More than a Blending Grape: Cabernet Franc Deserves the Spotlight!

December 4th has been dubbed #CabFrancDay, a time to honor this noble grape’s important role in the wine world. Critical to the sumptuous clarets from the right bank of Bordeaux and their new-world counterparts from Napa Valley, Cabernet Franc has been a reliable contributor to the winemaker’s ensemble cast of characters.

But many of us who love the grape feel it has been given short shrift as a varietal wine. Lori Budd and her husband Mike felt so strongly about Cab Franc that they packed up their home in New Jersey and moved to California to make it. The couple’s story is a bit more complicated than that, but their dedication to Cabernet Franc is easy to understand: it’s all about passion.

Lori and Mike from website
Mike and Lori Budd of Dracaena Wines (photo: Dracaena Wines)

After establishing Dracaena Wines in Paso Robles, Lori and Mike set out to change how wine consumers looked at their favorite grape variety. Which brings us to #CabFrancDay, a social media extravaganza highlighting the grape’s potential to stand on its own (Cabernet Sauvignon be damned!)

Why December 4th ?

Wine scholars believe that Cabernet Franc originated in the far southwest of France, near the Basque region bordering Spain. It made its way to Bordeaux and the Loire Valley via the famous Cardinal Richelieu, who reportedly pocketed a few vine cuttings after visiting the region. (Probably while he was plotting to strengthen and preserve the power of the monarchy.) His death is memorialized (or celebrated, depending on whom you ask) on December 4th. The rest, as they say, is history.

Cabernet Franc as a Soloist

Despite its success as a blending partner, Cab Franc is even better (in my opinion) as a solo performer. It is grown all over the world and can be made in many styles. In the Loire Valley of France, it stars in the wines of Chinon, Saumur-Champigny, and Bourgueil, even appearing in a sparkling Crémant de Loire.

In Argentina, particularly the upper reaches of Mendoza, a riper, richer style of Cab Franc is made. But because the grapes are grown at high elevations, the wines retain much-needed acidity. The result is an intriguing balance between lush, black fruit and a breath of fresh air.

Here in the USA, there are as many styles of Cab Franc as there are regions that make it. East coast versions from New York, New Jersey, and Virginia, for example, remind me more of the lean, red-fruit-driven wines of Chinon: deliciously drinkable and wonderful with food.

West coast versions from Napa Valley, Paso Robles, and Washington State offer a bigger, bolder style: ripe red, black, and blue fruit, lots of structure, and (generally) higher alcohol and body. I personally love all the styles we make here in the US; there is literally one for every mood and food pairing.

Dual Bottle Shot
My #CabFrancDay Samples

My 2019 Cab Franc Day Tasting

Note: I received these wines as media samples but notes and opinions are my own.

I was thrilled to be invited to participate in the official #CabFrancDay media tasting. Thanks to Lori, I received two winery samples for consideration: one from Chateau Niagara Winery, on the Niagara Lake Plain in upstate New York; the other from Peju Province Winery in the Rutherford district of Napa Valley.

CN Front Label
The winery is featured prominently on the Chateau Niagara label.

2018 Chateau Niagara Winery Cabernet Franc (14% abv; $29.99 at the winery website)

Chateau Niagara from FB Page
Welcome to Chateau Niagara! (photo: Chateau Niagara)

Jim and Kathy Baker put down roots in upstate New York back in 2006, when they purchased 31 acres of vineyards on the banks of 18 Mile Creek. Nestled on a spit of land between Lake Ontario to the north and Lake Erie to the south, the vines at Chateau Niagara enjoy the modifying effects of both bodies of water: cold winter weather isn’t quite as harsh, and summertime sunshine reflects back on the grapes, assisting in ripening.

Jim and Kathy Baker from FB Page
Jim and Kathy Baker of Chateau Niagara (photo: Chateau Niagara)

In addition to the Cabernet Franc I tasted, the Bakers grow a wide variety of grapes including standards like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer. Less common grapes such as Saperavi, Blaufrankisch, and Turan also make an appearance.

