400 years ago, a Spaniard had an affair out in the wild fields of south-eastern France.
And so were born Bordeaux’s two great native varietals: merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
Their father cabernet franc, however, was not Bordelais or even French, but from the Basque Country. Brought north, cab franc crossed with sauvignon blanc to produce cab sauv; and with an as-of-yet unnamed grape (discovered in an abandoned vineyard in Brittany in 1996 and which may be a cousin of malbec) to produce merlot. (Cab franc got around – it is also the parent grape of carménère, one of Bordeaux’s lost grapes that long-time readers may remember from Diego’s travels in Chile several years ago.)
While his children are better known today, this week we take a moment to consider the old man... who still has a few tricks up his sleeves yet.
More on that in a moment. But first… Are you buying wine labeled “estate-bottled”? It may matter more than you think.
This week, we revisit Julien Miquel’s story of the wine industry’s secret history… including the reason a lot of older French vintages aren’t actually from where they say they are... the 1855 event that changed how estates sell their wine… why the “where” in bottling wine matters... and much more…
Cab franc (Continued)
Unless you’re a dedicated fan of Loire Valley Chinon, chances are you’ve had few opportunities to taste cab franc on its own.
Even in regions where it plays an important role (Saint-Emilion, Pomerol) cab franc is largely a mixing grape, relegated to a less than 50% role in most wines (although Cheval Blanc has been known to give it a majority share on occasion).
What makes cab franc good for mixing is its body. For a grape that sired both cab sauv and merlot, cab franc is surprisingly light. Think somewhere between a barbera and valpolicella. It won’t interfere with the structure of big red Bordeaux.
What cab franc does add is acidity, spice, and, at its best, notes of fresh herbs and violet. There’s also the grape’s “calling card” of green bell peppers, although we’d argue that in the best vintages, the peppers cede the limelight to the herbs (usually a product of warmer years and riper grapes lower in pyrazines, the compounds behind that peppery taste).
Oddly enough, our first taste of 100% cab franc didn’t come by way of Chinon or California, but a small vineyard on Long Island’s North Fork (an undervalued US wine region). If you know a little about cab franc, that may surprise you. It’s a famously finicky grape to grow. Too much water and it becomes a sulking man-child, unwilling to mature. But cab franc doesn’t mind the cold so long as summer is hot enough. And Long Island, covered for several millennia by ice flows, has a soil of almost pure gravel and sand, allowing for excellent drainage (pro tip: never plant cab franc on clay).
Cab franc has a way of popping up in places you might not expect – outside the Japanese city of Ueda, for example. But most of the world’s supply grows in France (Bordeaux and the Loire Valley). Despite its Iberian origins, very little grows in Spain. After France, the biggest grower is Italy, specifically Tuscany. If that surprises any die-hard sangiovese fans, Tuscan cab francs are ‘declassified,’ meaning that they cannot bear a Tuscan classification (like, say, Brunello). Long-time Partnership members may remember the declassified nebbiolo from our 2021 Italian Collection. The winemaker there, Antonio de Nicola, was a famed Barolo maker, who held back some of his nebbiolo grapes to make a “declassified” wine without the strictures of the Barolo DOCG label. Because cab franc is not an approved grape under the Tuscan classifications, cab francs are always declassified.
Like most pinots, our taste is for cooler weather cab francs. In hotter Italy and California, they tend towards high fruit intensity. Opt for the French – hot enough to balance the pyrazines, but cool enough to avoid the fruit bomb effect.
Until next week,
The Wine Explorer
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