Cabernet Franc on the Rise

Friday, 13 February 2015

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The era of Cabernet Franc is nearly upon us. That's the conclusion I reached after visiting wineries on both coasts last year and imbibing at not a few of Instagram's most-trending #wine bars. Reader, the excitement is palpable and the smell of pepper-bramble-tobacco-olive is in the air.

I don't mean as a mass-market blockbuster. That'll never happen. The attributes that make some sing the wine's praises—the gossamer structure, the tingly acidity, the earthy, spicy and, yes, sometimes-herbal notes—cause plenty of others to tune it out. Its name dooms it to be forever overshadowed by perhaps the most famous wine in the world.

But the Cabernet Franc bubble is swelling. Racines, a chic new natural wine bar in New York's Tribeca neighborhood, sports, by my count, nearly 50 Cab Francs from France's middle Loire Valley, where Franc reigns among reds. Patrick Cappiello's Pearl & Ash, also of recent vintage, boasts even more than 50. Both venues feature verticals of single-cru wines back to the 1980s, including large-format bottlings, from the Loire's best red riders: Bernard BaudryCatherine & Pierre BretonOlga RaffaultCharles JoguetYannick Amirault and more. A great appeal of these wines, as Cabernet Francophiles know, is that plenty can be had for under $40—at restaurants.

It's not just a Manhattan thing. Numbers from trade agency InterLoire show that in 2014, the United States imported 1.72 million cases of Loire reds and rosés, which, with a few exceptions, are typically Cabernet Franc–based. That's over three times more the 506,000 cases of a decade before.

As retailers are learning they can sell it, winemakers around the world, outside Franc's historical home in France, are discovering, gleefully, how well they can grow it and what it brings to their wines. "Cab Franc is the Chanel No. 5 perfume of any wine. It just lifts you, it's amazing," enthused John Geber, owner of Chateau Tanunda in Australia's Barossa Valley, who recently planted 100 acres and has increased the percentage of it in his Three Graces blend.

"I think it's as close to Burgundian varieties as you get for a Bordeaux variety," said Steven Mirassou, ofSteven Kent Winery in California's Livermore Valley (of all places, you might think). By that, he means "how it reflects the temperature of the area it's grown in the wine, how much wood impacts the flavor and aromatic profile. You taste Bourgueil and you taste Chinon [Loire appellations], and there's this amazing searing acid line running through the wine that's really compelling." With the 2010 vintage, Mirassou began bottling the variety solo as well as upping the percentage of Cab Franc in his flagship Bordeaux blend.

In Napa and Sonoma, I met vintners who had become similarly bewitched in recent years. While tonnage hasn't really caught up with cellarmaster enthusiasm in the New World yet, Wine Spectator rated 82 Cabernet Francs outside France in 2014, from Washington to South Africa, 63 of them with scores at 85-plus points. Compare that with 59 and 31 in 2004.

You can probably figure out why winemakers and a certain breed of sommelier and drinker are so enamored of Cab Franc. "The elegance and the finesse of the wine versus the power" of others is how Gilles Martin, a veteran Long Island winemaker at estates like McCall, put it. "That's a wine that you can have with fish, as you do with Pinot."

Yes, our old friend Pinot, that other red that excels in cooler climates and produces site-reflective wines of medium weight, elegance, relatively high acidity and low alcohol—the darling of those who take issue with reds they find too fruity, too sweet, too alcoholic. (Incidentally, there are those who believe such clumsy-ballerina wines doomed the last "next big grape," Syrah.)

For winemakers who happen to farm in one of the many places Pinot Noir doesn't grow well, Cabernet Franc provides an intriguing possible alternative. "We've seen Cabernet Franc can be a lot like Pinot in the clonal selections, and that matching the clone to the area can be very important," said another Long Island longtimer, Rich Olsen-Harbich. Martin went further: "I think if people had known more about Cabernet Franc before they started out, this would have been the first variety planted on Long Island."

While Napa and Australia may have needed to come around to it, newer American wine regions like Long Island—places where viticulture is undeniably breaking out—often crown Cab Franc hometown hero as soon as they find how well it takes. Franc is the most-planted red variety in Virginia. It's equally comfortable in Missouri and Michigan, New York's Finger Lakes and even Niagara, where it's an unlikely vessel for ice wine. Burgeoning regions abroad hail it too: "In Israel, they have some beautiful Cabernet Franc," Bordeaux consultant—and recent Middle East maverick—Stéphane Derenoncourt told me. "This is the variety with which I was most impressed [there]."

The versatility and relative hardiness of Cab Franc make it an easier proposition for organic growing and "natural" winemaking, and the French farm accordingly. Such qualities prove you don't have to be a dainty vine to make an elegant wine.

Cabernet Franc unites francophiles, terroir snobs, locavores, "balance" freaks and plant geeks. It is complex and distinctive and often wonderful. Cabernet Franc is the wine for our moment.



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