Let’s be Franc: the quiet invasion of Cabernet franc

Larry Walker

If you are a vintner looking for a niche market varietal that no one is likely to see at Trader Joe’s for $1.99, you might consider Cabernet franc. Or if you are thinking of putting in some vines and worried about the current grape glut, put Cabernet franc down on your “to check out” list.

It isn’t everybody’s red wine, but is an important grape in the Loire, where it often stands alone. It probably was brought to the Loire region from Bordeaux by English traders during the Middle Ages. It was known then as the Breton. In Bordeaux, where it is one of the five “Bordeaux Reds,” it is especially important in Pomerol and St.-Emilion. It was most likely brought to Bordeaux by the Romans.

France has a total of about 35,000 acres of Cabernet franc, with heavy plantings in southwest France, where it is called Bouchy. There are also extensive plantings in Romania, Bulgaria, and Italy, where it is called Cabernet frank. The Mencia grape, which produces light and perfumy wines in northwest Spain, is believed to be closely related to Cabernet franc. There are also new plantings in New Zealand and Argentina.

Recently, DNA studies have shown that Cabernet franc is actually one of the genetic parents of Cabernet Sauvignon–Sauvignon blanc is the other. Compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc grapes are thinner-skinned and somewhat earlier-ripening, usually with lower overall acidity. It survives winter cold quite well, but is susceptible to spring frosts.

The flavor profile depends on viticulture practices as well as cellar treatment, but it is typically spicy and floral on the nose. If over-cropped, the wine may be herbal and vegetative.

Wine historian Charles Sullivan in his book, A Companion to California Wine, writes that Cabernet franc was first brought to California in 1872. In the 1880s, Sullivan says, there were plantings in San Benito County and at To Kalon and Inglenook in Napa. Almost all of those vines were wiped out by phylloxera and/or Prohibition.

Its modern history in California began in the 1960s, when a few acres were planted in Napa. In 1976, the entire state had only 77 acres of Cabernet franc, although Mount Veeder and Spring Mountain had produced varietal bottlings, according to Sullivan. Today, there are about 3,500 acres planted, just about double the acreage a decade ago. In 2002, the average statewide price in California for Cabernet franc was $1,696, a ton, second only to Pinot noir. In 1992, Cabernet franc was the most expensive grape, at $1,181 per ton. Nationwide, at least 188 wineries produced a varietal Cabernet franc, according to the Wines & Vines varietal chart published in the December, 2002 issue. There are most likely more than 200 actually making wine from the varietal, since not every winery responded to the magazine’s survey.

Most Cabernet franc in the U.S. is used for blending, but there are those who think it could work as a stand-alone varietal. The grape has gained a loyal following in New York (see box on page 40) and in Washington State in particular.

Cabernet Franc In Washington

In Washington, Cabernet franc is appreciated for its ability to survive winters better than Cabernet Sauvignon. David Lake at Columbia Winery said that he first began experimenting with the variety in the 1970s and planted it commercially in 1985 at Red Willow vineyards, blending it with Merlot. “It seems less tannic than Merlot in Washington, which is curious because in Bordeaux, Merlot is regarded as softer. It provides quite a lot of aromatics,” Lake said.

Lake said that Cabernet franc should be planted on thin soils with good drainage. “On deep soils it tends to produce a dense canopy.” In the cellar, he tends to treat it much like Merlot.

Lake made his first varietal Cabernet franc in 1991 and has slowly increased production. “It is a little hard to sell,” he said. “But once people taste it, they find it very appealing. It comes around quickly, has vivid fruit and makes friends easily.”

DeLille Cellars was founded in 1992. Production is small, quality is exceptional. The DeLille model is Bordeaux. They produce only red wine and Cabernet franc is an important part of the blend of Chaleur Estate, their top-of-the-line offering. Winemaker Chris Upchurch said that the typical blend is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 10% Cabernet franc, although that might change slightly from year to year.

“We have talked about a Cabernet franc stand-alone, a kind of Cheval blanc, but we try to build a wine through blending, so it isn’t really our thing,” he said. Upchurch does think that Cabernet franc from Washington’s Red Mountain AVA certainly has the grip and tannin to stand alone.

