I absolutely adore this grape.
Whether it’s from the Finger Lakes of New York, the Rutherford Bench of Napa Valley, the Right Bank of Bordeaux or closest to my heart and palate from the area that does it best, Loire Valley, the Cabernet Franc grape has always been a go-to for me.
Let’s not confuse Cab Franc with its classic, yet much chunkier, cousin Cabernet Sauvignon.
If Chardonnay is the vanilla of the commercial wine world, then Cabernet Sauvignon is its chocolate. These two grapes dominate both the marketplace and our collective palate. When you consider that most Merlot-based wines (with a few exceptional exceptions) taste, basically, like Cabernet Sauvignon on Prozac, the fact that nearly half of all wine sold in the United States is made from one of these grapes tells us that our collective palate is quite specifically tuned.
Still, as American wine drinkers are becoming ever more wine-savvy, other varietals get to play – Gruner Veltliner and Viognier for whites, for instance, and Mourvedre and Malbec for reds – and the wine world lies in constant wait for the Next Big Grape. I’m a wine lover, not a psychic, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Cabernet Franc emerges from the shadows to wear that title soon.
It’s a grape that’s hiding in plain sight. In much of the modern wine world, Cabernet Franc is considered a humble blender to augment wines that more prominently feature its relatives Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but its charms as the featured grape in a wine – balance between fruitiness and austerity, approachability and complexity – are finding more and more devotees. As a blending grape, though, you may have sipped its nectar but never knew what you were tasting because the wine label did not mention the varietal.
For the wine grower, the appeal of “Franc” is that it thrives in colder weather than Cabernet Sauvignon, and so in Bordeaux’s cooler vintages, Cabernet Franc stands a better chance of fully ripening than its more highly-regarded but warmer-weather loving sibling. The smart Left Bank vignerons plant Franc as an insurance policy against cold weather, raising the percentage of the cool climate ripener whenever necessary.
No doubt Cabernet Franc has performed its blending duties well, but it has also established itself as an increasingly important varietal as a stand-alone. This workhorse, so capable of producing extraordinarily elegant red wines on its own, is poised to become the Seabiscuit of all grape varieties! Imagine a young Cabernet Sauvignon, but without the harsh mouth-puckering tannins. Cabernet Franc is all about balance. The tannins are noticeable, which will help the wine to age, but the black fruit/berry flavors make a good Cabernet Franc accessible both when young and with some more age. Also, in a world where high alcohol is the order of the day in so many Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines, Cabernet Franc achieves its balance of fruit, tannin and refreshing acidity without becoming an oak and alcohol bomb.
France’s Loire Valley, best known for its white wines (think Vouvray, Sancerre and Muscadet), is home to the wonderful-but-not-much-heralded Cabernet Franc-based wines. The three mid-Loire villages of Chinon, Bourguil and Saumur-Champigny comprise the epicenter for these medium-bodied, luscious reds. In Chinon and Bourgeuil, the wines can be powerfully complex and age-worthy, and from Saumur-Champigny, the wine has a certain cheerfulness, full of raspberries and strawberries. Chinon, the traditional “house red” of Paris bistros and brasseries. Then there’s the sexy and sultry Cabernet Francs from Saint-Nicolas, which is technically within the borders of Bourgueil, but its own tiny appellation.
Sales of Cabernet Franc continue to grow here at Frank’s Wine but mostly among red wine cognoscenti who have come to appreciate the wine over time. Wow that sounded pretty snobby! Cabernet Franc doesn’t grow everywhere and it’s not a wine for everyone, but it is wonderful when served with hearty red meat dishes, game, and aged cheeses… and a definite for your Franksgiving table! I even like to chill down my Loire Valley Francs a bit like a Beaujolais or rosé.
There is more to life than vanilla and chocolate, so we often must challenge ourselves to explore the world, to make the discoveries that might just redefine the way we think and feel. Such exploration can become an exciting journey, a lifelong quest, and the same holds true in wine. And sometimes the most rewarding discoveries are the ones right under our noses.
I first met Francois-Xavier Barc while he was on a tour of the U.S. market 2008. He was the charismatic winemaker for one of the Loire Valley’s most prestigious Chinon producers, Charles Joguet. I was first taken aback by how young he was but ultimately it was his passion for Cabernet Franc, and Loire wines as a whole, that made him stand out to me even if the wines, from Joguet, were a little all over the place and wild for my liking.
A few months ago one of our favorite sales reps – Scott Biggs – sat down in front of me with a wine from a fairly new domain called FX Barc, a winery started by the old winemaker from Charles Joguet. I was instantly excited to taste the wine, remembering how enthusiastic Francois-Xavier had been when I met him at my shop here on North Union Street. I couldn’t wait to see what wines he was making for himself, rather than by some lay of the land or tradition handed down by his former employer, would taste like.
Once my nose hovered over the glass of beautifully purple Chinon, I was in complete heaven. I ordered a couple cases on the spot and we’ve been running with that lovely Chinon for a couple months now, but just last week Scott called, this time asking if I wanted a deal on his entire inventory of FX Barc wines. Apparently the winery and the importer parted ways and they wanted to start with a clean slate. I jumped on the opportunity and bought every last bottle for half price!
Francois-Xavier is making wines that wear the aromas of where they are grown, are anything but mucked up with heavy oak usage and offer tremendous value for the super-high quality you find in the bottle.