Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
April 25, 2002
Europe's older wine regions are known by the grapes they grow. We associate Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with Bordeaux, for example, while Pinot Noir and Chardonnay represent Burgundy, and Rieslings are found in Alsace or along the Rhine. Spain offers Tempranillo while northern Italy brings us the deep Nebbiolo of Piemonte or the juicy Sangiovese of Tuscany. Newly emerging wine regions in those countries, unfettered by appellation controlée law, are free to experiment with different varietals, but those older regions are forever linked in our minds and our palates with the specific grapes that have made them famous.
In the United States, the "American Viticultural Area" construct does little to define the regions beyond geographical boundaries. Grape type is legally irrelevant so long as it makes up 75 percent of the blend to be labeled as such.
Yet as the U.S. wine industry has matured, we have come to associate various regions with particular grapes. This lends prestige and, of course, higher prices to the wines. Napa Valley stands tall with its Cabernet Sauvignon, while for top-notch Merlots our minds wander to Washington state or the North Fork of Long Island. Pinot Noir means Carneros, Russian River or Oregon's Willamette Valley, with Santa Barbara also gaining fans. Zinfandel? Dry Creek Valley, Paso Robles and Amador County, natch.
Virginia is for Viognier lovers, and the unreconstructed Riesling fans among us cheer on the Finger Lakes. Chardonnay more than any other is the universal grape, swimming in a sea of mediocrity wherever it is planted - and that's everywhere. Standouts for my jaded palate come most often from Carneros, California's Central Coast, Washington's Columbia Valley and New York's Finger Lakes. (However, much of my preference for one Chard over another stems from stylistic differences in winemaking, which sounds like a nice topic for a future essay.)
I'd like to propose another area-grape association that not many people are talking about, but that I think they will be before long: "Everywhere else for Cabernet Franc."
In the past year or so, I've enjoyed outstanding Cabernet Francs from areas that most oenogeeks would regard with skepticism, if not outright trepidation. I'm talking about Colorado ("Huh?"), Virginia ("Oh yeah, they make a few good wines there …"), the Finger Lakes ("Red wine? Eeewww, you must mean Baco …"), the Hudson Valley and Long Island. Using the French analogy as a landmark, these ranged in style from the lean capsicum and white pepper flavors of the Loire to the larger, more elegant strides of Bordeaux. (The U.S. industry still has a way to go in maturity: Just as everyone who makes a "big" Merlot is aiming for Pétrus, some with Cab Franc are dreaming of Cheval Blanc.) The common characteristic was that these were all excellent wines devoid of the foxy, cinnamon-stick flavors that (still) often mar East Coast reds.
Without doing any scientific or even rigorous analysis (these wines were tasted scattershot over a period of more than a year, at tastings, dinners, contests and wineries, rather than all at once in a Parker-style shoot-em-out), I've divided my favorite Cab Francs into three styles.
"Bordeaux-styled" Cab Francs are the Cheval Blanc wannabes; they can be tightly structured and reticent when first opened and may even need as much as a day of breathing or years of aging to strut their true stuff. Lavishly oaked and displaying a Park Avenue pedigree, these are the ones that will impress the hoi polloi of the wine world and probably win the most medals. Many consumers risk giving them a shrug, however, if they aren't patient enough to coax out the rewards hidden inside.
I'll call "U.S.-Loire" the ones that make me think of a Chinon - high-toned in flavor, not overripe, bistro-style wines that tend to be somewhat juicier than their French benchmarks. These are not as deep or complex as their Bordeaux-styled neighbors, but they tend to be more immediately enjoyable and are likely to bring a smile to your face with every sip.
Finally, "Yankee" Cab Francs are characterized primarily by upfront fruit rather than woodsy or spicy notes, and a slightly sweet finish. They might almost make you think of a Zinfandel cross dressing as a Pinot Noir, but I don't mean that as an insult. Just because an American wine doesn't really taste French doesn't mean it's a bad wine. For some reason, people have trouble grasping that concept.
