Summer 2019

Cabernet Franc: From compelling cameo to starring role

Ellen Landis
Ellen Landis

For decades, Cabernet Franc has primarily played a cameo role in blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Bordeaux, France, and in the United States. Its lower tannins and alcohol levels help to temper the bigger, more powerful Cab Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. More approachable at a younger age, Cab Franc contributes a lovely aroma, softer feel, freshness and elegance to a bold blend.

In France’s Loire Valley, where plantings date back to the 14th century, Cab Franc has a longer history as a stand-alone variety. Also known as Breton there, many red and rosé wines are still primarily made from Cabernet Franc. The Château Cheval Blanc estate in Bordeaux’s Saint-Emilion (arguably crafting one of the world’s most prestigious and ageworthy wines) is dominated by Cabernet Franc. Given its versatility, it is not surprising that this worthy variety is now grown across the globe. In addition to France, countries growing Cab Franc include Italy, Hungary, Chile, Argentina, Australia, Croatia, Greece, New Zealand, Spain, South Africa, Canada (British Columbia, Prince Edward County and the Niagara Peninsula), and the United States (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, New York, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia).

Over the past few years in North America, Cab Franc has expanded its presence in a primary role, gaining accolades and respect from professionals and consumers alike. Dismiss past thoughts of Cab Franc being too vegetal, lacking structure or not impressive enough in its own right. Now is a better time than ever to reconsider or discover this breakout star that’s been hiding right under our noses.

Results from four wine competitions held within the past eight months support Cab Franc’s leap forward, showcasing excellent releases in the Pacific Northwest.

At the recent Wine Press Northwest Platinum Judging, among 22 gold-medal-winning Cab Franc entries, 37 percent went on to secure higher-level Platinum awards. At the February 2019 SavorNW Wine Awards competition, 23 entries were judged, and 31 percent secured gold honors. At the January 2019 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, 22 percent of Cab Franc entries secured gold or higher medals. At the 2019 American Fine Wine Competition in late January, a whopping 50 percent of the entries for this variety secured a gold or double gold award.

Here are a few fine examples from the Northwest:

Sigillo Cellars 2016 Cabernet Franc; Red Mountain, Washington ($35): This delightfully aromatic gem opens with juicy dark fruit on the nose and entry. Mirrored on the palate are black plums, tayberries, cherry vanilla notes and subtle oak nuances. Polished and well-knit with spicy notes persisting from start through zesty finish. www.sigillocellars.com

Walla Walla Vintners 2016 Cabernet Franc; Columbia Valley, Washington ($35): Expressive aromas of dark berries and a touch of spice rock! Juicy and ripe with blackberry jam, boysenberries, Asian tea, raspberry candy, savory spice, cedar, and graphite lighting up the taste buds. Well defined and perfectly balanced with firm tannins. Approachable now and ageworthy; one for the cellar. www.wallawallavintners.com

Seven Bridges Winery 2015 Seven Hills Vineyard Cabernet Franc Reserve; Walla Walla Valley, Washington ($38): This classy Cab Franc leads off with a dark fruit fragrance. Coating the mouth are layers of blackberries, raspberry sorbet, lead pencil shavings, allspice, minerality and hints of leather wrapped around well integrated tannins and vibrant acids. The finish lingers with a trace of crushed herbs. www.sevenbridgeswinery.com

Pebblestone Cellars 2014 Ellis Vineyards Cabernet Franc; Rogue Valley, Oregon ($24): This supple wine presents delectable flavors of black raspberries, plum sauce, spice-laced berry compote, a whiff of smoke, savoriness and bittersweet chocolate shavings. Drinking beautifully now, with its deep fruit, acidity, and refined tannins in clear balance. www.pebblestonecellars.com

Stemilt Creek Winery 2015 Transforming Traditions Estate Cabernet Franc; Columbia Valley, Washington ($32): A fragrant bowlful of berries on the nose draws you in, and the entry is mouthwatering. Flowing seamlessly onto the palate are succulent blueberries, cassis, hints of earthiness, tobacco leaf and dried marjoram. Precisely balanced and well-structured through the satin-smooth, lasting finish. www.stemiltcreek.com

South Stage Cellars 2013 Cabernet Franc; Southern Oregon ($29): The fruit focused aroma is a delightful intro to this expressive wine. Full bodied and mouthfilling with sun-ripened olallieberries, black currants, and ripe plum fruit exploding with vibrancy on the palate. Delicate crushed herbs and a suggestion of creamy roasted red pepper sauce add marvelous accents, and the finale is lip-smackingly delicious. www.southstagecellars.com

Tildio Winery 2014 Estate Cabernet Franc; Lake Chelan, Washington ($42): Earthy, wild berry scents and flavors are engaging with this complex, impeccably balanced Cab Franc. Dark brambleberries, cherry jam, anise seed, and pipe tobacco notes meld in harmony. Twenty-two months aging in new French oak barrels adds spicy elements, and the velvety texture and plush tannins are heavenly through the persistent finish. www.tildio.com

Season Cellars 2015 Cabernet Franc; Southern Oregon ($38): Enticing aromas of a stroll in a misty forest captivate the senses. Black plum preserves, cherry pastry, understated oak spice, graphite, herbaceous tones and a touch of fresh citrus enliven the palate. Elegant while being firmly structured, with a smooth texture and vivid flavors holding beyond the final drop. www.seasoncellars.com

Tamarack Cellars 2016 Cabernet Franc; Columbia Valley, Washington ($29.99): There is an alluring ethereal quality to this wine, starting with its perfumed aroma. It broadens gracefully on the palate as bright red Sweetheart cherries, red currants, fresh fig tart, pencil shavings and spice box notes entwine. A sprinkling of Herbes de Provence kicks in on the long, elegant finish. www.tamarackcellars.com

Cab Franc as a stand-alone variety has earned the spotlight and merits a fresh look. I challenge you to taste a few of these winners (and selections of your choosing) and see if you’re willing to join me in the expanding and vociferous Cab Franc fan club.

ELLEN LANDIS is a wine journalist, Certified Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), Certified Wine Specialist (Society of Wine Educators), Wine Educator and professional wine judge. She moderates for the highly acclaimed Vintner’s Holidays annual event at Yosemite’s Majestic hotel (aka the Ahwahnee), among other events, and was a Ritz Carlton Sommelier for years. She judges numerous national and international wine competitions annually. Reach Ellen at ellen@ellenonwine.com.

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