The forgotten Cabernet: Cabernet Franc

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

08 August 2016

Cab Franc has always been overshadowed by its aristocratic Left Bank relative. But developments in the Loire and the New World are creating wines that we ignore at our peril. Tim Atkin MW reports 

There’s a famous photo by Diane Arbus called 'A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx', where the colossal Eddie is shown towering over Miriam and Yitzhak Carmel. They gaze up at their offspring with a mixture of awe and wonder, almost child-like in his gargantuan presence.

That New York family dynamic reminds me of the relationship between Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Sauvignon is such a huge deal – frequently described as the king of red grapes and an obsession for any self-respecting multi-millionaire who wants to make a wine that 'tastes just like Left Bank Bordeaux' – that it nearly always overshadows its cowering parent.

Cabernet Franc has the elegance of Burgundy, the spice of the Rhône Valley and the structure of Bordeaux

Bruwer Raats

Did I say parent? Indeed I did. Most people assume that Cabernet Sauvignon, not Cabernet Franc, is what the Australian winemaker Brian Croser calls 'the daddy' of the Carmenet Bordeaux family that includes Merlot, Carmenère and Petit Verdot, as well as the more esoteric Basque grape Hondarribi Beltza.

But Cabernet Sauvignon is, in fact, the child of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc: probably the result of a bit of causal cross-pollination in the 17th century.

What’s also now clear is that Cabernet Franc is a considerably older grape than Cabernet Sauvignon. Genetic profiling has established Cabernet Franc as one of the 'founder grapes' of the wine world, alongside Garganega, Gouais Blanc, Mondeuse Noire and Pinot Noir. Without Cabernet Franc, Bordeaux as we know it (not to mention all the other vineyards planted around the globe with Bordeaux varieties) simply wouldn’t exist.

Antiquity isn’t the same thing as popularity, however. The most reliable statistics, courtesy of the exhaustive Which Wine Grape Varieties are Grown Where? by economist and wine researcher Professor Kym Anderson, confirm what is obvious from a glance at a restaurant list or retail shelf: Cabernet Sauvignon is vastly more successful than Cabernet Franc. The former is now the most planted grape on the planet, with 290,091 hectares under vine, more than five times Cabernet Franc’s 53,599 hectares. And yet Cabernet Franc is slowly gaining in importance. In 2000, it represented 0.99% of the global vineyard and was the 32nd most planted variety. In 2010, those figures were 1.16% and 17th respectively.

In part, of course, Cabernet Franc has benefited from the rise and rise of Cabernet Sauvignon. As two of the five classic red Bordeaux varieties (alongside Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot), parent and child are often planted side by side. But that doesn’t invalidate its growth.

No one would argue that Cabernet Franc is about to usurp the position of Cabernet Sauvignon – an Oedipus complex in reverse, if you like – but its reputation as a grape in its own right, rather than just good blending material, is changing. As well as some great things from the Loire Valley, in the past year I’ve tasted exciting Cabernet Francs from Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain and the US. The data doesn’t specify how much of the world’s Cabernet Franc is unblended, but we’re definitely seeing an increase in the number of varietal wines.

Nearly 80% of the world’s Cabernet Franc comes from just two countries: France (36,948 hectares) and, more surprisingly, Italy (6,314 hectares), although a good deal of this may actually be Carmenère.

The only other nations with sizeable vineyards are the USA (7%), Hungary and Chile (2% each) and Argentina, Australia, Canada, South Africa and Spain (around 1% each). Such is France’s domination of the Cabernet Franc universe that the Languedoc has more extensive vineyards than the whole of the southern hemisphere put together.

The irony here is that the most famous Cabernet Franc of all is not a varietal, but a Bordeaux blend. Château Cheval Blanc in Saint-Emilion contains between 40 and 60% Cabernet Franc, always combined with Merlot. According to technical director Pierre-Olivier Clouet, Cabernet Franc brings 'aromatic complexity' to the assemblage. 'We get red fruits, but also floral notes of rose, lilac and violet, with some eucalyptus and liquorice.' The tannins are very long and fine, he adds.

