One night, many hundreds of years ago, the grapevines cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc nuzzled up to each other, somewhere in the Bordeaux region of France, and made a baby. They took the first halves of each of their names and called the kid “cabernet sauvignon.”
As with so many children, cabernet sauvignon has mightily outshone its parents. It is the most sought-after red wine grape on the globe and, unlike either of its parents, is planted in nearly every country that grows grapes into wine.
It ripens later than either of its parents, developing more color, structure and flavor. Its wine typically far exceeds either parent’s in cellar time or in price at the auction house.
And so, when considering the family as a whole, we pay faint praise to the parents when seeking their son. “Nice job, folks, thanks; now where’s the kid?”
But for my part (perhaps because I am a father myself), I think cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon’s “dad,” to be a more interesting wine. For one thing, it doesn’t have cabernet sauvignon’s standard of sameness; it’s different depending where and on what soils it grows and, sometimes, those differences are delicious.
Chinon and Bourgueil in the Loire, for example, grow and make cabernet franc wine that can differ greatly from that made in California or other parts of our country. The former, for instance, by and large take to a wider range of foods than the latter.
Cabernet franc is generally “lighter, paler, crisper, softer, more aromatic and silkier” than cabernet sauvignon, as Jancis Robinson writes in her encyclopedic tome, “Wine Grapes.” That’s all very pretty, isn’t it, especially when compared to the kid’s considerable clamp?
“There’s a lot of charm to it,” says John Skupny, who makes a couple cabernet francs at Napa Valley’s Lang & Reed Wine Company (named after Skupny’s own two boys – ha). “I favor a ‘less is more’ approach,” he says, “and seek to bring forth nuance and subtly over power or density.
“It’s got a lot of perfume,” he adds, “which is why I think so many women prefer it to cabernet sauvignon.”
Cabernet franc even has a vineyard personality wildly different – and sometimes exasperatingly so – from its son. Stick a stick of cabernet sauvignon wood in the ground; come back a year later; pick the grapes.
But with cabernet franc, it’s not so easy. The kid may be easy to live with, but the old man is persnickety.
“It needs a long, cool, even growing season,” says Rob Sinskey of Robert Sinskey Vineyards, “in order that it ripen slowly, properly.” That is to avoid cabernet franc’s great pushback as a vine: a vegetative accent in the finished wine as if an asparagus stalk was stuck into your glass.
On the other hand, notes Christopher Carpenter, winemaker for La Jota Vineyard Co. in Napa Valley, “that ‘greenness’ is endemic to all the Bordeaux varieties (of which cabernet franc is one).” So true; vegetative accents brought down a lot of merlot, worldwide, in the early 2000s; and cabernet sauvignon itself, considered the greatest of the Bordeaux varieties, gets the green when under-ripe or over-cropped.
“What I like to do,” says Carpenter, “is get (the cabernet franc vine) enough light so that I can evolve the grapes into the Napa character but also keep a wee bit of the greenness in as a spice component.”
~ Bill St John