Cabernet Franc, cultivated over the last 700 years, has recently become newsworthy. Not splashy, front-page stuff, but trends of genuine interest to wine lovers. Out of Bordeaux, vignerons are re-thinking the varietal mix in reaction to global warming and Cabernet Franc is getting serious consideration. Recently highly successful vintages (2015, 2017, 2018) in the Loire Valley have Roger Voss, a colleague, writing, ``It's a great time to enjoy Cabernet Franc from the Loire.” And in California. where acreage is on the increase, the Lang & Reed Winery in Napa Valley is celebrating its 25th vintage as Cabernet Franc specialists.
Back in 1996, Tracey and John Skupny launched Lang & Reed, their small winery based in Napa Valley and made Cabernet Franc their flagship wine. Named after their two sons, Reed and Jerzy Lang, Lang & Reed Winery is now producing two Cab Francs, a “North Coast” version and a single vineyard Napa Valley wine, “Two-Fourteen.” Based on my reviews of these two wines, you’ll understand why I think this is also a great time to enjoy Cabernet Franc from California.
But back to a little history. John Skupny left the restaurant world in Kansas City and before long was in the Napa Valley working with Caymus Vineyards and the Wagners. He moved over to Niebaum-Coppola and helped the Coppola family reunite the Inglenook Estate to its original historic footprint. Meanwhile, Tracey was working with Spottswood when its Cabernet Sauvignon program blossomed.
But whatever possessed these two normal people who knew the wine business inside and out to single out Cabernet Franc in a Cabernet Sauvignon world? Well, to find out more I asked a few questions which John was happy to answer.
Q (Norm Roby): How did you arrive at the 2 styles you offer at Lang & Reed and how do they differ?
A (John Skupny): Tracey and I came to California in the early ‘80s with a better knowledge of European wines than California wines. With the Loire Valley reds, it seemed that most producers made two distinctly different styles of Franc, a ‘Vin de l'année' [wine of the year] and a 'Vin de Garde' [wine to age], a sort of Tuesday night style and a Saturday night style! We have stuck with that. Our 'North Coast' is a winemaker’s wine, composed of grapes from different terriors, different climates, blended to achieve something greater than any of the parts. Stylishly quaffable and versatile enough to be served on the cool side during hot weather, it's the kind of wine that can be served on the cool side during hot weather. The “Two-Fourteen” is a single vineyard [Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in S.E. Napa], single Clone – Entav 214 [Loire origin], and is a very pure expression of Franc with a little more heft and elegance than the North Coast.
Q: Was Cabernet Franc widely available when you started?
A: We made the Lang & Reed prototype in 1993 and commenced commercial production in 1996. Franc was available but limited in acreage, especially compared to Cabernet Sauvignon. I had good connections throughout the Napa Valley – this worked great until the early 2000’s when the ‘Uber’ blends started to dominate and draw from the limited plantings of Franc in Napa. We then looked towards Lake County to fill out our needs for more fruit. It turned out to be a great source not only for financial reasons but for style and quality reasons.
Q: Are there many clones?
A: When we started, the choices were limited, a couple clones from FPMS and various field selections, such as the two Niebaum selections and some from Phelps. Nothing dynamic or particularly healthy. In the early to mid-nineties the French released a couple very nice clones from the Entav/Inra collection. Two with Bordeaux origins and one from the Loire. We use a varied selection but do focus on the Entav 214 which was the Loire entry.
Q: Was it misidentified, say, before 1990?
A: There were a few places in which that might have been the case, the most noted [maybe legend] was a purported Franc vineyard at NapaNook that was later identified as Merlot, thus raising doubt about one of the Niebaum clones. I worked with both when I was at Niebaum-Coppola and they were quite different in terms of the resulting wines.
Q: Is it relatively easy to grow or are there problems?
A: Generally considered the “conservatively compassionate” grape, it is a mid-season bloomer and ripens mid-harvest. Yield is pretty steady [especially compared to Merlot] and it seems to favor being cane pruned versus cordon. It is susceptible to a range of viruses, mostly red leaf, but the newer clones perform much better than the old school ones, both in vine health and flavor results. It can be prolific in fertile or sandy soils but less so in rocky well drained locations.
Q: Many writers, especially those on Wikipedia, and others always mention Cabernet Franc’s bell pepper, green pepper and somewhat negative side. Is this merited or a bad rap?