I’ve never tasted them, but Clouet says that the château makes 180 bottles of varietal Cabernet Franc each year, 60 from each of its three different soil types (clay, sand and gravel). Like Château Trotte Vielle’s Vieilles Vignes, another high-end Saint-Emilion, these are not commercially available, alas. In fact, the only varietal Bordeaux Cabernet Franc that I know of is Château de Pitray’s Cuvée Cabernet Franc from Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux.

Cabernet Franc is an important component in many Right Bank blends, but it’s generally the minor partner. Jonathan Maltus’ garage wine Le Dôme is an exception with 85%, as is Château Lafleur in Pomerol, where Cabernet Franc can represent as much as 63% of the grand vin. On the Left Bank, however, it seems to be losing ground in Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blends.

Franc renaissance
If you want to source a pure Cabernet Franc from France, your best bet is the Loire Valley, even if the name of the variety is largely absent from labels. Breton, as it is known, is the main grape in Anjou Rouge, Anjou Villages, Anjou Villages Brissac, Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil, Chinon, Saumur Rouge and Saumur-Champigny.

Cabernet Sauvignon and sometimes Pineau d’Aunis are permitted partners in all of these appellations, usually with a limit of 10%, but most of the wines are pure Cabernet Francs. Indeed, the Loire has the highest concentration of varietal examples in the world.

Cabernet Franc is an old grape in the Loire – it was mentioned by French Renaissance writer and priest François Rabelais in the 15th century – but it can be a little austere at times. Part of the problem, according to the local courtier Charles Sydney, is tannin maturity.

'There’s been something of a generational shift,' he adds. 'If you taste the wines being made by younger winemakers like Jean-Hubert Lebreton at Domaine des Rochelles in Anjou Villages-Brissac, Benoît Amiraut at Domaine Amiraut in Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil and Jérôme Billard at Domaine de la Noblaie in Chinon, they show a very different understanding of extraction and ripeness.'

If you taste the wines being made by younger winemakers, they show a very different understanding of extraction and ripeness

Charles Sydney

This was also part of the idea behind Project Cabernet Franc, launched in the Loire Valley with the help of consultant oenologist Sam Harrop MW in 2008 to 'adapt Loire Valley reds to the 21st century, while retaining the classic, fresh and fruity qualities' of the grape.

The initiative has helped to change attitudes to the styles produced here. But for all that, Sydney thinks these are wines that show best in the on-trade. 'We’re getting sommeliers interested, which is great, because Loire reds tend to be food wines as the style is quite dry.'

'There’s definitely a Loire renaissance happening,' agrees Matt Wilkin MS of specialist importers H2Vin. 'People are increasingly interested in wines with 12.5% alcohol, because they’re just so drinkable.' Wilkin points to the success of producers such as Clos Rougeard in Saumur-Champigny, Domaine du Collier in Saumur and Philippe Alliet in Chinon. 'You get a lot of layers for your money. The wines really punch above their weight.'

What, meanwhile, are we to make of the extensive planting of Cabernet Franc, or rather 'Cabernet Franc', in Italy? Ian D’Agata, author of Native Wine Grapes of Italy, argues that 'practically all' of Italy’s pre-1980 plantings are in fact Carmenère.

The two varieties are mostly grown in the Alto Adige, Trentino, the Veneto and Friuli, but the country’s outstanding example, Le Macchiole’s Paleo Rosso, comes from Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast, a region that might appear too warm for the grape, but clearly isn’t. The currently available 2009 is superb.

Cabernet Franc famously ripens a week or more before Cabernet Sauvignon (one reason why it is preferred in the Loire Valley), yet it does well in warmer climates, such as Washington State, South Africa and Argentina, and, crucially, retains its acidity. If anything, getting the grapes riper helps to avoid what some people regard as the excessively green, vegetal characters that can also be the result of over-cropping.

Bruwer Raats of Raats Family Wines in Stellenbosch, who specialises in Cabernet Franc, says that if you can avoid the 'grassy, green pepper characters then it’s the best single variety in the world. Cabernet Franc has the elegance of Burgundy, the spice of the Rhône Valley and the structure of Bordeaux.'

Raats believes that there’s 'definitely something happening internationally' with Cabernet Franc, and that the Cape is part of that trend. 'Five years ago, there were 28 varietal Cabernet Francs in South Africa; now there are 60.'

