Cab Franc: Both a Challenge and a Reward to Consumers

This year's varietal focus at WiVi Central Coast was Cabernet Franc
This year’s varietal focus at WiVi Central Coast was Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc (and yes, I’m resisting all the puns) isn’t bottled on its own very much. It’s primarily used as a blending varietal in Bordeaux wines, especially with Merlot and the usually dominant and better known Cabernet Sauvignon. It is one of my favorite wines, however, so I was tickled red to see it showcased at the varietal focus seminar at this year’s WiVi Central Coast, “the premier wine and viticulture symposium and trade show in Central California.”

Moderated by Lance Cutler of Wine Business Monthly, the seminar speakers were three California winemakers: Damian Grindley, winemaker/general manager/founder of Brecon Estate in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County); John Skupny, proprietor/winemaker of Lang & Reed Wine Company in St. Helena (Napa County); and Paul Bush, owner/winemaker of Madroña Vineyards in Camino (El Dorado County in Northern California).

As much as I enjoy Cab Franc, turns out there was a lot I didn’t know about it, especially as it’s viewed by consumers. This varietal is a diamond in the rough, but it takes some effort.

Cab Franc expresses its terroir and seasonal growing conditions more than any other grape variety. As such, it’s hard to establish a stylistic benchmark — for both winemakers and consumers. That was really brought home by the time I finished tasting these ten wines, which came from El Dorado County, the Central Coast, and Napa Valley. While most had similarities on the palate – cherry, a bit of minerality, and a touch of spice – most were drastically different from each other in expression.

All were good wines, but my three favorites really illustrate the spectrum of stylistic possibilities with this varietal. The 2011 Narrow Gate Vineyards was on the lighter side, well balanced with bright cherry and nice tannins. The 2013 Brecon Estate (which had a touch of Malbec) was also well balanced with similar cherry and spice notes, but was more elegant through the mid palate. The 2012 La Jota Vineyards Howell Mountain was BOLD, with notes of cherry pie filling and a great mid palate that would pair nicely with big gamey meat …. though I don’t know if I’m ready to throw a bear steak on the grill (see Paul Bush’s comment below).

Evidently, the key to enjoying this varietal is to find wineries and winemakers who make the style you like. Guess that means trying a lot of Cab Francs, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do!

 

I’ll let Cutler and these talented winemakers further enlighten you in their own words …

Cutler:
“Cab Franc shows differences in variety more than any other grape variety we’ve done (WiVi) varietal tastings with.”

Grindley:
“Customers think they know Cab Franc, but there’s a big range of spectrum from vineyard and vintage.”
“Cab Franc is a good alternative when you don’t want a big heavy Cab (Sauvignon), but Cab Franc has lost its food-friendly focus with consumers.”

Skupny:
“Cab Franc has always been the winemaker’s wine.”
“It’s a primal wine that reveals where it’s planted.”
“(When used in blending), it gives Cabernet Sauvignon a lift without adding additional tannins.”

Bush:
“Cab Franc is the most food-friendly variety we grow. It can go with basil, chicken, and even gamier meats such as bear.”
“We kept thinking Cab Franc would become popular — because it’s so food-friendly, because of its ageability, and because it’s more intriguing and terroir driven. We’ve been saying that for 35 years.”
“Cab Franc food-friendliness is a plus for consumers. However, its wide variety of expressions can be a negative for consumers because there’s no set style.”

 

The Cab Francs were from three California growing regions: El Dorado County, Central Coast, and Napa Valley
The Cab Francs were from three California growing regions — all expressed their particular terroir, a characteristicof this wine varietal

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