California winemakers beginning to get it when it comes to cabernet franc 

click to enlarge Cabernet franc becomes a lighter, brighter version of its offspring, cabernet sauvignon, in warmer climates. - GETTY IMAGES
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  • Cabernet franc becomes a lighter, brighter version of its offspring, cabernet sauvignon, in warmer climates.

Here's a quick recap from last week: The grapes cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc have dominated vineyard space in much of California, especially Napa Valley, but much more exciting, to me, are the Bordeaux varieties cabernet franc and sémillon.

Last week I discussed the latter, so it's time to pay cab franc its due.

While its offspring, cabernet sauvignon, achieved much more worldwide acclaim, cab franc is responsible for producing some of the world's most coveted wines, including Château Cheval Blanc of St. Emilion, France, and Quintarelli Alzero from the Veneto region in Italy.

As France's Loire Valley has pervaded more wine drinkers' consciousness, Chinon, Bourgueil and even Saumur are garnering more attention and setting the standard for this grape in other parts of the world.

Years ago, the publisher of a wine magazine discussed the virtues of warmer-climate cab franc, at least where it was going in California. As a rule, you are not going to taste the herbal bordering on vegetal pepper quality so much, but instead would find a lighter, brighter version of cabernet sauvignon.

They also sometimes were almost indistinguishable from cabernet sauvignon, or in some cases California merlot with big brooding fruit and alcohol.

Happily, a new generation of California wine producers, and some old-timers, get what cab franc is all about and realize that what makes it beautiful is how it differs from cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The exceptional wines from the Loire Valley have no doubt influenced some of our brethren to try their hands at it, and I'm not only impressed but also excited.

Here are three must-tries. Like last week, they are a little pricier than usual, but worth it.

Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc, 2010 (North Coast): John and Tracey Skupny founded Lang & Reed in 1996, and all of the wines are composed of at least 50 percent cab franc. This wine is a blend of four vineyards, three from Lake County, including the High Chapparal that was planted on its own roots in the 1970s, and the Sugarloaf Vineyard from Napa. Medium bodied with lavender, tobacco, oregano and roasted red peppers with bright red fruits on the palate, it's a textbook example of California cab franc. Suggested retail: $24

Broc Cellars Cabernet Franc, 2012 (Paso Robles): Whether he's working with valdigue or chardonnay, Chris Brockway has a magic touch. What makes his cab franc more of a winemaking mystery is that it was sourced from one of the warmer wine areas in California, yet there is nothing about it that suggests over-ripe flavors, high alcohol (just 13.1 percent) or a lack of acidity. On the contrary, it has a good deal of fruit but is vibrant and fresh with spicy and floral notes. Suggested retail: $27

Gamling & McDuck Cabernet Franc, 2010 (Napa Valley): Gabrielle Shaffer and Adam McClary met in Minneapolis where both were working in the wine industry. Next thing you know, they moved to Napa to make chenin blanc and cabernet franc. Shaffer is the viticulturist at Stagecoach and Adam also manages Lava Vine in Calistoga. While relatively rich for the grape, G&M's cab franc hits all the notes, with tobacco and bay leaf, roasted red peppers and spice. But it also has a berry pie and stewed tomato quality, giving it a little more intensity and character. Suggested retail: $36

These wines can be found through Arlequin Wine Merchants, Bi-Rite Market, K&L Wine Merchants, Little Vine, Napa Valley Wine Exchange, Paul Marcus Wines, Vintage Berkeley (College Avenue) and Whole Foods (Franklin Street).

Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.

About The Author

Pamela S. Busch

Pamela Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched
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