil content of each place complex and distinct, and each appellation’s expression of minerality slightly different. Most of these are ancient alluvial river deposits; the great exception is Saumur-Champigny, whose vineyards rest on a deposit of limestone so dense that centuries-old troglodytic (prehistoric cave) dwellings are still in use.
In Bordeaux it is most commonly planted on the right bank of the Dordogne River in the vineyards of Pomerol, St.-Émilion and Fronsac. Blended in many right-bank wines, it’s not usually the dominant player but is prized more for its middleweight contribution, its bright core of red-tinged fruit and its firm but nimble texture. Aside from Cheval Blanc, one of Bordeaux’s most famous wines, you would be hard-pressed to find a single wine in which Cabernet Franc consistently represents the majority of the blend.
Bordeaux may be guilty of a fear of commitment, but that’s no longer true in the U.S. In California and Washington, Franc is being planted more widely than ever, and in better places. Though the number of 100% Franc bottlings remains low, the grape is contributing to blends in ever-greater percentages.
In wines made with Cabernet Franc an herbal aromatic imprint is common. The Loire Valley has been thought of as the edge of where Cabernet Franc can successfully ripen, and that cool climate lends a distinct herbal top note. Its expression has a variety of iterations, including dill, olive, saddle leather, tobacco leaf and floral scents reminiscent of lavender and violets, as well as a vast bouquet of peppers.
In fact, the herbal marker is so unique that when it goes missing, as it does in warmer sites, the wines can seem generic and sullen. Too much and the wine can be green and weedy -- “flavors [that are] better on your plate than in your glass,” says Cadence Winery’s Ben Smith, who grows Cabernet Franc in Washington state.
A signature herbal note
IN THE Loire, those herbal notes are central to the variety’s expression, almost like an antidote to the fruit bomb, but such flavors have been considered anathema in most California reds. Nevertheless, certain California winemakers strive for an herbal edge to their Cabernet Francs and blends; without it, they feel, the variety has lost something.
“The most interesting wines will have a hint of [herbaceousness] -- but not have it be distracting,” says Tony Soter, who, as a consultant and with his own labels, Etude and Soter Vineyards, has grown and made Cabernet Franc primarily for blending for 20 years in California.
Winemaker John Skupny would be another Cal Franc “herbalist.” As an assistant winemaker in the Napa Valley, Skupny worked with Cabernet Franc in a number of winery cellars, mostly as a blending component. Then, in 1992, an arresting barrel of 100% Cabernet Franc at Niebaum Coppola Winery alerted him to the possibility that the grape might have a future in Northern California. “We were used to putting about 5% Franc into our blends and leaving behind several barrels. I started to wonder what it would be like to make one from the ground up.”
IN 1996, Skupny and his wife, Tracey, founded their Cab-Franc-centric winery, Lang & Reed Wine Co. Like its chosen grape variety, Lang & Reed remains an anomaly in Napa, which is Cabernet Sauvignon country. Its two principle Cab Francs -- a North Coast cuvée composed primarily of Lake County fruit, and a Napa-based bottling they call Premier Étage -- have had a distinctly cool Loire palette of flavors (albeit the Loire in a warm year).
Lang & Reed wines in the best vintages have always retained a mildly herbal edge. “With the proper volume of fruit,” Skupny says, “that herbaceous quality is an adjunct, instead of a negative.”
About half a dozen years ago, Skupny began to consider making a Franc-based wine that possessed more of the attributes of St.-Émilion, in Bordeaux. “It was a slow-percolating thing,” he says. “I figured I’d learned enough about the grape to take it in another direction.” Their new bottling, called Right Bank, debuts this week with the 2004 vintage. A pre-release tasting reveals a wine that’s much more firmly structured than his Loire-inspired wines but still lightly tannined, still fresh and still possessing a texture that points to Cab Franc’s inherent tenderness.
One of Skupny’s mentors in Napa was Soter, who has moved most of his winemaking efforts to Oregon, where Soter Vineyards is based. Soter retains a small vineyard called Little Creek in Napa, which is largely planted with Cabernet Franc. The 2004 Little Creek, blended with Malbec and a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon, is as supple as Lang & Reed Right Bank, and has a poise that’s rare in your average Bordeaux-style red from Napa. It’s a wine that plays to the Cab Franc’s strengths -- a fine-toned, red-fruited wine built on poise, not power.
Washington state might have the climate that can best steer Cabernet Franc to its sweet spot. Columbia Valley is justly praised for its Merlot, which ripens during the long hot days of a Washington summer and eases into maturity in the cooler, darker days of autumn. Cabernet Franc’s growing habits fall comfortably into this vector. Two of the region’s more successful stylists, Cadence’s Ben Smith and Chris Camarda of Andrew Will Winery, have planted significant portions of new vineyard projects with the varietal.
“It grows amazingly well here,” Chris Camarda says. “People who don’t even have a golden hand grow respectable Cab Franc.” Camarda has been making Bordeaux-style blends since 1994, purchasing Franc from some of the great vineyards in the state, including Champoux Vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills, and Ciel du Cheval, in Washington’s hot new appellation, Red Mountain. More than a third of his new Yakima Valley vineyard Two Blondes is devoted to Franc, which composes the core of his Champoux and Ciel du Cheval Bordeaux-style blends.
When Ben Smith got the chance to plant on Red Mountain, he knew he’d plant Cabernet Franc. It now constitutes half of his young vineyard, Cara Mia. Cab Franc has always played an important role in his top wine, Bel Canto, a wine that personifies the elegance that Washington achieves in its Bordeaux-style reds.
“I’m just not a fruit bomb kind of guy,” Smith says. “I prefer some savory notes.” A green edge, he admits, is not for everyone, but in Washington, the grape’s growth cycle naturally ripens past that point. “After that green goes away you get tobacco, some cedar, some cigar box -- that’s when it really pings for me.”