Let’s talk about the other Cabernet

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After decades in the wilderness, Cabernet Franc is showing signs of hitting the big time. Winemakers and consumers alike have been won over by the drinkability and freshness of the wines this surprisingly adaptable variety produces. David Williams takes a look at the places where Cab Franc is creating the most excitement

 

If you’d asked a group of wine experts 20 years ago which grape varieties they thought were likely to be capturing the attention of winemakers and consumers in 2021, Cabernet Franc would probably not have been near the top of many lists.

Back then, in a period that could, in retrospect, be described as peak ripeness, when critics and their punters were demanding lushness, power and mouthfilling sweet fruit, Cab Franc’s charms were distinctly old school.

It was a variety that was best known for its role as the most widely planted red in the Loire, a region that many critics (and wine reference works) at the time thought was too marginal to produce great or even drinkable red wines in more than a couple of vintages each decade.

Elsewhere, the influence of Bordeaux held sway: Cab Franc could be a useful blending agent, something that could add a little stiffening crunch, leafy freshness or floral aroma to Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. On its own, however, it was too awkward, too light, not quite trusted to provide enough of a middle palate from vintage to vintage.

The past decade, however, has seen a transformation in Cabernet Franc’s fortunes so that the variety, if not exactly reaching the mainstream hall of fame reserved for the Big Red French Four of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah, has carved out a distinctive identity for itself. It has a growing fan base, certainly among the kind of knowledgeable, curious and adventurous consumers who are the lifeblood of the independent trade.

It’s a development that has undoubtedly been helped along by a bunch of wider wine-world trends: many Cab Francs fit in well with the recent appetite for lighter, refreshing, chillable reds with minimal oak. And winemakers and critics have recalibrated their definitions of ripeness to allow for the sort of crunch, crispness and verdancy that Cab Franc tends to provide even in warmer climates.

Just as important in shaping the Cab Franc renaissance, however, has been its embrace by producers all over the world who have understood that it can produce superb wines in a variety of terroirs along a spectrum of flavours and textures while always retaining its identity and an abiding sense of drinkability and freshness.

France: The Loire and other stories

The Loire has benefited enormously from the trend for chillable, fresh reds. And its various Cab Franc appellations – Anjou, Saumur, Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil, St-Nicolas de Bourgeuil and Chinon – remain the best places to source superb-value, summery Cabernet Franc wines.

But producers in the Loire are doing much more, these days, than merely providing Parisian brasseries with wines (many of them natural) to knock back by the pichet with steak frites. The effects of the climate crisis have made it much easier to ripen Cabernet Franc reliably in recent vintages. And many producers are consistently making vins de gardes to match Bordeaux for longevity and which appeal to classic claret drinkers looking for a cooler-vintage character that isn’t always on offer in some of Bordeaux’s warmer years.

Bordeaux itself remains the largest Cabernet Franc vineyard in the world, and Cabernet Franc’s freshness and crispness is increasingly prized as a means of retaining drinkability in blends. Away from the glamour and glitz of such Cab Franc-dominant big-hitters as Lafleur and Cheval Blanc, the variety is increasingly the main player in wines from the region’s more experimental fringe. And it has been used to good effect, too, in some of the cooler parts of the Languedoc.

Three to try: Domaine du Mortier St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil Les Sables 2017 (Vinetrail); Philippe Alliet Chinon 2019 (h2vin); Domaine Gayda Figure Libre Cabernet Franc 2019 (Domaine Gayda).

Argentina: Better than Malbec?

There isn’t a huge amount of Cabernet Franc in Argentina. In a vineyard that runs to more than 225,000ha, it doesn’t even make the top 10 of most planted varieties, its 700ha putting it far behind Malbec (which, predictably enough, leads the way with more than 40,000ha), but also Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah with 15,000ha and 13,000ha apiece.

But if the quantity of Cabernet Franc is, for the time being, not all that great, the quality is an altogether different matter.

Cabernet Franc seems to thrive in many of the country’s high-altitude terroirs, the play of day-night temperature variation and high UV producing wines that, at their best, are vividly expressive; those classic Cab Franc qualities of red and blackcurrant fruit, floral notes, pencil shavings, green shadings and crunchy acidity providing a nice contrast to the fleshier charms of Malbec.

Three to try: Bodegas Atamisque Serbal Cabernet Franc, Tupungato 2019 (Las Bodegas); Bodegas Aleanna Enemigo Cabernet Franc, Mendoza 2017 (Carte Blanche); Zorzal Eggo Cabernet Franc 2018 (Hallgarten & Novum Wines).

The Americas: From Chile to Virginia

Across the Andes in Chile, progress with Cabernet Franc has been slightly less spectacular than in Argentina, perhaps because Carmenère can play a similar role in providing a herbal alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon. But the quality from the handful of producers making varietal Cabernet Franc is similarly high, if more dispersed.

Given that Bordeaux was the original template for both regions’ red wine cultures, it’s not surprising that you can find good quality Cabernet Franc in both California and Washington State – and that producers in these western areas still tend to use it as a blending partner rather than a variety in its own right.

Cabernet Franc does, however, play a starring role in the burgeoning wine industries on the east coast, where vintners struggle to regularly ripen Cabernet Sauvignon: richly fruited versions from Virginia, and fresher, more Loire-esque styles from Long Island and the Finger Lakes.

Three to try: The Garage Wine Co Lot 82 Cabernet Franc, Maipo Alto, Chile 2016 (Freixenet Copestick); Red Newt Cellars Cabernet Franc, Finger Lakes, New York State, USA 2018 (The Wine Treasury); Barboursville Cabernet Franc Reserve, Virginia 2018 (Zonin UK).

Southern Franc: South Africa, Australia and New Zealand

Something rather curious has happened with Cabernet Franc in South Africa. While plantings have decreased to just over 800ha, the number of wines made from the variety has increased, going from 17 bottlings to 80 in the space of a decade.

The renaissance has been led by Loire-influenced producers such as Brüwer Raats, who saw the variety as a natural counterpart to his Chenin whites, but also by those who have followed a more Bordelais model, planting the variety as a blender, but soon discovering its solo charms.

It’s a similar story in Australia and New Zealand, with Cab Franc solo outings largely emerging from the areas where Bordeaux influence is strongest such as Margaret River and Hawke’s Bay.

Three to try: Keermont Pondokrug Cabernet Franc 2016 (Swig); Raats Family Cabernet Franc 2017 (Alliance Wine); Kelly Washington Cabernet Franc, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand 2018 (Laytons/Jeroboams).

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