- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
Cabernet Franc: The Next Big Grape?
If Chardonnay is the “Vanilla” of the commercial wine world, then Cabernet Sauvignon is its “Chocolate.” These two grapes, and the wines made from them, seem to dominate both the marketplace and the collective palate of many wine lovers. Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling are gaining more of an audience among white wine drinkers, while Pinot Noir, Syrah/Shiraz, and Zinfandel certainly attract the attention of red wine aficionados. With some notable exceptions the overwhelming majority of Merlot-based wines taste like Cabernet Sauvignon on Prozac, but apparently Merlot will always have its adherents.
Italian red wine lovers pay close attention to Sangiovese and Nebbiolo grapes, but only a select view have investigated the pleasures of Aglianico, Nero d’Avola, Negroamaro, Cannonau, or Primitivo. If you appreciate Spanish wines you may have heard of the Tempranillo grape, but who thinks about Garnacha, Monastrell, or Mencia (for Spanish reds), and Viura, Verdejo, and Albariño (for whites)? Quick- name any Portuguese wine grape. The quality of red wines made from Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca, Alvarelhão, or Baga grapes can be extraordinary, while Loureiro, Trajadura, Alvarinho, and Arinto grapes produce exciting whites. Ever tried Dornfelder or Rotberger from Germany (both red)? Grüner Veltliner (white) or Blaunfränkisch (red) from Austria? Kadarka (red) from Hungary? Chasselas (white) or Dôle (red) from Switzerland? Xynomavro (red) or Assyrtiko (white) from Greece?
Get the picture? There is more to life than vanilla and chocolate, but often we must challenge ourselves to explore the world, or at least the world of wine, to make the discoveries that might just redefine the way we think, feel, and above all, taste. Such exploration can become an exciting journey, a lifelong quest.
Yet, sometimes the Next Big Grape does not have to be lifted from obscurity, but is hiding in plain sight. As is often the case with such a grape you may have even tasted its nectar but never knew what grape you were tasting because the wine label did not mention the varietal. Instead, the bottle boasted the name of a village in the Loire Valley or the proprietary name of a Bordeaux château. The grape I’m thinking of has many hiding places: Yes, Bordeaux and Loire, but also the Napa Valley and Niagara Peninsula, Veneto and Long Island, the Finger Lakes and Friuli.
The grape is Cabernet Franc. In much of the modern wine world, Cabernet Franc has long been considered a workhorse; a humble blender for the much better known and more highly regarded Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. No doubt Cabernet Franc has performed its blending duties well, especially in Bordeaux and in California, but it has also established itself as an increasingly important varietal in both the old and new worlds. This workhorse, so capable of producing extraordinarily elegant red wines, is poised to become the Seabiscuit of vitis vinifera.
Why does Cabernet Franc live in the shadow of Cabernet Sauvignon? If we know of the grape at all, it is usually as a Bordeaux blender; judicious amounts of Cabernet Franc and Merlot (and sometimes a bit of Malbec and Petit Verdot) are used to tweak the esteemed Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines of Médoc and Graves – the “Left Bank” of Bordeaux. Realistically, in this region it is often easy to tell the difference between wines produced from Cabernet Sauvignon and those produced from Cabernet Franc. “Franc”-based wines exhibit lower acidity, less pronounced tannins, lighter color extraction, and greener, more herbaceous aromatics. It rarely achieves the complexity that wines made from ripe Cabernet Sauvignon can achieve. In the best vintages of Bordeaux’s Left Bank, Cabernet Franc is used in tiny amounts, and its character is –intentionally- barely noticeable.
So why grow Cabernet Franc at all? Why not just use Cabernet Sauvignon, soften it up with Merlot, and call it a day?
The appeal of “Franc” is that it thrives in colder weather than Cabernet Sauvignon, and so in Bordeaux’s not-uncommon cooler vintages, Cabernet Franc stands a better chance of fully ripening than its more highly-regarded but warmer-weather loving sibling. The smart Left Bank vignerons plant Franc as an insurance policy against cold weather, raising the percentage of the cool climate ripener whenever necessary.
