WineLine No. 29
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
March 15, 2003

Cab Franc Redux

Dear Friends:

Last year I championed Cabernet Franc as the most promising red wine grape for "everywhere else," meaning basically anywhere in the United States outside the left coast. I was not the first person advancing that theory, and I have not been the last. The esteemed British wine writer Michael Broadbent raves about Virginia Cab Francs in the February 2003 issue of Decanter magazine, specifically those of Valhalla, Barboursville, Veritas and White Hall. There's probably a new export market in Britain for some of these wines if American drinkers remain too muddle-headed to appreciate them.

I had argued on the basis of casual observation here and there that good examples of U.S.-made Cab Franc fell into three basic styles: Bordeaux, Loire and "Yankee," for that indefinable quality that fit neither here nor there. Not surprisingly, some readers challenged me to put my palate where my mouth is, so to speak, with some comparative blind tastings.

Through two such exercises, with several wines and several tasters, I came away doubly impressed with the wines, but concluded that my categories did the wines a disservice by trying to equate them with European models. After all, there's no reason American wines can't be every bit as good as European ones in their own right; so what if they're not "the same" or "similar"? And besides, there simply are not enough Cab Franc-based Bordeaux or Loire wines on the market here to make a fair comparison. The field is open, let the American entrants establish their own identity.

My first tasting was organized by Mike Potashnik, director of the Virginia Wine & Food Society and co-publisher of VirginiaWineGuide.com, which has quickly become the go-to source for online information about the Old Dominion's wine industry. Mike arranged a blind tasting of 17 wines, either varietally labeled as Cabernet Franc or containing a majority of the grape (in the case of one Bordeaux entrant). Seven of the wines were from Virginia, three from California, three from France and four from New York, stacking the deck a bit for the Old Dominion but still offering a good cross sampling.

Unfortunately for my categorization of styles, the panel (including me!) did not do a particularly good job of pinpointing where the wines were from, with the exception of a Joguet Les Varennes du Grand Clos Chinon 1998, which stood out so dramatically in style that it was unmistakable. I loved its leathery, earthy flavors; others did not. Overall, Tarara from Virginia scored highest with its 1999. The complete report from this tasting in online at:
http://www.virginiawineguide.com/varietal02.html.

A second blind tasting of 26 wines featured eight from Virginia, nine from New York (mostly Finger Lakes), four Californians, three French and one each from New Zealand (can you say "jalapeño"?) and Pennsylvania. Here, the Horton Vineyards 1998 from Virginia was the clear favorite of five of the six tasters.*

The average scores bunched up from then on, with New York, Virginia and California all doing well (the French wines in this tasting were duds, including a corked wine. That reflects the poor selection of French Loire reds available in the DC retail market.)

Tallying up my own scores, I noted a slight preference for the clean, fruity flavors of New York Cab Francs over the earthier Virginians. Ironically, my own 2-4 rankings were somewhat operatic: Wagner 1998 (Finger Lakes), Valhalla "Gotterdamerung" 2000 (Virginia), and Wagner 1999. The panel agreed with the Wagner 1998 for second place, and followed with two from Virginia's Barboursville, the 1999 Reserve and the 1997. (The complete list and rankings are available in this chart.)

Some stylistic differences did emerge from these tastings. New York Cab Francs, especially from the Finger Lakes, tend to feature fruit aromas and bright berry flavors, with a hint of white pepper spice characteristic of the grape. Virginia tinges these with musky, woodsy notes, like the scent of boxwood and ivy after a spring evening's rain. With both New York and Virginia (and with Chaddsford, the Pennsylvania entrant), aromatics are key rather than depth and weight. Better ones offer long, delicate finishes with surprising complexity considering the lightness of weight and color; others just die on the mid-palate.

California wines did well in both tastings, especially Ironstone, but they may have been, oddly enough, at a disadvantage. As one might expect, these wines are big and dense, heavily oaked and somewhat brooding in their youth. They emphasize power rather than aromatics and delicacy. California is able to attain a degree of ripeness that vintners on the East cannot rely upon. As the host of the second tasting, I had the advantage of revisiting the various wines later that day; the Californians were then showing much more fruit than they had earlier, especially the Cosentino 1999 and Gundlach Bundschu 2000. (All 26 wines had been open more than an hour before the tasting, something I strongly recommend for any Cabernet Franc-based wine.)

And nearly all the wines, several hours after opening, displayed some green olive flavors. I don't know what to make of that, except perhaps to suggest Mediterranean food.

One thing these tastings did not attempt: a comparison of Cab Franc with wines from other grapes. Cab Franc is popular with vintners in New York and Virginia because it matures relatively early and can avoid fall rains. Its detractors argue that it lacks something in the middle, that on its own instead of as a minor partner in a blend, it makes an incomplete wine.

Perhaps the jury's still out. But there's so much competition in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other red grapes that I'm willing to bet Cab Franc will be the red wine with which Virginia and the Finger Lakes will make their reputation. More practice, more research into the nearly three dozen clones of Cab Franc, and most importantly, vine maturity will be the keys to increasing success. Several wineries have already laid the foundations for that success stylistically, with an emphasis on sometimes beguiling aromatics that are not overwhelmed by heavy-handed oak treatment. Stay tuned.


* My fellow tasters for the second round were Roberto Alvarez (partner) and José Ramón Andrés (partner and executive chef) of Jaleo, Café Atlantico and Zaytinya restaurants in D.C.; Michael Flynn, sommelier of Kinkead's restaurant in D.C. and Colvin Run Tavern in Tyson's Corner, Va.; wine writer Dick Rosano; and Mari Spraggins, co-owner of Ye Olde Dominion Wine Shoppe in Occoquan, Va.

Cheers!
Dave McIntyre

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