Cabernet Franc: Bordeaux’s best supporting actor

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | nov. 2016

Anyone who drinks red Bordeaux wine knows that the wines are blends of a variety of grapes with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot taking top billing. Cabernet Franc has been a blending grape for many years and in certain wine like the famous Cheval Blanc, where it comprises 60 percent of the blend, it is a star. The fabulously expensive Pomerol, Chateau Pètrus has added, increasingly, Cab Franc to its delicious, predominately Merlot blend. Another four star Pomerol winery Chateau Lafleur adds up to 60 percent Cabernet Franc to its iconic wine and as most trends, other Bordeaux producers are following suit. Some smart California vintners, like Delia Viader, were aware that some of the greatest, most expensive wines in the world had Cab Franc in them and specifically included it in their wines from the very beginning of the business. Viader, which is located in the Howell Mountain AVA in Napa Valley, has a significant portion of Cab Franc in its makeup and has been a four star wine since the 1989 introduction. The Cabernet Franc grape is the sole grape in the Chinon area of the Loire Valley in France where it makes a wine that can age but is also very good fresh out of the winery.

So why hasn't this grape become a dominant player in red wine production like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot? This is where the story gets interesting, but to understand how it was neglected for so long it helps to look at its origins. Cab Franc is thought to have originated in the Libournais region of southwest France in the 17th century. Libourne is near Pomerol and St. Emilion in Bordeaux. The infamous Cardinal Richelieu, who some say was the real king of France during Louis XIII reign, was instrumental in transporting cuttings of the vine into the Loire Valley where its fame was achieved in the Chinon and Saumur AC's (Appellation Controlèe). Cab Franc has an interesting genetic story as well. No one really knows its origin other than showing up in southwest France, but ampelographers (grape geneticists) have identified Cab Franc as one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carménère. The grape has a facility to produce genetic variants of it that are better than the original grape. This is not a new idea as we know from the hybridization of animals and vegetables like sweet corn, the offspring develop hybrid traits that are superior to the parent. This trait also worked against Cab Franc in that cross-pollination of many different mutations of Cab Franc were also produced that had inferior properties until genetic identification was perfected after the Second World War, so Cab Franc had a poor reputation. Once proper identification was established French vineyards started pulling out inferior varieties and planted Cab Franc that had the best traits. As word spread about the fine qualities of the grape the wine world took notice back in the 1980s and a trend started.

The qualities that are slowly bringing this grape up to the prominence it deserves are many, including the fact that the grape ripens at least a week earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. In Bordeaux, Cab Franc is like an insurance policy should the Cabernet Sauvignon not ripen before the weather turns. This trait has allowed the grape to be grown in cooler climates. I have one example from the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, and the grape is now producing fine examples on the Ontario Peninsula in Canada. The grape is very vigorous and capable of producing large yields, but to produce great wines it is absolutely necessary to thin out the clusters and leaves to allow more sunlight to reach the grapes. Sunlight breaks down the methoxypyrazines that give the aromas and flavors of unripe bell peppers. When properly grown, the Cab Franc wines are not as tannic as Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines have a wonderful perfume and a velvety texture that goes well with all types of food. The freshness and fruitiness go well with casual food like a bacon cheeseburger, but with some age would pair well with any roasted meat. These are wines worth seeking out. I found two in Green Bay; Chateau Le Dome at Ridgeway Liquors with 80 percent Cab Franc and Domaine Laroque at Woodman's. I did not purchase the Le Dome because it was very expensive, but I would certainly consider it for a special occasion.

The Domaine Laroque 2013, $10 at Woodman's and 13 percent alcohol, is the bargain of this bunch. The winery is located in the western Languedoc region of southern France between the Pyrènèes Oriental and Montagne Noir (Black Mountains) where the area is protected from the cold north winds and 35 miles east of the Mediterranean Sea. The winery has 18 hectares (about 45 acres) of Cabernet Franc. The average age of the vines is 20 years. The wine is aged six months in stainless steel and then 40 percent of it is matured in oak vats. The stainless preserves the freshness while the oak gives it some sweetness from the vanilla in the charred oak. The wine has a beautiful crimson color with aromas of raspberry rhubarb and tobacco. Silky tannins give a very smooth mouthfeel. The concentrated fruit bodes well for matching cold meats like salami and Sopresatta. The bottle drinks like one twice as expensive. We had this bottle with leftover meatloaf slices in a tomato sauce. Delicious! This would go well with those casual weeknight meals like mac'n cheese or spaghetti and meatballs. This is a buy by the case wine that will drink very nicely for several years.

The Joseph Mellot 2013 Chinon Les Morinières, 12.5 percent alcohol and $17 at Sendik's in Mequon is from the traditional first home of Cabernet Franc in the Loire Valley of France. The estate dates back 500 years and is a sustainable organic property. The vines average 40 years old and the deeper flavors reflect that, in fact, there was a little left in my glass the following morning that smelled and tasted as fresh as the moment I opened the bottle. This wine could age another three or four years and still show very well. In the meantime, enjoy it with sautéed chicken thighs, grilled meat, duck and soft cheese such as Brie or Camembert. This one has enough acidity to stand up to a Christmas turkey dinner with all the trimmings, which I will elaborate on in next month's column.

The final wine is from the Red Newt Cellars in the Finger Lake region of New York. I remember winters in upstate New York where snowdrifts in that area of New York reached as high as 15 feet, when I was stationed near Saratoga Springs while in the Navy. At that time, the only grapes that were grown in that area were Concord grapes for jelly and grape juice. Now, along the I-90 corridor from Syracuse to Buffalo, and into the Ontario Peninsula, Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc grapes are parts of a burgeoning wine industry. Red Newt Cellars was founded in 1998 by David and Debra Whiting. The winery is located on the east shore of Seneca Lake just north of Watkins Glen in the town of Hector. The eleven Finger Lakes were formed about 2 million years ago during the Pleistocene glaciation when the Laurentide Ice Sheet moved south from Hudson Bay and scoured out river valleys to form some of the deepest lakes in North America. Lake Seneca is the deepest at 618-feet deep. These lakes ameliorate the harsh winters and allow vinifera grapes like Cab Franc to survive and thrive. Red Newt was named Winery of the Year by Wine and Spirits Magazine in 2011. The grapes for this wine were picked in the cool morning and delivered to the crushers at 55 degrees F. Fifteen percent of the grapes were fermented whole cluster similar to the way the French handle Beaujolais. The wine is a blend of 75 percent Cab Franc, 17 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and eight percent Merlot. The Cabernet and Merlot give the wine structure and plumpness respectively. The wine was aged in stainless steel and neutral oak. The wine has very floral aromatics and a long finish of raspberry. I found this example at Whole Foods on North Prospect in Milwaukee for $23 bucks.

This grape has been greatly improved through clonal selection identified by geneticists and the future looks very bright for Cabernet Franc to become a star in its own right. This wine goes so well with a large variety of foods that you should have a case in your basement for unexpected occasions, a tail gate party or just hamburgers on the grill. I would also recommend this wine to local restaurants as a perfect choice for red wines by the glass.

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