“Cabernet franc differs more in the vineyards than in winemaking,” he said. “Cabernet franc loves to grow. You really have to watch the canopy and irrigation. In that way, it’s like Syrah. It loves to hang a lot of fruit.”

Upchurch said the chief difference in the cellar is that he uses a heavier toast, maybe medium-plus, for Cabernet franc. “When you match wine with oak, there are really two components, wood and toast. So the more toast you have, the less wood flavors. You would think a lighter wine like Cabernet franc would take a lighter toast. The opposite is true, because of the aromatics. Like Pinot noir, the heavier toast tends to show the aromatics of the wine better than if it had more wood.”

Clay Mackey and Kay Simon, owners of Chinook Wines in Prosser, Wash., began making Cabernet franc as a kind of homage to the Cabernet franc of the Loire Valley. “Our role model is Chinon,” Mackey said. “They are just very drinkable wines, soft with low tannins and fairly low total acidity.”

The wine is a 100% varietal, bottled in a Burgundy bottle. “We do that to let people know that it isn’t a Bordeaux-style wine. We don’t want to confuse people, since we do make other Bordeaux reds,” he said. Mackey and Simon also make a dry rose from Cabernet franc, which he said sells our quickly.

To achieve the style they want, they manipulate the cap very carefully and use a light press. “We are not looking for extraction,” he said. Like others, they have found Cabernet franc takes special handling in the vineyard. “You have to get it fully ripe or it can have a green bell pepper character.”

The wine has been very successful in restaurants. Last year it was the No. 1 red wine sold in bottles at The Palace Kitchen in Seattle, the newest restaurant from Tom Douglas.

California Cabernet Franc

When Dave and Holly Nelson decided they wanted to get into the wine business in the early 1980s, they bought land in the Bennett Valley of Sonoma County. The site was evaluated and it was recommended they plant Cabernet franc.

Why? “At the time, everybody was saying there was too much Chardonnay, too much Cabernet Sauvignon,” Dave Nelson recalled with a chuckle. “So we thought we’d do something a little different.”

(I remember tasting the first Nelson Estate Cabernet franc–from the 1986 vintage– and it was a revelation. The intense floral and aromatic quality was astonishing. Why isn’t Cabernet franc more popular, I wondered at the time? I’m still trying to find out.)

For several years, the Nelsons made only Cabernet franc, however, in the early 1990s as Merlot became the grape du jour, they r-budded several acres of Cabernet franc to Merlot. “Merlot was in such demand that we had a hard time getting enough for blending into our Cabernet franc,” Nelson said.

However, as time went on, the Nelsons discovered that it was their Cabernet franc that customers remembered best and wanted to buy, even though they now produce Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Merlot and a port-style wine. “So now we have t-budded those vines back to Cabernet franc,” Nelson said. And, no surprise, the Merlot has a bit of Cabernet franc blended in.

Clos LaChance in San Martin is a relative newcomer to Cabernet franc. A small amount was bottled in 1997 and they have just released a second vintage, the 2000 Central Coast.

Marketing director Cheryl Murphy Durzy said they had originally intended the Cabernet franc for blending, but in 1997 and again in 2000 a few barrels of the varietal showed so well that winemaker Jeff Ritchey decided to bottle it as a varietal.

The current release was made almost entirely from grapes grown on the DeRose Vineyard in Cienega Valley, planted on well-drained loam. The vines are on bilateral trellising and the yield averages 3.5 tons per acre. The Clos LaChance estate vineyard will be coming on line this year. It is planted with all Bordeaux varietals, including 3 acres of Cabernet franc.

“There will be enough for a small bottling,” Durzy said, “as well as blending.” She believes there is strong consumer interest in Cabernet franc. “It’s something different and I think consumers like the varietal fruit character. We’re getting good feedback on it.”

Lang & Reed Wine Company in Napa is a rarity in the U.S. They produce only Cabernet franc. The winery was founded in 1996 by John and Tracey Skupny and named after their sons, J. Reed and Jerzy Lang Skupny. John Skupny, who has many years of experience on the marketing side of the wine business, said that it hasn’t been easy, especially given the present world situation, but sales are on pace with projections.

Skupny works with several different vineyards in Napa Valley, ranging from Atlas Peak to Calistoga. In an interview published in the Napa Valley Wine Library Report, Skupny said, “It seems, because of the limited choices of Cabernet franc clones and/or scion selections, that differences or distinguishing characteristics of the grape are predicated more upon the soil type and climatic conditions than clonal selection.

