California's Master of Cabernet Franc

By Randy Caparoso

Now is the time for all good men (and women) to come to the joys of Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc? You mean that green, underripe grape?

Hey, look at it this way: run-of-the-mill Cabernet Sauvignon is usually as pleasurable as sandpaper. Average quality Sauvignon Blanc tastes either like asparagus or cat pee. Low-level Pinot Noir can be pret-ty thin, and don't even get me started on the dreary droves of Merlot and Chardonnay still flooding our markets.

My point: average quality Cabernet Franc (like cold year Chinons, Bourgueils and Saumer Champignys) can indeed be light, herbaceous, a little tart. But in good years, they can be glorious, even lofty: redolent of floral, cassis, and dusty, sweet, raspberryish fruit; dense and multi-textured on the palate.

From the gastronomic perspective, we've always had a field day with good Cabernet Franc; with its aromatic quality expressively similar to Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Franc making up half of Cabernet Sauvignon's clonal lineage), couched in a markedly softer tannin and lower weight structure. In other words: a red wine with the flavor interest of Cabernet Sauvignon, but without the big, hard qualities that relegate Cabernet Sauvignon's food spectrum pretty much to fatty red meats. As with Pinot Noir -- and softer styles of Zinfandel and Tempranillo -- you can enjoy Cabernet Franc with any red meat plus the entire range of "other" white meats cooked in any fashion. Throw in some grilled asparagus or sautéed haricots with herby butter sauces, and you've got another match "made in heaven."

A fellow winetwo.netter recently forwarded me a New York Times story, A Great Year Lifts an Unsung Region, that lists a number of Chinons from the exceptionally lush and ripe 2005 vintage now out on the market. Indeed, upper level '05s like Charles Joguet's Chinon Clos de la Dioterie are not just exponentially more intense, they are destined for Bordeaux-like longevity (ten, twenty year wines).

But enough about the French. There are a number of accomplished Cabernet Franc producers in California; and right now, the acknowledged master of the grape is undoubtedly John Skupny of Lang & Reed, his brand named after his two sons).

In early September I spent a morning with Skupny which began with a walk through the Sugar Loaf Vineyard, located at the southeast point of Napa Valley just off Silverado Trail. Skupny is excited about this growth, which will form the base of his reserve quality Cabernet Franc, bottled as Premier Étage, in 2007 and 2008. Like the Madrigal Vineyard located further up the valley near Larkmead Lane, which formed the heart of Premier Étage in the '96 to '06 vintages, the schist crusted Sugar Loaf (a hillside with almost no clay loam) is an exceptionally well drained, low vigor site: the key factor minimizing excess canopy and cropping, leading to more varietal perfume and minimal herbaceousness in resulting wines.

Indeed, a barrel sampling of the '07 Sugar Loaf showed a wine of enormous, almost syrupy thick, framboise-like raspberry concentration, plus a rounded girth supported by muscular tannin. Serious stuff.

But enough heavy breathing and promises. What is in or coming down the pipe as we speak? My notes on Lang & Reed's current and upcoming releases:

2006 Lang & Reed, North Coast Cabernet Franc — Skupny's North Coast cuvées (100% Cabernet Franc) are vinified for unabashedly immediate accessibility, and are sourced primarily (90%) from higher elevation (up to 2,000 feet) vineyards sitting on sparse red soils. The nose is perfumey — red berry laced with savory — with mild, herbal, green leafy distinctions. On the palate, medium-full and soft and silky, the berry qualities lingering with notes of sun dried cherry and pungent kitchen herbs.

2007 Lang & Reed, North Coast Cabernet Franc — The '07 is riper, richer, rounder, juicier, and meatier textured than the '06, while also expressing a slight "corruption" (Skupny's word) of Brettanomyces, manifesting itself as more like roasted, gamey meat as opposed to barnyard. If you enjoy such natural, earthy notes (and I'd surmise that lovers of Loire River grown Cabernet Franc would), shout hallelujah and pass the biscuits. The fruit quality is plummy, carrying good weight, mixed in with red berries; and typical of Skupny's North Coast bottlings, soft and round in tannin, and eminently quaffable.

2003 Lang & Reed, Napa Valley Premier Étage Cabernet Franc — You learn something everyday; and that morning it was the translation of premier étage: "first floor," which in France is on what we consider the second floor. Hence, Lang & Reed's next-level-up cuvée, sourced from lower yielding vineyards, to which Skupny applies partial whole berry fermentation and varying lengths of post-fermentation maceration to dial up color, aroma and volume. The '03 is extraordinary: super-plush raspberry fruit, coated in velvet, draped across a cedary oak backdrop. Tannins are notably thick and corded, but layered well beneath the almost chocolaty sweet berry flavors. Skupny also attributes some of the increased pigmentation and viscosity of the '03 to the addition of 2% Petit Verdot; and if you've favored earlier vintages of Premier Étage, you may be pleased to know that the '03 represents an evolving departure from new oak (cooperage is entirely one to two year old barrels, mixing softer, sweeter Burgundian wood with Bordelaise).

2004 Lang & Reed, Napa Valley Premier Étage Cabernet Franc — The relatively tight drinking quality of the '04 is precisely the reason why Skupny holds back his reserves a heck of a lot longer than even Cabernet Sauvignon producers. While less effusive than in the '03, the nose is flowery and perfumed (raspberry and violet); medium-full to full on the palate, showing a densely packed, piquant berry profile fused with toasted oak, finishing with briary twists of tobacco and tannin. Excellent now, but undoubtedly finer drinking in another year.

2004 Lang & Reed, Napa Valley Right Bank — If you dig the dense yet scrumptuous qualities of Saint-Émilions like La Mondotte and Canon-la-Gaffelière, you'll flip over this, Skupny's first ever Bordeaux style bottling. Napa Valley sourced Cabernet Franc (53%), Merlot (30%), Petit Verdot (9%), Cabernet Sauvignon (8%), yada yada… the important thing to know is that Skupny has crafted a blend that is so tender, so dense yet soft, succulent and unerringly balanced, all you can think is wow… this is what blending is all about. Aromas are of concentrated black cherry and blackcurrants, with minty/herby nuances at the center. Vintners talk about tannin management like politicians about cutting spending; but Skupny has truly gotten a handle on the tannin molecule: lots of it (nothing puny about this wine), yet perfectly round and seamless. With only 170 cases made, get it while it's hot!

To contact Randy Caparoso, write him at randycaparoso@earthlink. net.

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