Complex Cabernet Franc
Wines made from the Cabernet Franc red grape can be delightful, serious, light, or complex.
In the D'Anjou district of the Loire Valley in France, this grape is often the base of many dry
or semi-dry Rosés. The curse of Cabernet Franc is that it was once primarily grown in
Bordeaux and used as a blending grape to soften and brighten the large, tannic, omnipresent
Cabernet Sauvignon (the primary grape used in Bordeaux). It has long lived in the
shadow of the supposed "king" of all grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon.
Most wine writers who evaluate Cabernet Franc compare it to Cabernet Sauvignon in such terms that Cabernet Sauvignon is the prosperous and wise uncle and Cab Franc is the poor, clueless, lost nephew. (Ironically, recent DNA testing has determined that Cabernet Franc is the "father" of Cabernet Sauvignon - the two parents being Cab Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.)
If nothing else, highlighting the differences between
the two can illuminate the dimensions of Cabernet
Franc for those who are more familiar with wines
made from Cabernet Sauvignon. So, let us get over
the comparisons that have been made between
these two grapes, and concentrate on the merits
of Cab Franc.
Cabernet Franc tends to be more herbaceous, lower in tannin, lighter in color, and takes less time to age to perfection. Its flavor profile, unlike the serious, big, and dank flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon, is far more approachable. Cab Franc is full of perfumey aromas and tastes of red and black raspberries, violets, plums, cooked blueberries, fresh strawberries, and yes, cranberries. Most importantly, there are big underlying herbal notes of rosemary and licorice, and a spiciness that Cabernet Sauvignon often lacks. Most Cab Francs have been described as being spicy, with elements of black pepper and an herbal or vegetative quality. Superior Cab Francs have complex layers of soft herbal textures, while lower quality ones can possess a grassiness that is not pleasing to some palates.
Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, the relatively lean tannin structure and medium body of Cab Francs have a very welcoming presence of soft earth, cigar box, and chocolate. Also, these wines can have many layers of berries, cranberries, some light red cherries, and a round body that makes the wine interesting to drink over the course of an entire dinner. The aging potential of Cabernet Franc is good, with lighter ones peaking in three to five years, and more "serious" ones peaking in seven to ten years.
Since the 1970s, the cultivation of Cab Franc has extended further north in France away from the warmer Bordeaux districts to the cooler Loire Valley. The cooler growing conditions in the Loire Valley bring out the finer qualities of Cabernet Franc. This discovery has encouraged growers in other cool growing regions, such as our own Hudson Valley, to begin planting Cabernet Franc in earnest and to make more wines from this former ugly "step-child" of the Bordeaux.
Hudson Valley Cabernet Francs tend to be mediumbodied wines with floral aromas of red and black raspberries, cranberries, and muted herbal flavors. In good growing years, these wines can have a hefty body with more depth, and undertones of chocolate and earth. Cabernet Franc is also a very good blending grape that gives more presence and complexity to already complex wine grapes such as Chambourcin, Chelois or Chancellor. In fact, in the Loire, the Chambourcin grape is a companion grape that is grown and blended with Cabernet Franc to either make light summer rosé wines or to make medium-bodied reds.
The Hudson Valley is uniquely suited to produce both big complex Cab Francs and the kinds of lighterbodied reds that are currently being made in the Loire Valley. I welcome you to purchase a locally produced Cab Franc and compare it to one made in the Loire Valley. I think that you may be pleasantly surprised.
Articles are adapted from the forthcoming book “Grapes of the Hudson Valley” by J. Stephen Casscles. In future issues of Hudson Valley Wine Magazine, we’ll continue to feature additional excerpts from this definitive work on regional varietals culled from decades of the author’s tasting notes and personal experience. PHOTO: Randall Tagg Photography .