For a grape that is a parent (with Sauvignon Blanc) of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc doesn’t get much attention in California. Loire Valley, yes. Bordeaux, certainly. Virginia, absolutely. Golden State? Not so much.
Cab Franc’s kudos come largely from California winemakers who use it as a “secret sauce” to jazz up Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Cab Franc can add complexity in the way of perfumed aroma and an herbal character that adds a pleasant herbal edge to the typically fruitier Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
But as a stand-alone varietal, California Cab Franc is nearly invisible to consumers. And that’s a shame, because it can be more interesting and compatible with a broader range of foods than king Cabernet Sauvignon and queen Merlot. It has wonderful floral nose and is typically more savory than fruity, more herbal than jam jar, and more structured in acidity than its Bordeaux grape brethren. Cabernet Franc might not be the most ideal wine to sip before dinner, but it’s an extraordinary companion during it, with beef, lamb, veal, pork, earthy mushrooms and dishes with a strong herbal component.
Rarely will Cal Cab Franc be a fruit bomb, in the parlance of Robert Parker Jr. Because of that, it will appeal to those who appreciate nuance, charm and fragrance over power and huge tannins. It’s plenty fruity -- black currant, black cherry, red cherry -- but with underlying notes of tobacco, green herbs and salty anise, which help bridge the wine to sage, basil, thyme, rosemary, tarragon and other seasonings.
Since few want to drink an overly herbaceous, weedy, bell-peppery wine, Cabernet Franc needs special care in the vineyard to keep its inherently “green” tendency in check. It’s vital to control grapevine vigor through canopy management and judicious irrigation, so that the vines devote their energies to ripening clusters and not on pushing out new growth.
The grape likes a long, cool, even growing season to ripen fully and reduce any overt herbaceous character. More finicky than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Cabernet Franc comes with more risk in the vineyard and less reward for growers. Yet in Napa Valley, winemakers scramble to find high-quality Cab Franc for their Bordeaux-style blends, and more than a few refuse to disclose the vineyard source of their grapes, for fear they will lose them to another winery.
In Napa Valley, Dalla Valle winery’s “Maya” bottling is traditionally a 50-50 blend of Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon. Delia Viader and her winemaker son produce a similar blend, called Viader, and a varietal Cab Franc from Howell Mountain under the “Dare by Viader” label. The 2011 vintage is muscular for a Cab Franc, though remains varietally true. The same can be said of La Jota’s 2011 Howell Mountain Cabernet Franc -- sturdy yet remarkably balanced.
No one is more smitten with Cabernet Franc in Napa than John and Tracey Skupny. They produce only two wines -- a blended North Coast Cab Franc and a single-clone, Napa Valley CF called Two-Fourteen -- under their Lang & Reed Wine Co. label. Both wines (2012 vintage) are fresh-tasting and fragrant, with Two-Fourteen showing more concentration and depth.
Restraint and elegance are the trademarks of Rob Sinskey’s 2011 Vandal Vineyard Carneros Cabernet Franc from Robert Sinskey Vineyards -- thanks, no doubt, to a climate that’s cooler than of Howell Mountain, and spot-on timing in picking the grapes.
Sonoma has its Cab Francophiles, too. Betsy and Bill Nachbauer’s 2011 Acorn Alegria Vineyard Cabernet Franc, sourced from the eastern edge of Russian River Valley, has a brisk 13 percent alcohol content yet is loaded with black cherry, anise and tobacco flavors, leafy herbs on the nose and supple tannins. Additionally, Raymond Burr Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley has long been a proponent of the “secret sauce” grape as a varietal bottling.
With these standby performers duly noted, I hasten to emphasize that it was two recent tastings that spurred this column, tastings at which I discovered two outstanding Cabernet Francs from unsuspecting producers.
The first was the 2011 Goosecross Cellars State Lane Yountville Napa Valley Cabernet Franc ($49). Under new owner Christi Coors Ficelli (yes, that Coors), Goosecross hired former Duckhorn Vineyards winemaker Bill Nancarrow in February 2013, and that decision is reaping immediate benefits. The wine is super-bright and crisp, with an inviting aroma of violets and leafy herbs and a medium-rich, focused palate of blackberry, blueberry, a hint of bacon fat and savory spice. It’s utterly delicious, and a fine example of what Cab Franc can do in Northern California.
The second pleasant surprise was the 2011 Lexington Wine Co. Gist Ranch Estate Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Franc $49). The wine was made by Tom Fogarty Jr. and Nathan Kandler of Thomas Fogarty Vineyards, best known for its Burgundian varietals. Lexington is devoted to Bordeaux grapes, and this Cab Franc has an intriguing salty-licorice character from sip to swallow, plus succulent black plum fruit, background fresh herbs and a mouthwatering finish. It’s a great start for this newcomer, and also an object lesson in how fully California can actualize Cab Franc’s lofty potential….