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Mainstreaming Franc and Blanc
By Robert Whitley
Aug 11, 2009
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Over the years I’ve come to admire a number of grape varieties that I will charitably describe as out of the mainstream. I’m not talking about obscure grapes that sometimes find their way into an eclectic blend. Even I wouldn’t try to fob a Lladonner or Bourboulenc on you.

The object of my affection is fabulous wine made primarily from grapes that exist despite lack of strong consumer demand. Two of the greatest examples of this are Cabernet Franc and Pinot Blanc.

The public perception of Cabernet Franc holds it to be a useful blending grape rather than the dominant player in a single red wine. Its signature characteristic is a green, herbaceous aroma that is considered a nice complexity in small doses. Most wine experts, when encountering an herbal note while evaluating a red Bordeaux-style blend, would immediately attribute the hint of greenness to the presence of Cabernet Franc.

Often they are right. Just as often, they aren’t. Almost any red grape variety will exhibit that character if the grapes are under-ripe at harvest. Cabernet Franc bears the burden of this description because it is the primary red grape of the Loire Valley, which is very cool and often can’t fully ripen the Cabernet Franc grape. Hence Chinon, the most famous of the Loire Valley reds, is generally only considered top drawer in warmer vintages.

Yet Cabernet France thrives elsewhere. On the Right Bank of Bordeaux, near the village of Saint-Emilion, it’s an important grape in the production of some of the world’s most prized and expensive wines. And it is the primary grape used by the great Cheval Blanc, where winemaker Pierre Lurton gives all of the credit for the astonishing longevity of Cheval Blanc to the Cabernet Franc, which typically accounts for about two thirds of the cepages (the rest is Merlot).

In California, where the days are warm and the evenings cool, Cabernet Franc makes an exceptional red wine on its own, through seldom with the brawn and heft of Cabernet Sauvignon. Sonoma County’s Raymond Burr Vineyards produces award-winning Cabernet Franc (its 2006, $38, won a gold medal at this year’s San Diego International Wine Competition) on a consistent basis, and I’ve had some that have aged beautifully up to ten years and beyond.

And Santa Barbara County’s Foxen Winery, known best for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, makes one of the finest Cab Francs in the U.S. at about $40 national suggested retail. Other outstanding Cab Franc producers include Geyser Peak, Chappellet and Havens, just to name a few.

For those wine enthusiasts who are sometimes put off by the sheer weight and power of a bold California Cabernet, the elegance and nuance of Cab Franc could well be just what the doctor ordered.
I’m also fond of wines made primarily from the Pinot Blanc grape, which is seldom seen on domestic labels despite widespread popularity in France’s Alsace region and certain parts of northern Italy, where it is called Pinot Bianco.

Winemakers have a tendency to dismiss Pinot Blanc because they consider it the poor man’s Chardonnay, and thus it can’t command the price that a toip Chardonnay might fetch. That ugly duckling status is due in part to the fact that Pinot Blanc is clearly overshadowed in Alsace by the mighty Riesling grape, Pinot Gris and even Gewurztraminer.

There simply doesn’t seem to be much cache accorded Pinot Blanc, and indeed it lends itself to simple quaffing wines that are less expensive than other offerings from the region. It is slightly more well regarded in Italy’s Friuli and Alto Adige districts, but has zero profile here in the United States.

That’s a pity because the evidence shows Pinot Blanc can make a remarkable white wine.

Consider the venerable Monterey County icon, Chalone Vineyards. Chalone is renowned for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, yet over its 30-year history Chalone’s Pinot Blanc has consistently eclipsed its Chardonnay in quality. For elegance, refinement and complexity, the Chalone Pinot Blanc always won hands down to my taste buds.

Also from Monterey County was the stunningly good “White Burgundy” of Mirassou Winery. This was a 100 percent Pinot Blanc that sold for $7. It was probably the finest $7 bottle of wine in the world throughout the 1990s, but Mirassou ceased production after it was purchased by the Gallo winery some years back.

Now another winemaker from California’s Central Coast, Adam LaZarre, is trying his hand at Pinot Blanc. I tasted the 2007 LaZarre Pinot Blanc ($28) from Santa Barbara County and was impressed with its fruit intensity and palate weight.

“I’m using the Pinot Biancos of Alto Adige as my benchmarks,” said LaZarre. “They can be complex and oily, much like the style you will find in Alsace, and that’s what I’m striving for.”

LaZarre is fermenting and aging (for 15 months) his Pinot Blanc in oak barrels, but the wine doesn’t give the impression of wood on the nose or the palate because he uses older French oak barrels that are aromatically neutral. Their primary benefit is oxygenation and lees stirring (when the dead yeast cells and occasionally stirred in the bottom of the barrel to enhance texture and flavor).

Neither of these outstanding grape varieties is produced in abundance in this country. But both can make outstanding wines when subjected to rigorous vineyard practices and careful winemaking.

And it’s my sense that winemakers who choose to work with Cabernet Franc and Pinot Blanc do so because they believe in the grape. That kind of passion usually signals great care in the vineyard and meticulous winemaking. Combine that with good grapes and the result can well be something to behold.