Cabernet Franc | July 2013


Cabernet Franc: Identity Crisis

In our short viticultural history, Cabernet Franc has long served as the Mid-Atlantic’s ‘go to’ red grape. It is relatively easy to grow and has enjoyed a certain marketing panache. The wine style is somewhat difficult to define. Some producers include Cabernet Franc in their structured Bordeaux style blends, while others focus on varietal bottlings that beg comparisons to an approachable, easy drinking red Loire.

The Vine

Cabernet Franc is easy to grow, but difficult to grow well. The vine is hardy, fairly disease resistant, crops well (too well in some cases), and is adaptable to many climates. It is a consistent producer without some of the idiosyncrasies of its cousins Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Grape growers love it.

However, Cabernet Franc has some quality issues that can only be addressed by proper soil selection and fastidious vineyard management. Cabernet Franc is an extremely vigorous vine. If grown on water retentive soils it grows like a weed. This can be a problem. An excessively dense canopy coupled with rampant vegetative growth that never stops can result in vegetal flavors and a green, hard structure in the wine. Planting Cabernet Franc on nutritionally poor, well-drained soils can result in a more balanced vine. Green shoots are more likely to stop their vegetal growth by August, just in time to concentrate on ripening grapes rather than producing new green growth.

Meticulous “green work” or canopy management can also help mitigate some of the vegetal notes sometimes found in Cabernet Franc wines. Green work involves removing undesirable parts of the vine during the growing season. Removing leaves and lateral shoots from around the grape clusters allows a bit of sunlight into the fruit zone. This can dramatically change the flavor and aroma profiles of Cabernet Franc. Vegetal notes evolve into fruit notes.

Timely removal of grape clusters can significantly improve the quality. Cabernet Franc has a reputation for asynchronistic berry development. Translated this means that it does not ripen uniformly and can have ripe, under-ripe and over-ripe clusters on the same vine at harvest time. Wines made under these conditions tend to be unharmonious with an unpleasant twang in the finish. “Green harvest” is the term for removing less developed (greener) clusters. This occurs in August as the grapes turn color (veraison) from green to purple. It is the only time that one can visibly see ripeness levels in grapes. Green harvest is done when about 80% of the berries have turned purple. At this time the grower clips off the clusters or parts of the clusters that have a lot of still green berries. Once they all turn color it is very difficult to visually determine varying ripeness levels.

Cabernet Franc has been cultivated for hundreds of years in Bordeaux, Loire and northeastern Italy. Because the grape has been important in all three areas, significant clonal differences have evolved. In the 1980’s and most of the 1990’s only one clone was available to most of us in the mid-Atlantic. Clone #1 as it is now known, produces simple, fruit driven wines without much structure. In the last decade many additional clones have been introduced to North America giving growers a better opportunity to grow a Cabernet Franc that will produce more structured, long lived wines.

The Winemaking

Winemaking decisions depend on stylistic goals. Stylistic goals depend on the characteristics of the grapes that are being harvested. This is why Cabernet Franc suffers from an identity crisis. It is a chameleon grape, effortlessly changing characteristics. Clone, soil, weather, and vineyard management can all significantly impact the style of the wine. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, which does not have a lot of wiggle room in terms of style, Cabernet Franc can be made fresh and fruity, almost Beaujolais like on one end of the spectrum, or structured, concentrated and tannic like some of the famous St. Emillion blends. Cabernet Franc typically is shy on tannins, but there are exceptions.

Probably the biggest winemaking quality advancement has been the introduction of the sorting table. Cabernet Franc tends toward the herbaceous spectrum of wine styles. The quality of Cabernet Franc wines can be elevated tremendously by the meticulous sorting out of stems and pink berries. Unripe cluster stem fragments and less ripe (pink) berries contribute undesirable green bean and asparagus aromas and flavors. They can overwhelm Cabernet Franc’s classic intriguing and complexing notes of herbaceousness. Savory is nice; vegetal is not.

Style

There are two Piedmont Cabernet Franc styles evolving. The first is as a varietal wine. Here, Cabernet Franc is pretty, easy, and fruit forward. It is best when young and fresh. For lack of any better comparisons, one could refer to this as ‘Loire” style, popular in Parisian wine bars. It is a style that sunny, dry California can’t do very well.

This bistro style Cabernet Franc pairs with a wide range of food and is one of the few red wines that can work with vegetarian dishes. Mushroom dishes or pasta with fresh herbs beg for a light, crisp Cabernet Franc.

The second style usually requires Cabernet Franc to be blended with its cousins Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Petit Verdot. This would make a denser wine with bigger tannins and ageability. This style is based on the blended wines of Bordeaux. Because of its structure and tannins, it is a red meat wine.

Recent Cabernet Franc Vintages

2008 was a classic vintage. A classic style reflects a typical growing season, which is not necessarily so common. 2008 Cabernet Franc was harvested ripe and balanced. The wines should be consumed now, as they don’t necessarily have the acidity or tannin structure for long-term aging.

2009 started out miserably and ended wonderfully. It has been my favorite vintage. The wines are fresh, focused, and have good aging potential. The best are just starting to get interesting with bright acidity and long tannins.

2010 was the East Coast’s ‘California’ vintage. Hot and dry conditions made for freakishly ripe (over ripe?) and sometimes alcoholic blowsy wines. These are show wines, but can be awkward at the dinner table. It would probably be best to drink 2010 Cabernet Francs over the next few years.

The 2011 growing season was actually similar to 2010 until late August when weather patterns parted ways. It rained almost every day during the harvest. Dilution and rot were concerns. Draconian sorting and conservative winemaking produced some solid wines. The best Cabernet Francs of 2011 are quite good and refreshing in the classic Loire style. These are great summer reds.

2012 is the vintage where Cabernet Franc shined. The Bordeaux clones not only resisted any damage from frequent rains, but also seemed to enjoy such conditions. They ripened slowly and evenly as other grape varieties fell apart under pressure. Most are not yet bottled, but we can expect great things. Stay tuned.


Flavor, July 2013


Jim Law