Today South Africa, tomorrow China, Brazil, Chile, New Zealand, or Canada – all of which grow Cabernet Franc. For the time being, however, the New World country that is making a disproportionate amount of noise with its 681 hectares of the variety is Argentina, particularly on the limestone-rich soils of Gualtallary at the northern end of the Uco Valley.

Cabernet Franc in SWA

Cabernet Franc’s performance in the Sommelier Wine Awards has, until recently, been unimpressive. Entries from the Loire remain scarce – and medals even more so, with tasters frequently complaining of hard tannins and under-ripeness.

Nor had the New World made much of an impact with the grape until last year, when entries leapt significantly. Moreover, the wines were popular with the tasters. Fifteen awards (three of them gold) put it ahead of Chenin Blanc, Riesling and even Red Burgundy. This year saw another good haul and more positive feedback, suggesting that – from the New World at least – this could be a trend with real longevity.

The future of Argentina
Alejandro Vigil, who makes the wines at Catena as well as at his joint venture Bodega Aleanna, thinks Cabernet Franc is the 'future of Argentina', both as a blending component with Malbec and other Bordeaux grapes, and as a varietal. In addition to Vigil, Andeluna, Pulenta Estate, Per Se, Salentein, tres 14, Zorzal and Zuccardi are all doing great things.

Yet in Argentina, as in Bordeaux and elsewhere, there are plenty of people who think Cabernet Franc is inferior to Cabernet Sauvignon. Paul Hobbs, an American consultant who produces some of Argentina’s most famous wines at Viña Cobos from Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, is considering making a varietal Cab Franc under his second label, Bramare, but says he wouldn’t go above 85% in the finished wine. 'Cabernet Franc is too linear on its own,' he says. 'It needs one or more friends to show at its best.'

Cabernet Franc is more in demand than it has ever been, with a growing number of exciting, unblended examples and a renaissance in the Loire Valley, its French homeland, but that parent-child relationship continues to hamper its progress. For now at least, the son still overshadows the father.

Franc exchange of views: From BA to Hoxton, there’s a whole lotta somm love for Cab Franc.

Morgan Harris, Aureole, New York
Few varieties mix savoury and fruity flavours so easily...
'I still think people are a little confused about what it’s actually supposed to taste like, but there’s definitely an uptick in a desire for more everyday, 'vin de soif'-style reds. Few varieties mix savoury and fruity flavours as easily as Cabernet Franc. Its biggest problem is its general lack of varietal typicity outside of a few key regions. New World wines are often too ripe and oaky to be recognisable; the Loire Valley appellations offer more quality for the money.'

Andrés Rosberg, Fierro Hotel, Buenos Aires
Its versatility is impressive...
'Although it has been an ingredient in Argentine wines since the late 1800s, we are only now starting to realise the potential Cabernet Franc has in Argentina. Its versatility is impressive: it works on its own, in blends, or co-fermented with Malbec. It can yield fruity rosés such as Plop!, big reds such as Gran Enemigo, and everything in between – and do it in great style. And it also adapts fantastically to our different terroirs, making great wines in Maipú, Luján de Cuyo, Uco Valley and even Patagonia.'

Michael Sager, Sager + Wilde
You can buy old Chinons for no money at all...
'Cabernet Franc doesn’t mean much to supermarket consumers, but in the London on-trade it’s really happening. Our customers love it once they’ve tried it, even if it’s not part of their vocabulary at first. In fact, at Sager + Wilde it’s our best-selling grape. Out of a list of 400 wines, 50 are Cabernet Francs, either from the Loire or the New World. You can buy old Chinons and Bourgueils for no money at all. We use them as an alternative to much more expensive Bordeaux.'

Nigel Wilkinson, RSJ Restaurant
People like the wines when they try them...
'There is definitely more interest, but Cabernet Franc is still not a grape people ask for by name very often. But because of the way it’s being made in the Loire now, people tend to like the wines when they try them. The fruit is riper and the tannins are softer, but you’ve lost none of the structure of the wines. The age-worthy ones are definitely attracting more attention, too. The buzz from other countries helps, but some people still take a lot of convincing.'

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