An important point: These categories are stylistic, not terroir-based. Pinpointing these on a map would find wineries producing "U.S.-Loire" wines sharing spit buckets with the Bordeaux types, as if the hamlet of Chinon was picked up by a twister and plunked between St. Emilion and Pomerol. ("Toto, je peur que nous ne sommes plus en Loire …")
And a caveat: Since my tastings stretch over a considerable time and different venues, my impressions here are not offered as a guide to current releases. Many of these, unfortunately, are not widely available. But I hope you will keep these wineries in mind and give their Cab Francs a try when you have a chance. Then let me know what you think!Bordeaux-styled Cabernet Franc
Barboursville Vineyards near Charlottesville has been a consistent leader in producing outstanding Cab Francs. Their 1998, from Virginia's best vintage so far (to be rivaled perhaps by 2001), blew me away the day after I opened it. This style of wine needs extensive airing or aging before showing its stuff. Lush and full with cherry, white pepper and a lingering caress for the palate. Winemaker Luca Paschina released a Cab Franc Reserve for the 1999 vintage.
Valhalla Vineyards "Gotterdamerung". You guessed it, owners Jim and Debra Vascik are Wagner buffs. And you just might think you've entered Valhalla when you taste their Gotterdamerung bottling of Cabernet Franc. I tasted the 1998; thanks to Hurricane Floyd, their 1999 was too dilute for the top wine, so they bottled a lighter blend called Cornucopia. The 2000 Gotterdamerung, which is 25% Merlot, is to be released in May, at about $25.
Millbrook Vineyards Proprietor's Reserve Cabernet Franc. From New York's Hudson Valley, the 1998 of this bottling, like the Barboursville, seemed reluctant to strut its stuff. Once it did, however, it offered a rich, ripe nose of chocolate, coffee and aromatic spice, followed by chocolate and berry flavors and a long finish. This winery also makes dynamite Chardonnay and the East Coast's best Pinot Noir.
Schneider Vineyards. Bruce and Christiane Schneider are bucking the Long Island trend and betting that Cabernet Franc is the best red wine for the North Fork. Their vineyards are near Riverhead, at the western edge of the lobster claw, which gives them a slightly warmer microclimate and about 60 feet in additional elevation over the wineries up Mattituck way. (Look soon for their "Mountain Grown Cuvée"!) Their 1998, from purchased grapes, was impressively elegant, with lush fruit, a hint of spice and a lovely finish.
Pellegrini Vineyards. Winemaker Russell Hearn is a firm believer in Merlot as the premier grape of Long Island. Yet he does a bang-up job on Cab Franc as well. The 1998 ($22 at Best Cellars in D.C.) features some mineral/graphite notes with white pepper and cherry. The slightly sweet finish almost puts it in the "Yankee" category, but the mineral notes tip the balance toward Bordeaux styling.Loire-Styled Cabernet Franc
Lamoreaux Landing. This winery from the Finger Lakes is best known for its whites, but the reds are more interesting now. The Cab Franc has a lighter mouthfeel than the Bordeaux-styled wines listed above, but plenty of white pepper and woodsy notes. A "bistro" wine, quaffable and fun.
Macari Vineyards proves that good Cabernet Franc can be grown on those low vineyards in Mattituck on Long Island's North Fork. Their 1998 offered woodsy notes with white pepper and capsicum, with a hint of minerality."Yankee" Style Cabernet Franc
Hazlitt 1852. I tasted the 1998 and 1999 from this Finger Lakes leader, and both showed well. The '99 was fuller and zestier, bursting with jammy blueberry-blackberry fruit with hints of clove and cinnamon leading to a sweet, oaky finish.
Fox Run Vineyards. Very similar in style to the Hazlitt, the Fox Run might almost make you think of Zinfandel or Shiraz with its spicy fruit. The '99 featured some appealing earthy/mushroom undertones. Not a heavy wine; this is clean and bright with medium depth.
S. Rhodes. From Colorado's Grand Junction wine region, the 1999 offered delightfully soft cherry and plum flavors with medium depth.
Postscript: A new Web page offers net-surfing fans of Virginia wines a handy and authoritative reference to the wines of the Old Dominion. The Virginia Wine Guide (http://www.virginiawineguide.com) offers slick graphics and fast connections, coupled with the professional insights of an expert tasting panel. Several of the tasters are restaurant sommeliers from Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia, so the page should give additional respectability and marketability to match Virginia's growing quality. Bravo!
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