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You may have never heard of it, but chances are you have consumed it. Get to know one of my favorite grapes, cabernet Franc, the ORIGINAL cabernet.

This week, we explore one of my favorite wine grapes — one with which you may not be familiar, but which you have almost certainly consumed. . .  cabernet Franc — or as I like to call it, the big-daddy of Bordeaux.  That little moniker is not necessarily an indication of the style in which cabernet Franc is generally produced,  rather an indication of the great number of grapes counted among its progeny.  Cabernet Franc is one of the parent grapes of not only cabernet sauvignon, but also merlot, and the less common (and now relegated mostly to Chile) carménѐre.  That means that cabernet Franc is, in some way, responsible for almost the entirety of the blend of most red Bordeaux wines and for most American cabernet sauvignon based wines (blended or not).  Compared to cabernet sauvignon, cabernet Franc tends to produce a lighter wine, with notes of pepper  (often bell-peppers and/or chipotle peppers), violets, and dark red berries.  Cabernet Franc also ripens earlier than cabernet sauvignon, making it very well suited to cooler climates — and a great way for wine growers to “hedge their bets” against unsupportive weather.  Most cabernet Franc is grown in eastern France, particularly in the areas of Bordeaux (surrounding the city of the same name) and in cooler portions of the Loire Valley (the longest wine region in France), but there are other regions for excellent cabernet Franc as well.  Let’s take a look at a few of them. . .

In Bordeaux, along the rivers that converge at the city of the same name, cabernet Franc is almost always part of a blend, as are most other grapes in this area.   The heaviest plantings of cabernet Franc occur on the right-bank, around Libourne  and Pomerol (not on the map), in vineyards that also tend to be planted with merlot.  These areas were discussed in last week’s article defending the much maligned merlot — but just in case you missed it, the key areas for cabernet Franc (and, to a large degree, merlot) in Bordeaux are:

  • Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac — Just to the west of the more famous areas of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion (each of which are discussed below), Fronsac and the smaller area of Canon-Fronsac are planted to about 80% merlot, followed by cabernet Franc (about 15%) and cabernet sauvignon.
  • Pomerol and Lalande-de-Pomerol —  Pomerol is planted to about 70% merlot, followed by cabernet Franc.  Expect notes of cocoa, plum, and violet along with beautiful, plush texture which makes them (unlike many higher-quality Bordeaux) very approachable and enjoyable when young.  Lalande-de-Pomerol is just to the north of Pomerol.
  • Saint-Émilion and its “satellites”– Along with Pomerol, Saint-Émilion is the most highly regarded of the right-bank Bordeaux appellations.  In fact, Saint-Émilion, like the famous Médoc communes, has its own classification system.  The Saint-Émilion classification was established in 1954, but unlike the famous 1855 left-bank classification, it requires reclassification every 10 years — although that required reclassification has met with a number of legal challenges over the past decade or so.   The classification establishes a “Grand Cru Classé” designation, with “category A” (superior) and “category B” levels.  The four “category A” Grand Cru Classé châteaux are:
    • Château Angelus (named for the nearby church bells calling parishioners to the Angelus prayers three times daily).
    • Château Ausone
    • Château Cheval Blanc — Château Cheval Blanc, made mostly of cabernet Franc with quite a bit of merlot, is the favorite wine of Miles in the film Sideways.
    • Château Pavie

Along the long and winding path of the Loire River Valley (running from Nantes to beyond Orléans), cabernet Franc may be found in the following appellations:

