Two big bunches of Cabernet franc wine grapes on vine in warm evening light (Shutterstock/Andrew Hagen)
When you hear a wine is cabernet, do you automatically think cabernet sauvignon? Of course you do. It’s the world’s most widely planted red grape, noted for big, rich, power-packed wines you can swoon over and even invest in.
But I’m here to convince you to remember cabernet franc, its lighter, fresher, juicier, and more versatile relative. (In fact, cabernet franc turns out to be one of the parents of cabernet sauvignon.) Once an underdog, cabernet franc become the new insider choice for wine geeks, somms, and those who like to be up on the fashionable grape of the moment.
That’s partly because of the current craze for all things Loire Valley, where cabernet franc is the grape of wines labeled Chinon, Bourgueuil, Saumur Champigny, Anjou Rouge.
In Bordeaux and California, cab franc was mostly relegated to a blending grape, adding acidity, spark, savory herbs, and lush floral aromas to fat-bottomed merlot and cabernet sauvignon blends.
But the all-cab franc style of France’s Loire Valley is inspiring more winemakers around the world, from Argentina to Italy, to create their own lively versions. Canada even uses it for ice wine.
In 2018 the volume of direct shipments of cabernet franc in the U.S. jumped 19 percent, according to the recently released Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report. The growth trend, it says, started in 2014.
California, naturally, is behind a new wave of cabernet franc wines. Last weekend, at Napa’s annual barrel auction Premiere, where cabernet sauvignon is always the star, eight special lots of cabernet franc were auctioned, leading off with Lot #1, “Gravity’s Rainbow” made by wine whiz Aaron Pott, who has long championed the grape.
What’s cabernet franc’s appeal? Napa’s Rob Sinskey, owner of Robert Sinskey Vineyards, likes to say that if wine were cars, cabernet franc would be a Citroen DS from the early ’60s (still a collectible that placed third in the 1999 Car of the Century poll).
Cab franc, he says, is misunderstood and quirky, yet smooth and elegant. The medium-bodied wines are different from cabernet sauvignon: loaded with charm and finesse, soft bright raspberry-ish fruit, aromas of violets and mint, less tannin, and a silky texture that can remind you of pinot noir. While some top examples sell for three digits, the majority are modestly priced. Examples from outside the Loire are fruitier and sunnier, often with softer edges.
More cab franc is definitely in your future. Because the grape ripens a week or two earlier than cabernet sauvignon, it’s ideally suited to cool climates like New York’s Finger Lakes and other places in the U.S. such as Virginia and Michigan. Acreage in Argentina is growing, and the grape is planted in Hungary and Kazakhstan. At the same time, global warming has helped cabernet francs in the very cool Loire Valley develop more fruit and sensuality.
So what are you waiting for?
Here are twelve top examples that cost under $50.
2016 Ravines Wine Cellars Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc ($21) The owners of this boutique winery on Seneca Lake are convinced cabernet franc will become the region’s flagship red. This vintage is light and supple, with flavors of tart cherries, perfect with grilled chicken.
2015 Olivier Cousin Anjou Pur Breton ($30)A legend in the natural wine world and the Loire Valley, biodynamic producer Olivier Cousin makes a couple of cab francs. This one is a wonderfully juicy combo of ripe fruit flavors and aromas, with plenty of zing, and from a superlative vintage.
2017 Philippe Alliet Chinon ($22)Chinon is the most famous region for Loire Valley reds, and a family noted for meticulous winemaking is behind this juicy, tasty entry-level example from old vines. One of their four cab francs, it’s a combination of bright fruit and a mineral edge.
2015 Broc Cellars Cabernet Franc ($27)This easy-drinking natural wine from a trendy urban winery in Berkeley has pure, bright sour cherry flavors and light floral aromas. Its lighter-style reminds me of Beaujolais. The grapes are from Happy Valley, Santa Barbara.
2016 Bodega Catena Zapata AppellationSan Carlos Cabernet Franc ($25) This pioneering winery in Argentina never stops experimenting. This purply, mouth-filling, spice-and-cassis-inflected example from their appellation lineup comes from one of the cooler spots in the Uco Valley and from a cool year.
2016 Calcu Reserva Especial Cabernet Franc ($13) Made from younger vines in Chile’s Colchagua Valley, this wine is all about bright, fresh raspberry and blueberry fruit with floral and herb aromas, and it’s a very good value.
2016 Duemani Cifra Cabernet Franc ($32) Superstar winemaker Luca d’Attoma planted his property on the Tuscan coast with the grape he loves. Certified organic and biodynamic, it’s a hearty, high-personality example, with aromas of dark berries, plummy flavors, and a rich, thick texture.
2015 Raats Family Cabernet Franc ($42)In South Africa, the grape was only introduced in the 1980s. Stellenbosch winemaker Bruwer Raats has been growing it since 2000, and makes several bottlings. This one is intense and complex with spicy fruit, hints of dark chocolate, and a velvety texture.
2015 Early Mountain Cabernet Franc Shenandoah Valley ($30)Jean and Steve Case (founder of AOL) increased the acreage of cabernet franc vines after purchasing this property in 2010. This silky-textured red is their less expensive bottling and shows what a great future the grape has in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
2017 Lieu Dit Cabernet Franc ($30) Founded in 2011 by two Loire lovers, this Santa Barbara County winery specializes in grapes from that region. This wonderfully pure, bright, floral wine has intense cherry-savory notes.
2015 Garage Wine Cabernet Franc San Juan de Pirque Vineyard ($37) This exciting wine made by a native Canadian comes from a high-altitude vineyard in the Maipo region of Chile. It’s dark and concentrated with plush polished fruit.
2014 Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc North Coast ($27)The founders of this Napa winery aimed to make charming wines from this grape more than 20 years ago. They’ve succeeded big time. This vintage has violet and herb scents and stylish berry and lavender flavors, with a kick of acidity.