“Alluvial benchland sites have deep gravel soils with poor water retention and spare nutrients. These vineyards produce Cabernet francs that seem darker in color and flavor and in a certain way, are more complex and tannic. Vineyards located on the valley floor with denser loamy soils produce wines that are more fruit-forward with lighter textures in both the flavors and tannin structure. Ironically, it is this ‘lighter’ profile that displays to me a more true varietal character.”

The most common knock on Cabernet franc is that it produces “doughnut” wines–that is, wines that start and finish well but are empty in the center. Skupny says that fully mature fruit and the use of whole berry fermentation creates a fuller fruit impression in the mid-palate, without taking away either the opening aromatics or the long finish.

The hot markets for Lang & Reed are the metro areas, Skupny said. “My top markets are San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. We target accounts that are a little more aware. In some areas, they just don’t get what Cabernet franc is about.” Export markets are doing well, especially the UK, Japan, Hong Kong and France.

“Overall, I think Cabernet franc does well in markets where there is some knowledge of the Loire reds and where there is an appreciation of a good price-value ratio,” Skupny said.

“One thing for sure, there is no glut of Cabernet franc grapes. It’s hard to find the grapes we need.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Cabernet Franc A Favorite Coast To Coast

Cabernet franc is popping up all across the U.S. The varietal has already made a name for itself in Virginia and New York, but it’s now being widely planted in other areas as well, especially in cool or even cold climate locations.

In the Finger Lakes region of New York, Mark Wagner at Lamoreaux Landing said that from a growing standpoint it was a wonderful choice. “It’s disease resistant, it ripens every year to make a good solid red wine. Even in a year when it doesn’t reach 22 or 23[degrees] Brix, it will still have good flavor components, lust lighter flavors,” he said. “I really think it’s one of the best varietals for Finger Lakes.”

Wagner said he looked toward the Loire Valley for his Cabernet franc model. He said he had no problem with overcrapping as reported in other areas.

“The only downside is that not many people recognize it, so from a marketing standpoint, we need to educate people,” he said.

On the North Fork of Long island, Bruce and Christine Schneider at Schneider Vineyards produce two styles of Cabernet franc, a lighter Loire style called Le Breton and a Bordeaux blend with Cabernet franc making up the major part of the cuvee.

Winemaker Sean Capiaux, who has worked with Peter Michael and Pine Ridge in California, said during a tasting last year at Farallon restaurant in San Francisco that the winemaking style for Cabernet franc was very different on Long Island than California. “In California, you have to tame the tannins, in Long Island, we need more extraction.”

Bruce Schneider said Cabernet franc is a niche variety but more and more people are discovering it, especially in restaurants.

Dennis Horton at Horton Vineyards in Virginia said Cabernet franc is an important variety in that state and will become mare important as time goes on. “Our growing season is long but can be a bit problematic at harvest. We do get rain. Now with Cabernet Sauvignon, if we get an inch of rain, acids will drop, pH will rise and sugars will drop, say from 22[degrees] Brix to 19 or 19.5. And it could take three weeks for the sugars and acids to come back. Then another inch of rain and you are back to square one,” he said.

Cabernet franc, on the other hand, is not so affected by rain. “It can rain an inch on Cabernet franc and sugars, acids and pH hold steady. It makes it easier to deal with in the vineyard and in the winery. The less you have to do to a wine, the better the wine.” Horton said as vineyards are replanted, Cabernet franc is replacing Cabernet Sauvignon across the state.

He blends about 10% Tannat (the red grape associated with the Madiran appellation in southwest France) with Cabernet franc to add structure. “Our goal with Cab franc is a fruit-forward wine, more in the Loire style,” Horton said. He added that Tannat is also gaining favor in Virginia. “It is a good blending grape. It’s like a chameleon. You can blend 10 or 12% into the wine and it doesn’t take it over.”

One of the latest plantings of Cabernet franc is at Tidal School Vineyard, near Tulsa, Okla., where 800 vines were planted this spring. Tidal School’s winemaker Roger Wilson said he believed Cabernet franc is the right choice for Oklahoma.

So from coast to coast and most points in between, Cabernet franc appears to be moving up fast.

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