A: All of the ‘Bordeaux’ family of grapes contain levels of pyrazines, but they seem to be exposed a little more in Franc. I think it is an important distinction and a varietal marker when present in a balanced way. It is a bit like dancing on a razor’s edge, you want your wine to be identified as Franc but you do not want it so intense as to be off-putting. Considering the effects of global warming there seems to be less wine made with overt pyrazines these days.
Q: How would you describe its aroma/taste profile?
A: First it is all about the perfume, often floral [violet] bathed in red fruits, strawberry/raspberry and even tart cherry with herbaceous tones that can include the bell pepper bit or sage and anise. Aromatically, there is often a bit of slate or wet cement, or more earthy notes, humus/mushroom. On the palate it is usually bright red fruits again, moderate to light tannins and, if done correctly there’s a nice lift in the finish. It works great as a blender to Cabernet Sauvignon as it adds to the aroma, and a tart lift in fruit and does not usually add to the tannin load. Most think Franc is a high acid grape which is really contrary to what it is. But its fruit profile is higher toned, thus giving the high acid impression. Freshness and lift are its basic traits.
Q: Does it need to be blended and, if so, what works best?
A: It does not need to be blended but most Napa/Sonoma producers seem to be bent on making baby claret out of it. Franc is a bit of a chameleon so it will take on the characteristics of other varieties being brought in, even in small amounts. Add Merlot – it gets fat and juicy; add Sauvignon it gets tougher and more tannic. Alone, it can shine as a complex but more quaffable wine. I have come to approach making it with a more deft hand, sort of less is more. I am often more informed by my Pinot Noir confreres, my style has always been to achieve balance and elegance rather than power and extract.
Q: Do you mention Chinon and other Loire regions when discussing your wines or does that confuse people?
A: That is sort of germane working East coast to West coast. It is easier to shorten the story in the East as most buyers ‘get’ the Loire Valley, less so in the West – but in the past 5+ years there has been an explosion of interest in wines from the Loire which has helped to a certain degree. One being that their prices and quality are rising which helps raise all the boats. Though we have always been inspired by the wines from the Loire, we cannot, nor would we want to exactly replicate them.
Q: What is the best approach you and your family use to introduce and explain Cab Franc to newcomers?
A: That Cabernet Franc deserves to grace a table for its own unique food friendly qualities, it is perfect bridge wine between Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. As it is often a little lighter, more delicate than Cabernet Sauvignon and can match a table that has wine lovers and neophytes at the same time. It has a very broad food affinity as the tannins are often more in check making it an appropriate wine for foods that have a little heat, be it Latin or Asian foods, yet make the classical matches of goat cheese and Rillettes really shine.
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Here are reviews of three Land & Reed wines that are well worth trying:
Lang & Reed (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Franc “Two-Fourteen” 2016
($85): The initial aromas from this dark hued wine are effusive raspberry and walnut, but then, with a little time in the glass, things really get intriguing. With each swirl, there emerge hints of truffle, then plum, and even an earthy, mushroom-y, tobacco component. Medium-full bodied, but the layered flavors of dark fruit and earthiness are lively and quite assertive while the tannins remain in the background. It leaves a final impression of youthful forwardness but with a solid structure that should see it age well for at least 5 years, maybe much longer. An excellent ambassador for the varietal. 96
Lang & Reed (North Coast, California) Cabernet Franc 2017
($29): Opening quickly in the glass, this combines fresh crushed berries with hints of dried herbs with a telltale floral element. This is medium-bodied, with a solid core of lovely plum fruit accented with a hint of tobacco leaf, leading to a slightly herbal finish with light tannin. It is pretty much the complete package for current enjoyment, but it showed extremely well a day later. The 2014 tasted a few weeks earlier was also impressive -- smooth, nuanced and delightful. The 2017 is built along the same lines. 93
Lang & Reed (Mendocino, California) Chenin Blanc 2019
($39): Here’s a wine that captures the best of the grape variety without being ultra ripe or even slightly sweet. With a light straw color and green edges, it opens with a subtle, crunchy, ripe pear aroma with light spice and wet stone in the background. Medium-bodied with a pleasing texture, it offers similar flavors which lean toward the quince, mineral side of the Chenin spectrum. It is compact and ends with a tangy, slightly salty finish. It held up surprisingly well with spicy Chinese fare, suggesting it is quite versatile. 91
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