  • Anjou — A rather large appellation, centered around the city of Anger, Anjou produces quite a bit of cabernet Franc (although it is often blended with some cabernet sauvignon).  The region also produces quite a bit of white wine and some sparkling wine, but the real items of note here might just be two of the rosé appellations — Rosé d’Anjou (which may contain cabernet Franc) and Cabernet d’Anjou (which is made from cabernet Franc and cabernet sauvignon).  Both of these appellations are on the sweeter side, to counter the often green,vegetal character of the cabernet grapes.  Drier rosés may be produced from the larger area of the Loire Valley as Rosé de Loire — and must use at least 30% of one of the two cabernet grapes.
  • Saumur Champigny — Saumur Champigny is a red wine only appellation.  The wines here are predominantly cabernet Franc, but may contain up to 10% cabernet Franc or pineau d’Aunis (a relatively rare grape, sometimes called chenin noir).  Expect a certain spicy character from these wines.  
  •  St. Nicolas-Bourgueil (the last part rhymes with “poor soy”), Bourgueil, and Chinon — In the western portion of Touraine (the area surrounding the city of Tours), these three appellations produce what may be the classic examples of single varietal (or mostly single varietal) cabernet Franc available.  Chinon (the furthest south) is generally the fuller expression of the three appellations.  Expect red berries, violets, and spice notes (including anisette).

Growing regions outside of France are somewhat limited, but market trends in favor of lesser known grapes are helping to increase its planting and use.  In the near future, I would expect to see more and more cabernet Franc — and from more and more places (especially from cooler climates).  At present, other growing regions of note for cabernet Franc include:

  • Italy — In Italy, cabernet Franc is often confused with two of its offspring (cabernet sauvignon and carménère), so it is difficult to get an accurate grasp of its presence.  That said, cabernet Franc is quite successful in the northeastern, Tre Venezie regions of Friul-Venezia-Giulia (often shortened to “Friuli”) and the Veneto.  Being a cooler area, Friuli will generally yield the best bottlings.   In these regions you will often find cabernet Franc as a single varietal.  On the western coast, in the Tuscan appellations of Maremma, Bogheri, and Chianti, cabernet Franc will often appear as part of a blend (in Maremma and Bolgheri, often with other Bordeaux grapes; in Chianti, often with sangiovese (and a host of other minor grapes).  It should be noted that Italian wines labeled as “cabernet” are often mostly cabernet Franc (or a blend of the two cabernet grapes).
  • Canada –Cabernet Franc’s affinity for cooler weather has made Canada a significant grower of the grape, although most appears in blends or in the famous Canadian especially, ice wine.  Single varietal bottlings are becoming more readily available, particularly from Ontario.
  • United States — Cabernet Franc is grown in a surprising number of areas throughout the United States.  
    • California —  The grape first gained a foothold in this country in the 1980’s with California producers making Bordeaux styled blends (often labeled “meritage” — hint:  it rhymes with “heritage”).  Most (but certainly not all) California cabernet Franc comes from Sonoma and Napa counties.  
    • Washington — Cabernet Franc has also been successfully grown in Washington state, particularly in the Columbia Valley region(s).  Expect less of cabernet Franc’s typical vegetal, pepper notes and more fruit focused notes of blueberry and raspberry along with notes of coffee and olive.
    • Additional US growing regions can be quite surprising, including Colorado, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.  Some of the best “off the beaten path” examples can be found in New York State (particularly in the Finger Lakes and Long Island AVAs) and in Virginia. 
  • Argentina — Another Bordeaux grape (malbec) may be king in Argentina, but cabernet Franc is making increasing appearances as a top performer, particularly in the Mendoza region (although it may appear either solo or as part of a blend).  
  • Australia — Cabernet Franc is quite a significant grape in Australia, but you might never know it, as it is almost always part of a Bordeaux styled blend.  Cabernet Franc is most commonly found in the South Australia appellations of Clare Valley, Adelaide Hills, and McLaren Vale and the north-eastern corner of Victoria.

We hope that this exploration of cabernet Franc will help to show the significance of this often overlooked grape. Whether it shows up in your glass as a solo act or as part of a group, cabernet Franc is almost certain to delight. Over the years, this has become one of my favorite red wine grapes. Market trends seem to be suggesting that it is likely to become a favorite grape of many other people, too. . . Next week, we will explore the history and locales of malbec. Most wine lovers know malbec as an Argentine grape, but like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet Franc, and carménѐre, malbec is “originally from Bordeaux.” Join us next week for the next leg of the journey. . .