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You may not know much about cabernet franc, but chances are you’ll like it

Sometimes it pays to state the obvious. Cabernet franc, as the name implies, is a particularly French varietal. But you probably don’t drink much of it. How do I know? Well, it’s so remote from the leading red-wine varietals sold in the United States that there aren’t even many meaningful statistics on it. I can tell you that the volume of American wines featuring cabernet franc is extremely low, although this number is increasing (and many Meritage blends have some cab franc in them, though only as a small percentage of the total composition of the wine). Still, cabernet franc, starring as a leading varietal, makes for one of the most interesting red wines.

Along with sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc is now thought to be one of the parent grapes of cabernet sauvignon. It originated in France, the country that remains the most devoted to it, and comes to life in two regions with distinct approaches. First, in the Loire Valley, delightfully light Chinons, Bourgueils, and Saumur-Champignys are made; though they can age 10 to 20 years, they’re usually best in their youth, two to five years from harvest. These full-yet-versatile wines taste of cherries and raspberries, with smoky, gamy flavors. Usually priced under $30 a bottle, these are true value wines. Most good wines stores will carry at least one or two, and while some say they’re an acquired taste, at these prices, they are a taste well worth acquiring.

Second, in Bordeaux, cabernet franc is one of the five main grapes. Most often it comes third in use, well behind cabernet sauvignon and merlot. An exception to this is Cheval Blanc, one of the world’s greatest reds, which is usually at least two-thirds cabernet franc (and one-third merlot). Because of the region’s terroir and how the wine is blended and aged (in new oak), Bordeaux cab franc tends to be somewhat softer, less bright, more woodsy, with tobacco and cedar notes as it matures.

Outside France, only the US focuses much attention on cabernet franc. Here, the grape is just starting to catch on; I predict that eventually it will vie with merlot, syrah, pinot noir, and zin for second place after its progeny, cabernet sauvignon. In Napa, there are more than 100 wineries making cabernet francs, usually in extremely limited quantities. Winemakers love it, as it produces soft wines with depth and focus that are more approachable than cab sauvs or zins. Washington winemakers have taken a fancy to it, too, and some of the best I’ve tried are from the exceptional 1998 and 1999 vintages. Some West Coast wineries I spoke to are extremely bullish about its future.

Unfortunately, cabernet franc gets little mainstream recognition. Wine freaks like me know and love it, but no one is really pushing it; you’ll find only a few on any wine list or in any wine store, and if you blink, you’ll miss them altogether. But there are so many good ones that I can pretty much recommend them all.

Still, although you want to get recommendations (see below, or talk to your retailer or wine professional), you also need a good reason to try cabernet francs. Here are three: 1) it’s one of best varietals no one is drinking, so you can be ahead of the curve; 2) the lack of marketing makes for plenty of good values; and 3) these " easy-drinking " and approachable wines are very soft and versatile, which means you can drink them with a lot of different foods, to which they will stand up quite well. The Loire Valley renditions will go well with a number of fish dishes, or even a bit of citrus (in moderation), so they can accompany a dressed salad. The more " Bordeaux-esque " renditions go well with red meats, like lamb or steak frites. They all tend to have ample fruit, but none are too sweet, so cab franc " fruit bombs " are rare.

These wines, like so many things in life, are better appreciated when you leave your inhibitions behind. Not only will you be blown away by the refreshing newness of cabernet franc, your derring-do will likely impress your friends and romantic interests alike. They’ve worked well for me.

1996 Villa Mt. Eden Cabernet Franc California. Sensuous and voluptuous, this wine’s a fickle mistress, yielding her fruit languidly and sporadically. The core of dark cherries carries through the oak, so this wine would flirt well with spicy beef and broccoli or a nice pad Thai.

1999 Georis Cabernet Franc California. Smoky and soft, soigné, yet easily gulped. Great with cheese by the beach, or with filet mignon by the fire. Mainly Monterey (made in Carmel), it’s fairly forthright and friendly, but still stylish, elegant, and austere.

2000 Bourgueil L’Echellerie Guy Saget Loire. Cheap and churlish, this is the light Loire extraordinaire, with smoke and delicate oak. Try it with franks and beans, chili, or barbequed-chicken pizza; all highlight the tomato and cherry flavors.

2000 Domaine des Hautes Troglodytes Pierre Plouzeau Saumur-Champigny. Soft, ultra-light, it goes with white meat or even a flavorful fish (such as Arctic char or John Dory). Hard to pin down its fruit, but dried cherries and cranberries come close. Delicate finish, so pair with caution.

1999 Walla Walla Vintners Cabernet Franc Walla Walla Valley Washington. Lush and long, wondrous dark fruit, creamy oak. I’d marry this with prime rib and horseradish sauce, or with a teriyaki stir-fry or yakitori.

David Marglin can be reached at

Issue Date: May 9-16, 2002
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