Last: Cabernet franc, the Rodney Dangerfield of the red wine realm
Considering it’s the parent of household varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, cabernet franc deserves more respect than it gets. In France’s Loire Valley, it’s considered a noble varietal and the best examples — from sub-regions that include Chinon and Saumer — are sought after by discerning wine lovers, but that’s a select, almost cult-like following. In Bordeaux, it finds its way into many red blends, typically playing second or third fiddle to merlot and cabernet sauvignon. It takes the lead role in one of the world’s most famous and expensive wines, the first-growth Bordeaux from Chateau Cheval Blanc. The wine is predominantly a blend of cab franc (55 per cent) and merlot, and it’s capable of aging for decades. Current vintages typically sell for about $1,000 a bottle, and way more for older vintages. In Tuscany’s famed Bolgheri region, Le Macchiole’s Paleo Rosso, a famous “super-Tuscan wine, enjoys a reputation as the finest example of the grape produced in Italy, although in truth there’s not much of it planted outside of Bolgheri.
Despite cab franc’s noble heritage, it remains somewhat of an enigma. It’s a red grape that tends to like cooler growing conditions, most notably the Loire, but B.C. and Ontario, for example, are having success with it as well. When it’s grown in warmer regions, such as Napa Valley and Bolgheri, the hotter climes tend to alter the grapes’ inherent character, which includes a distinctive green bell pepper note along with a grassy, sometimes weedy profile. That bell pepper trait comes from pyrazines, an aroma compound found in cab franc that most likely evolved to protect the vines from pests, such as leafhoppers and wine geeks. If the grapes don’t reach ideal levels of ripeness, that grassy bell pepper note can be unpleasant, but when everything’s in balance, it’s intriguing, alongside the red fruits, herb, and cocoa notes.
Winemakers like to utilize it as a blending grape; it has high acidity, a critical factor in all wine, and its pepper/mocha components can spice up a typically one-dimensional grape (I’m talking to you, merlot). Its origins are thought to be from the Basque region of the western Pyrenees before it was transplanted to Bordeaux and the Loire. DNA analysis revealed its most famous offspring, cabernet sauvignon, is a natural cross of cab franc and sauvignon blanc (another descendent of cab franc in itself). Chile’s carmenere (a French transplant that has flourished in the country) is another family member and you can certainly taste the lineage as it often displays an herbal, slightly grassy note. It ripens earlier than cabernet sauvignon so in regions like the Okanagan — where the growing season tends to be short and hot by viticultural standards — it has a lot of appeal.
Sumac Ridge Black Sage Cabernet Franc
This wine took a platinum award a couple of months back at the BCLG awards, a dense, spicy cab franc that’s nice and ripe and a good example of the Okanagan style.
Arnaud Lambert Montée des Roches
$47 (Market Wines)
Yves Lambert, son of the late Arnaud, is crafting some of the most sublime examples of cabernet franc in the Loire Valley, and well beyond. The grapes come from his Saint-Cyr vineyards, and he opts for elegance over extraction. Aged in neutral refill barrels and concrete eggs, the wine is expressive with vibrant acidity and hints of forest floor and raspberries (and no bell pepper notes).
Wing Canyon Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Franc
$118 (Richmond Hill Wines)
Here’s a luxury example of cab franc from the slopes of Mount Veeder in Napa. It’s a beauty, busting with dark cherry fruit, floral notes, spice, and a fair bit of tannic grip that will allow it to age gracefully for about 10 years or so.
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