Who Doesn’t Love an Underdog?

Jeremy Lin, The Giants, Cabernet Franc. That’s right, Cabernet Franc is an underdog—its offspring is more famous. Whether the crossing of Cabernet Franc with Sauvignon Blanc was a function of Mother Nature, or a human hand was involved, the result is still the famed and second-most important wine grape in history—Cabernet Sauvignon. Chardonnay continues to be the most important commercial wine grape in the world, while Cabernet Sauvignon reigns as the king of red grapes. Merlot, Syrah/Shiraz, Pinot Noir and even Sauvignon Blanc have all enjoyed time being the darling of wine grapes, yet poor old Cabernet Franc still struggles in anonymity. This may be changing due to more plantings and success in cooler climates. Even in Canada’s Essex-Pelee Island region (just across the border from Detroit), the winery owners I met mentioned Cabernet Franc as one of their signature grapes. I have long been a fan of the wines that Cabernet Franc can create, from blends in Saint-Emilion of Bordeaux to pure Cabernet Francs in places like Chinon of Loire Valley.

Unfortunately, one of my all-time favorite Cabernet Francs is beyond my pay grade. Chateau Cheval Blanc (average bottle price: $762) in Saint-Emilion is planted to 52 percent Cabernet Franc, the balance to Merlot. This wine ranks as one of the greatest expressions of Cabernet Franc in a blend. Fortunately, there have been many examples of producers from other wine regions creating wines using Cheval Blanc as the exemplar. Although some are almost as expensive, like my favorite from Sonoma, Vérité La Desir (a 100-point Parker score helps keep the price close to $400), my favorite from Tuscany, Poggio al Tesoro Dedicato a Walter, is a more reasonable $90. However, none of these wines represent the average pricing of Cabernet Franc-based wines; there are some really great values, including several from wineries close by. So I set about collecting and tasting a selection of Cabernet Franc wines.

Of the four I tasted with friends, the Bedell 2010 of the North Fork of LI and Complices de Loire la Petite Timonerie 2009 Chinon from Loire Valley shared the top spot. The Bedell Cabernet Franc sells for about $22 a bottle, while the Chinon is a great bargain at $14. We also tasted and enjoyed Millbrook 2010 from The Hudson Valley and Ravines 2009 from the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. The Millbrook was the softest and simplest of the group, while the Ravines had the most complexity, but, most importantly, any of the four should make a red wine drinker happy. I also enjoyed a Cabernet Franc-based wine from Hungary, 2006 Heumann Cuvée from Villany. On the border with Croatia, the region of Villany focuses on both Cabernet Franc and Kékfrankos, an important grape in much of Eastern Europe.

Look for cool-climate Cabernet Francs to have red berry aromas and notes of spice, including green and black peppercorns. If it is a bit underripe in cooler vintages, it may also have an herbal note. Warmer climates allow the grape to lose a bit of the green notes and gain weight, and darker berry and cherry notes reminiscent of Cabernet Sauvignon. Think of Cabernet Franc as being a wine grape that has the ability to have similar aromas of both Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, depending on where it is grown and how late and ripe it is picked. I also find many Cabernet Francs have more versatility when paired with food. That bit of spice and more aromatic, bright berry and cherry fruit notes can match lighter and more diverse cuisines. That may also account for Cabernet Franc’s popularity in Northern Italy, where food and wine are so important to their culture.