December 4th celebrates one of the Swirling Dervish’s favorite grape varieties: Cabernet Franc. Many plaudits have been written about its superstar offspring Cabernet Sauvignon and, indeed, there are some excellent wines made from the grape. But I am more susceptible to the allure of a glass of Cab Franc.
Why? Let me count the ways . . . .
Cabernet Franc tempts me with inviting notes of red currant, plum, and – my favorite – violets. Sometimes this comes across as a sweet, dusty scent that reminds me of strolling through a field of those purple flowers. Depending on where it’s grown, Cab Franc might also surprise me with a hint of green pepper spice, which adds to the wine’s aromatic complexity. Riper versions might provide a black fruit profile, with harmonious notes of black cherry and blackberry. Wherever it comes from, Cab Franc is always a sensory delight.
When winemakers add Cab Franc to a blend, as in Bordeaux, Napa, and other spots, it’s usually to bump up acidity and add another layer of aromas and flavors. While typically a minor player in these blends, its contribution is distinctive and can be sussed out by lovers of the grape. We know it the minute we put our noses in the glass!
Varietal Cab Franc from the Loire Valley in France brims with tart red fruit and acidity, making it a wonderful partner with a wide range of foods, from grilled river fish to a rib-eye steak. I think it is the perfect accompaniment to pork in any form – charcuterie plates sing when served alongside a glass of Chinon or Bourgueil.
Sure, Cab Franc has tannins, but they’re softer and easier on the palate than those in Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, for example. Don’t get me wrong, I love a big glass of strapping Syrah, especially with lamb chops, but Cab Franc is just an easier, friendlier wine right out of the gate.
Dollar for dollar, I think you get more in a bottle of Cab Franc than any other international red grape variety. The Loire Valley in particular offers high-quality wines at very fair prices. I think of them as little indulgences that won’t bust my wine budget. Even in the new world, Cabernet Franc bottles tend to fetch lower prices than similar specimens of Cabernet Sauvignon. In my opinion, it’s an injustice to the character of Cab Franc; but, as a consumer, I won’t complain!
In honor of today’s festivities, here are a few of the Cabernet Franc wines I’ve enjoyed during 2017. Maybe they’ll prompt you to pick one up next time you go wine shopping! And, if you’re already a huge Cab Franc fan, join the Twitter chat tonight. Aficionados the world over will be sharing their favorite bottles and their personal stories of how Cab Franc seduced them. Hosted by Lori Hoyt Budd of Dracaena Wines in Paso Robles (and the founder of Cabernet Franc Day), it’s sure to be a lively conversation. Chat starts at 8 pm ET and follows the #CabFrancDay. See you there!
2013 The Meeker Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Franc (100% Cabernet Franc; 14.7% abv; $45 retail)
Fruit for this wine comes from old vines (30+ years) in the Pedroni Vineyard located in the southern reaches of Dry Creek Valley. The growing season is comparatively long here, allowing the grapes extended hang time – important for full phenolic development that translates into complexity and character in the finished wine. This is critical for a variety like Cabernet Franc, which naturally has green, vegetal aroma compounds. While varietally correct, these compounds can be unpleasant and harsh if the grapes have not fully ripened and are not carefully processed after harvest. Toward that end, all of Meeker’s Cabernet Franc grapes undergo extended maceration and cold fermentation, and are aged in large barrels (29 months in neutral and once-used French oak.)
This wine is a beauty! Dark ruby in color, almost to the edge – it’s dense, velvety perfection. Aromas of blackberry, violets, and thyme waft from the glass in a swirl that makes me imagine sunny hillsides in Provence – or maybe Sonoma. All the fruit comes through on the palate, with a subtle note of green pepper that fades over time. Bright acidity ripples through the fruit, counterbalanced by fine tannins. The finish is long, with a distinct savory element that cries out for a grilled steak (so I made one!) As a long-time lover of Cabernet Franc, I really enjoyed this wine: it’s a gentle giant that should only get better over the next ten years.