The “Right Bank” of Bordeaux, which stars the appellations of St.-Emilion and Pomerol is a different story, especially cool-climate St.-Emilion (Merlot is the undisputed king in Pomerol; Château Petrus can be as much as 95% Merlot in near-perfect vintages). Cabernet Sauvignon rarely ripens successfully in St.-Emilion, and so the wines rely on the lush sexy Merlot coupled with a healthy dose of the angular, restrained structure of Cabernet Franc. Most wines in St.-Emilion contain somewhat more Merlot than Franc, but quite a few wines use more Franc. The best example is one of the world’s finest red wines, Château Cheval Blanc (the 2000 vintage, if you can find it, is currently selling for close to $2,000 per bottle). You can find fine St.-Emilion from a myriad of châteaux starting at under $20 per bottle, with quite a few under $35.
France’s Loire Valley, best known for its white wines, is home to wonderful-but-not-much-heralded Cabernet Franc-based wines. The three mid-Loire villages of Chinon, Bourgeuil, and Saumur-Champigny comprise the epicenter for these medium-bodied, luscious reds. Chinon, the traditional “house red” of Paris bistros and brasseries, is perhaps the easiest to find in the American market, but all three are worth seeking out. Prices should be around $15-$20. These Franc-based reds show the grape to great advantage, ramping up its acidity and fruit; Loire is considerably cooler than Bordeaux.
Cabernet Franc has been widely planted in the relatively cool environs of northeast Italy for the last two centuries, especially in Veneto, and more recently in Friuli Venezia-Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige. Up until relatively recently the grape was mistaken for Merlot (the same mistake has been made in California, but the motives for the error in the Golden State are suspect; Merlot almost always sells for a lot more money than Cabernet Franc). Recently, I visited Friuli, home to some extraordinary white wines. The reds, while good, were not as exciting. I did notice, however, that many of these wines were labeled on bottles and cited on restaurant wine lists simply as “Cabernet.” Fill in the Franc. Here the wine is pleasant, easy-drinking, and meant for early consumption, but not a lot of Italian Cabernet Franc is found in the American market.
Over the last five or six years, California has begun to embrace Cabernet Franc as a varietal. Well-known producers, many of them in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino, who not long ago used Franc strictly as a blender with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, have begun to produce varietal-labeled Cabernet Franc. Fine wines are produced by Pride Mountain, Niebaum-Coppola, Steele, Lang &Reed, Peju, Imagery, Geyser Peak, Iron Horse/T-Bar-T, Conn Creek, Chappellet, and Alexander Valley Vineyards, among many others. Prices start in the mid teens and top out at about $50, with most wines selling in the $20-$28 range.
New York State is a helluva lot colder than most of California, and cool-climate Cabernet Franc shines in both the Finger Lakes region and on Long Island. Really impressive wines are produced by Konstantin Frank, Red Newt, Glenora, Standing Stone, Lucas, Anthony Road, Fox Run, and Knapp in the Finger Lakes, while Wölffer Estate, Schneider, Castello di Borghese, Paumanok, Palmer, and Macari are some of the better producers on Long Island. Also, in the Hudson Valley region, Millbrook almost always produces a fine Cabernet Franc. Prices for the New York wines run from the low teens to about $40, with most wines under $20. These gems are certainly worth a search.
Pairing Cabernet Franc with food is fun. Depending on the style of the wine, hearty white and red meat dishes (without elaborate sauces), mushrooms, earthy pasta dishes, semi-soft to medium-hard cheeses will do just fine, and don’t forget a bountiful burger or a perfect pizza.
I think you’ll find that Cabernet Franc will please you, your family, and your friends, but if they should resist the urge to try something new and exciting, you should try it anyway, taking strength from the immortal words of that great Southern gent, Rhett Butler:
“Franc-ly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”