The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Cabernet Franc ~ Saturday, February 18th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

More important than meets the blend:

It’s hard being taken for granted, whether you’re a letter carrier, a sanitation employee, or in this case a noble red grape. Like its two human counterparts, we just expect them to do their job and be done with it. It’s when they’re missing that we notice their absence. And such, in a nutshell, is the current lot of Cabernet Franc, a grape that is expected to do its job in the Bordeaux blend with little in the way of collectors’ acknowledgment. Take it away, however, and most premium claret would not be nearly as good, and then we’d get just as upset as when our birthday cards don’t arrive and/or two weeks’ worth of refuse remains uncollected.

Cabernet Franc Grapes

And make no mistake: the presence of Cabernet Franc is seldom nothing short of critical when crafting Bordeaux. Ripening earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc has historically been utilized as a type of ‘insurance grape’ against cooler growing seasons—nowadays much less of an issue as a result of climate change. On both the Left and Right Banks, its key contribution is fragrance, adding perfume to the blend in such a manner that cannot be accomplished by Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot on their own.

Chateau Cheval Blanc

On the Right Bank, in particular, where Cabernet Sauvignon has great difficulty fully ripening, Cabernet Franc is considered invaluable in this respect, with even a few estates using up to or more than 50% of it on occasion. Notable examples include Ausone (possessing 55% in 2009), Cheval Blanc (containing 56% in 2010), Lafleur (boasting 57% in 2009), and Angelus (carrying 40% in 2009). Other high(er) users of Cabernet Franc are Figeac and Canon-la-Gaffelière, both of which used 35% in 2010, Beauregard (25% in 2010), Canon (25% in 2009), Le Gay and Pavie (both used 20% in 2010), and La Conseillante (19% in 2009).

Chateau d'Armailhac

On the Left Bank, Cabernet Franc nowadays ranks third in importance, with Merlot assuming a much greater role than ever before. Still, there are a few estates that continue to use slightly more Cabernet Franc than others, including: d’Armailhac and du Tertre (both used 15% in 2010), Kirwan (13% in 2009), Montrose and Léoville-Las Cases (both 9% in 2009), Malescot-St-Exupéry (8% in 2009), and Brane-Cantenac (8% in 2010). For each of these châteaux, by the way, there is a slightly greater percentage of Cabernet Franc in their vineyards.

So much for Bordeaux, but what about the rest of France, or the rest of the world for that matter? For most enthusiasts, Cabernet Franc reaches its greatest individualistic expression in certain parts of the Loire, in particular Chinon and Bourgueil, plus St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. Here, when full ripeness occurs, the grape seems to thrive, taking on wonderful silky overtones and aromas of fragrant black currants and raspberry traces. Such wines are typically lighter-bodied, the best medium, and will keep for up to ten years when conditions permit.

Henry of Pelham Cabernet Franc Icewine

In other places, Cabernet Franc often has trouble standing up on its own. While a few examples in California and Australia sometimes have the potential of making heads turn, the grape simply doesn’t seem to inspire on its own. Places were Cabernet Franc might hold greater potential? New Zealand will always be a contender, but with Kiwis’ becoming better and better at mastering Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, it’s increasingly likely that Cabernet Franc will become less significant over time. Surprisingly, the grape just may have a bright future in Canada, where early ripeners are precisely the ticket in so cold a climate. For now, however, it seems the most desirable Cabernet Franc in Ontario is made into late harvest and icewine; though there are a few excellent dry table wine versions available. The reason? My guess: the wine would probably not be all that drinkable in any other state. Not that the sweet versions taste bad. On the contrary, the best examples are often quite superb, though they shall always remain something of an novelesque oddity.

Thus, we arrive back at Cabernet Franc’s most purposeful raison d’être, its primary reason for being: to serve as an invaluable component in the Bordeaux blend. May it continue to serve in this noble capacity for centuries to come, never deviating, never disappointing, and always there when we need it.

Click here for a few gems from the 18 February 2012 Vintages Release along with several others