The Bakers’ wines have won multiple awards and racked up kudos from critics. Let me add my thoughts to that list.

Color: Bright, medium ruby, all the way to the rim.

Nose: Quite pronounced aromas of just-ripe red cherry and currant, with lingering notes of violet and rose. I loved the floral component, which set this wine apart from its Loire Valley counterparts.

Palate: Tart red cherry, pomegranate, and currant – just-ripe, and palate-pricking with acidity. Smooth tannins provide just enough structure to give the wine great balance – no mean feat when it’s carrying 14% alcohol by volume. I’d have pegged this at a much lower abv.

Chicken and Dumplings
Chicken and dumplings for a cold night in NYC!

Pairings: Over the course of two days, we tasted the Chateau Niagara Cab Franc with a few dishes: chicken and herbed dumplings and grilled steak with kale salad dotted with roasted sweet potatoes, pomegranate seeds, and beets. This wine was an able partner with all three plates but found its ideal match with the salad: especially the tart pomegranate and slightly sweet beets. It would be easy to pair this wine with most dishes. Think of it as a Chinon with a little more weight to it; great with poultry and small game but not afraid of the big meat.

Kale Salad with Everything
Many flavors in this kale salad: all worked well with both Cab Francs.

2016 Peju Napa Valley Cabernet Franc (14.8% abv; $70 retail)

Peju CLose Up
Ripe and lush, with smooth tannins, the Peju Cab Franc will please a Big Wine palate.

The Peju family has farmed vineyards in the Rutherford district of Napa Valley since 1982, when they purchased their first 30 acres. Over time the acreage has grown and, led by winemaker Sara Fowler, the family has shifted its viticultural plans to sustainable and organic methods: the HB Vineyard has achieved organic certification; the Persephone Vineyard (Pope Valley) and Wappo Valley (Dutch Henry Canyon) are sustainably managed, with the goal of full organic certification in the near future. Since 2006 Peju has invested in solar power, hoping to rely on it for 36% of its total energy requirements.

Peju family-page
Tony, Herta, Lisa, and Ariana Peju (photo: Peju Vineyards)

 

Peju_Vineyards
Vineyards at Peju Napa Valley (photo: Peju Vineyards)

The 2016 Peju Cabernet Franc is a blend of 83% Cabernet Franc and 17% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Wappo Vineyard. It was aged for 18 months, 40% of it new (mixed French and American barrels.) It might include a soupçon of Cabernet Sauvignon, but the personality of this wine is all Cab Franc.

Color: Deep ruby with flashes of violet at the rim.

Nose: Aromas of ripe, dark fruit – think blackberry, black currant, and a hint of black cherry – with an earthy counterpunch of cedar, graphite, and dried Herbes de Provence. It promises a lot of pleasure for the palate!

Palate: Exuberant, ripe, lush fruit, as on the nose, with underpinnings of herbal licorice, dark chocolate, and espresso. There is ample acidity to balance the weight of the alcohol and ripe fruit, and the tannins are at first smooth but finish with a little grip on the palate. This was a delicious wine, but one that will probably be even better in 5-7 years – if one has the patience to wait that long.

Steaks
Grilled strip steaks were perfect with both wines.

Pairings: We tried the Peju Cabernet Franc with the same dishes listed above and found it agreeable with each one. Perhaps a little much for the chicken and dumplings, it still brought out the fresh herbs in the dumplings. It was brilliant with the steaks, which were grilled and finished with a garlic-herb compound butter. My husband and I kept reaching for a sip with every bite. And it was surprisingly good with the salad – especially the beets and sweet potatoes. As with the previous wine, it is quite light on its feet, despite the high alcohol.

And That’s a Wrap on #CabFrancDay

Thanks again to Lori Budd of Dracaena Wines, Jim Baker at Chateau Niagara Winery, and the folks at Peju Napa Valley, for inviting me to participate in this year’s celebration of my favorite grape. It was a pleasure to taste the wines and learn more about the producers; it also convinced me that Cabernet Franc as a varietal wine will be embraced by consumers once they learn about it and experience it.

Cheers to Cabernet Franc!

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