Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc is one of the "parents" of Cabernet Sauvignon, and one of the varieties of grapes that have been grown in the Bordeaux region of France for centuries. In the middle ages, Cabernet Franc was known as the Breton, and it seems to have been brought to the Bordeaux region by the Romans. Cabernet franc vines bear a thinner-skinned grape than their offspring, and tends to bear grapes that ripen a little earlier. It's a bit more tolerant of cold winters, but the early ripening can mean it runs the risk of damage from late spring frosts. It's a bit of a gamble either way, but many growers choose to plant cabernet franc in areas that are likely to have rain at harvest; the earlier ripening can mean Cabernet Franc is ripe before the fall rains. Although it's one of the five core wines blended to produce Bordeaux, on its own Cabernet Franc is described as "fruity," and "spicy," even "peppery." The grapes are blue-black in color; they remind me of the darkest blueberries in hue. The wine is typically lighter in color than cabernet sauvignon, and is one of those wines that the scent, the "aromatics," seem to receive perhaps even more attention than the taste. Though having said that, some of the wine masters I've asked have said that the color of Cabernet Franc is an important reason for using it in blends as well.

Cabernet Franc was planted in California in the late 1800s; viruses and Prohibition pretty much put paid to the earlier efforts, but vines were planted again in Napa in the 1960s. It has become increasingly important in California as a primary ingredient of the California "Bordeaux style" Meritage blends. Washington State University's Viticulture program is usually credited with planting the first cabernet franc vines in the 1970s, in the Columbia Valley, where the grapes ability to withstand colder temperatures made it very interesting. David Lake of Columbia Winery first experimented with cabernet franc in the seventies, with the first commercial plantings taking places at Red Willow Vineyards. Lake blended the Cabernet Franc with Merlot. Columbia winery released the first Cabernet Franc wines in 1991, and was followed just a year later by Chateau Ste. Michelle. Soon after, Chinook Winery began releasing a cabernet franc rosé. Currently Cabernet Franc is the fourth most planted grape in the state, after Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, but most of the wine produced is in the form of Bordeaux-style blends. Notice, however, that I said "most"; not "all." There are a number of Washington wineries who mostly produce varietals, and Cabernet Franc is one of them. Over and over again, people mention the Washington climate as conducive to growing Cabernet Franc, and, over over again, I notice winemakers either praising the "herbacious" qualities of the grape, responsible for "herbal" notes in the wine, and associated with picking the grapes just before the peak ripeness, versus those who note that in Washington growers are fortunate in that they can allow the grape to fully ripen on the vine.

I'm finding it almost impossible to find 100% Cabernet Franc. In Washington state if a wine contains 75% or more of a particular varietal grape, it's perfectly legal, and even customary, to use the varietal name on the wine's label. That said, I do want to emphasize that there's a reason the delicate art of wine-blending is verifiably over a thousand years old; when done with care and taste, it works really really well.

Fielding Hills Winery in Wenachee uses grapes grown on the Wahluke Slope for their recently released 2006 Cabernet Franc. Technically, it's 82% Cabernet Franc, with 6% each of Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. If you can find Tamarack Cellars Columbia Valley 2006 Cabernet Franc, it's 100% Cabernet Franc, and it's the first one everyone I asked about a Washington Cabernet Franc mentioned. One enthusiast bluntly said don't even try another 100% first; just wait.

Barrister Winery in Spokane has a Cabernet Franc, made with Columbia Valley grapes that they describe as their "signature wine." Wine enthusiast rated it at 90 points, but it too is a blend; 80% Cabernet Franc from Chelle den Pleasant and Sagemoor's Weinbau Vineyards with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Bacchus and Seven Hills Vineyards. It's available locally at between $35.00 and $40.00. Chatter Creek Winery in Woodinville offers a Cabernet Franc Alder Ridge 2006 Horse Heaven Hills that's 83% Cabernet Franc, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Merlot. It's on a fair number of restaurant menus where I am, in the Western half of the state; I've not seen it for sale in stores.

After Fielding, the winery whose Cabernet Franc I keep hearing about is Chinook Winery in Prosser, in Washington's Yakima valley. Mostly I've heard about the Cabernet Franc Rosé—last year's sold out completely, but the 2008 is listed for release on the Chinook Web site for June 1, 2009. The 2007 Yakima Valley Cabernet Franc is 100% varietal, and was released in March 2009. Both are under $25.00 a bottle.

There's been some super discussions of Cabernet Franc wines online lately. In particular I want to draw your attention to Barry Wong's 2006 Seattle Times article on Cabernet Franc in Washington. It's interesting to see what has changed since this was written. Kori Voorhees of Wine Peeps has an interesting piece on Washington Cabernet Franc wine tasting on Wine chatR.com.

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