When you notice a distinct peppery note in a red Bordeaux, that’s most likely cabernet franc in the mix.
Cab franc is the third most important grape in the cast of characters making up the Bordeaux blend.
Historically, one could argue it’s the most important grape. Cab franc crossed with sauvignon blanc to produce cab sauv, as well as with an as-of-yet unnamed grape (discovered in an abandoned vineyard in Brittany in 1996; it may be a cousin of malbec) to produce merlot.
As we’ve written in the past, cab franc got around. It’s also a parent of carménère, one of Bordeaux’s lost grapes that was rediscovered growing in Chile.
Today, it has reached Argentina, and the Calchaquí Valley, where it may be on the verge of an incredible transformation.
More on that in a moment. But first… Should you care about the age of the vines when you’re buying wine?
This week, Julien goes over the life cycle of the vineyard… From the age vines start producing to when (and why) they must be replanted... And why you’re more likely to see 40+ year old vines in places like Argentina’s Calchaquí Valley…
Your Cab Franc Primer (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 the grape’s “calling card” of green bell peppers, a product of those pyrazines we mentioned earlier (though in great vintages of cab franc you often notice fresh herbs coming to the fore with the pepper, though still strong, playing more of a supporting role).
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 sulks, 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... or the Calchaquí Valley.
Certainly, the cab franc grower in the Calchaquí need not live in fear of overwatering his plants. The sandy soil and nonexistent rainfall take care of that.
There’s something wild about cab franc left to its own devices. It goes kind of feral. If its usual home, the Bordeaux blend, is a gilded Louis XIV palace, then cab franc’s home in the Calchaquí is a ruin, left long ago to be consumed by nature and her elements... now covered in wildflowers with perhaps the odd fruit tree growing up between broken paver stones, and the smell of herbs all about lofted on dry summer breezes.
In the last ten years, report our friends over at Wines of Argentina, cab franc plantings have more than doubled, likely due to the 100-point score Wine Advocate awarded to the 2013 Gran Enemigo with 85% cab franc and 15% malbec. That vintage now sells at $2,000 for a case of 6 bottles.
Our guess is that the extreme altitude cab franc trend is only just beginning. Agustín Lanús is now experimenting with it in his “Facón” wine (named for the Argentine gaucho dagger) from the Estancias vineyards in Cafayate. If you know Agustín from Sunal (or the many other wines he has provided for our Partnership), you know he’s all about terroir. And so is cab franc of course. We figured it would be a fitting match and, indeed, it is.
Facón, which we’re including in our upcoming Calchaquí Valley Collection (shipping starts next week), feels full in a way that might surprise a Bordeaux winemaker (or anyone used to cab franc as a thin bodied add-on rather than the main event). The pepper shines of course – very sharp, but smooth too. There’s a balance with the wild fruits and herbs that prevents a full take over. Wild… beautiful… and maybe just a little bit dangerous.
Until next time,
The Wine Explorer