2013 Dracaena Wines Cabernet Franc (14.3% abv; $32 retail)
Hailing from Paso Robles, this wine is a blend of 90% Cab Franc and 10% Petit Sirah, and was aged in one-year-old French oak barrels for two years before release. Grapes for Dracaena’s Cabernet Franc come from the West Side Ranch in Paso Robles, which has supplied high-quality red grapes to winemakers for years. The warm, sunny days and cool evening temperatures create ideal conditions for intense aromas and flavors in the finished wine while maintaining all-important acidity. In the glass, this wine shines a deep, dark ruby red, a promise of the lovely fruit aromas to come: raspberry, plum, and blackberry notes intermingle with cocoa and vanilla. On the palate, it is rich and inviting, full of ripe red berries and spicy black cherry flavor. The smooth tannins and zingy acidity keep the wine balanced and elegant. Of all the wines I tried with the sausage and potato dish, this was the one I liked best. In my mind, this is the Little Black Dress of Cabernet Franc wines: it can go almost anywhere, hang with anyone, and be totally comfortable. And, by the way, if you’re drinking a glass of Dracaena Cab Franc, you’ll be comfortable too. Very comfortable.
NV Domaine Fabrice Gasnier La Cravantine ($22 retail)
This sparkler is a real treat! Made from 100% Cabernet Franc grapes (30-year-old vines) grown in the Chinon region of the Loire Valley, La Cravantine is crafted according to the traditional method (the same way Champagne is made.) The entire 24-hectare estate was certified biodynamic (Demeter) and organic (Ecocert) in 2009. Vineyards occupy south-facing slopes, which facilitate slow, even ripening; the stony topsoil lies over a base of Tuffeau de Touraine (calcareous and clay mixture) ensuring good drainage. The Tuffeau stone plays another important role in the city of Tours: many of the famous castles of the region are made out of it!
Color: Perfect rose gold with tiny diamonds (bubbles!) Honestly, it looks like my wedding ring.
Nose: Red currant, berries, a bit of strawberry, chalk, and a whiff of thyme.
Taste: Red fruit galore, wet stones, and shortbread. Dry with bright acidity and a long finish.
Verdict: If you’re a Cab Franc fan, you’ve got to try it. All the lovely red fruit of a still wine from Chinon, plus the complex, bubbly goodness of traditional method sparklers. For me, the price point makes it a no-brainer. You might suspect I’ve got a few bottles stashed away, and you’d be right!
2010 Paradise Rescued B1ock One Cabernet Franc (12.5% abv; $30 retail)
Varietal wines in general are rather rare in Bordeaux, where this wine was made. That said, Cab Franc plays a huge role in the blends that are crafted in the Right Bank vineyards of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. This wine is 100% Cab Franc and makes an excellent case for the grape’s ability to be the star of the show. Deeper in color than the Goulaine, the aromatic profile was different, too: plum, black currant, vanilla, and earthy notes wafted from the glass. On the palate this wine was richer than the Goulaine and fuller-bodied, with more prominent (albeit smooth) tannins. Elegant and powerful at the same time, this wine complemented the dish but seemed capable of more. I couldn’t help thinking that this match was the culinary equivalent of a woman in a cocktail dress whose date shows up in jeans and a polo shirt. This wine was perfectly delicious with the sausage and potatoes but it really deserved something a bit fancier. Steak au poivre, anyone?
2014 Maxville Lake Wines Napa Valley Cabernet Franc (15.1% abv; $60 retail)
My husband and I enjoyed this gem at Café Maxx, our favorite restaurant in Pompano Beach, Florida. They have a well-edited wine list that always includes some surprising wines under the heading “Interesting Reds.” It’s where I look first every time I open the wine list! Maxville is nestled within the Chiles Valley zone of Napa, and boasts over 1,000 acres that are part of the Napa Valley Land Trust. They’ve been making wine since 1844 and pride themselves on creating the highest quality wines without compromise.
This Cab Franc was round, smooth, and full of ripe red fruit – raspberry and plum – followed by an herbal component, maybe rosemary. There was enough acidity to keep the fruit in check, and to ensure a delicious match with bone-in pork chops with a blackberry glaze. This one would convert a Cabernet Sauvignon die-hard, for sure!