If Cabernet SAUVIGNON is the top dog in the pack, then its not-too-distant cousin Cabernet FRANC is the ugly runt of the litter.
Sucks to be Franc.
I’m not a huge enthusiast of the sexual stereotyping of wines but even I can see that Cabernet Franc might be described as the feminine side of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is subtly fragrant and gently flirtatious rather than massively muscular and tough in youth. Because Cabernet Sauvignon has so much more of everything – body, tannin, alcohol, color – it is often supposed to be necessarily superior, but I have a very soft spot indeed for its more charming and more aromatic relative, Cabernet Franc.
What’s the difference?
As a vine and a wine, Cabernet Franc is more precocious than Cabernet Sauvignon – but then most varieties are. Cabernet Franc buds and ripens at least a week before Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes it particularly useful in Bordeaux’s cooler vintages when the more famous Cabernet may not reach full ripeness at all. In fact, underripe Cabernet Sauvignon can smell remarkably like fully ripe Cabernet Franc, both of them exhibiting a certain leafy, currant bush aroma. But fully ripe Cabernet Franc has a lovely lightness of touch, lighter and softer than Cabernet Sauvignon so that the wines can mature several years ahead of Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the same vineyard.
Where is it grown?
While Cabernet Franc was as widely grown in Bordeaux as Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1960s, it was considerably displaced by the more fashionable Merlot in the late 20th century but I sense a small but perceptible comeback… at least here on North Union Street!
The other French wine region dominated by Cabernet Franc is Touraine in the Loire, especially Chinon, Bourgueil, Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny. The Cabernet Franc-dominated reds here can be weedy and stringy in cooler vintages – or if the vine’s canopy is not carefully managed – but when the grapes ripen fully they have a beautiful silky texture, soft tannins and a characteristic aroma which has long reminded me of pencil shavings.
Cabernet Franc tends to be grown to a limited extent wherever Cabernet Sauvignon is grown but I for one hope we will continue to see more Cabernet Franc-dominated wines – they are just so easy to drink. Here are three of my favorites:
Stepping Stone 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Franc
This beauty opens with alluring aromatics displaying lifted red berry, lavender and sweet basil notes with a touch of dried herbs, tobacco leaf and barrel spice playfully effusing from the glass. Beautifully balanced and supple, the palate is filled with bright flavors of red cherry and raspberry. Ripe tannins, round and plush flow through and grow with energy through a long and expansive palate with tobacco, herb and floral notes lingering on the finish. A pretty wine with plenty of textural elegance and finesse, its vibrant character makes for early enjoyment, but the rich structure and natural acidity will allow this wine to evolve beautifully with age.
La Madrid 2010 Mendoza Cabernet Franc
100% Cabernet Franc from Mendoza Argentina… home of Malbec! This wine presents red and violet colors in the glass. To the nose, it is very complex displaying roasted red pepper, leather, and a touch of vanilla aromas. In the mouth it is unctuous, fruity, and well-balanced. Aged for 14 months: 50% in new French oak barrels and 50% in second-use French oak barrels… so it’s not a bottle of toothpicks! It’s pretty and elegant from package to the juice inside.
FX Barc 2012 La Petite Timonerie Chinon
If you are looking to taste a pure expression of Loire Cabernet Franc, one without some of those veggie notes they are sometimes known for, one with stark purity and freshness, well here’s your wine. Some flirty herby notes pop up mid palate but it is the crystalline blue fruit and sensual chalky and limestone flavors that make this wine so astoundingly drinkable. Get more than one, one is simply not enough.