Prince Charming (Cabernet Franc)

#129 – June 4, 2010

Given my sometimes exuberant enthusiasm for the varietal, I am sure that you have all realized by now that the topic of this week’s newsletter – Cabernet Franc – is one of my favorite grapes and produces wines that I enjoy tremendously. While DNA testing in 1997 indicated that Cabernet Franc together with Sauvignon Blanc were actually the parents of the most noble of all grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s Cabernet Franc that always seems to be playing second fiddle to its prodigal son. However, like any good parent, Cab Franc has been willing to stay out of the limelight for many years and allow its offspring to shine while still being there to lend a helping hand (by allowing itself to be blended into anonymity with its more regal patriarch). In recent years that trend of silent anonymity seems to have come to an end – at least in Israel (and Californian kosher wines).

While Cabernet Franc is very similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, there are some distinctive differences with Cabernet Franc being lighter in color and producing a milder wine with less tannins and lower in acidity creating a smoother and rounder drinking experience and a mellower wine. While the reduced tannins and acidity prevent it from achieving the heightened aging capability of Cabernet Sauvignon, well-aged specimens of the grape do have aging potential. It also produces a more aromatic wine redolent of cedar and flowers including lavender and violets; and, on the palate, the primary difference from Cabernet Sauvignon is a delightful herbaceousness and hints of green. It is also significantly more food-friendly wine than Cabernet Sauvignon which sometimes competes with the food for your palate’s interest. Other typical Cabernet Franc notes include pepper, fresh cherries, plums, raspberry, cassis, bell peppers and tobacco. The peppers and other vegetal notes are the same hints of green about which many wine critics complain when describing Israeli wines but, as long as we are taking about quality wine making, I love the results and think that the greenness inherent in many Israeli wines is one of the reasons that the Prince has taken so nicely to Israeli terrior.

Cabernet Franc thrives in cooler climates than Cabernet Sauvignon and it ripens a couple weeks earlier making is a good hedging bet against storms or other inclement weather that could ruin the harvest. While a huge amount of Cabernet Franc is planted across France, it is primarily used for blending, typically with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot and is barely known as a stand alone varietal. Irrespective of Mile’s professed love and adoration for the Pinot Noir grape, it is Cabernet Franc that is the primary grape in his treasure Cheval Blanc 61’ you see him gulping greedily at the end of the film Sideways (ironically the rest of the blend made up with his much maligned Merlot).

While many bemoan the overlooked potential of the grape, Israel is actually one of the few wine growing countries who have taken this to heart evidenced by producing a substantial number of pure Cabernet Franc varietal wines with tremendous success. Cabernet Franc also appears as the dominant grape in many of Israel’s successful Rosè wines, including my all-time favorite – the Tabor Charsit Rosè. While some of the initial attempts were devoid of the traditional varietal characteristics, seemingly “dressed up” like Israeli Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, as you can see from the notes below and other recent Cabernet Franc wines I have reviewed, this is no longer the case, and many more recent wines showcase the grape the way it was meant to be enjoyed. In New Zealand, vintners are of the opinion that their cool climate induces some Cabernet Franc-like notes in their Cabernet Sauvignon leading to almost no planting of Cabernet Franc. As Israel used to be, many new-world Cabernet Franc wines tend to be more fruit-forward and cut back on the green notes (probably in an attempt to “Parkerize” their wines as much as possible).

Given its great match to stews and other slow-cooked or braised foods, I have always associated Cabernet Franc with the autumn months but a recent column by Gamliel Kronemer in the Jewish Week mentioning how much a Cabernet franc reminded him of spring with its floral nose and green notes led me to rethink this philosophy and crack open a Recanati Cabernet Franc to celebrate the end of the week and the upcoming Shabbat. Below are a couple notes but look to recent reviews for great examples of the grape from Gvaot, Recanati and Gush Etzion as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Tishbi, Estate, Cabernet Franc, 2006: Rapidly on its way to becoming “Israel’s Varietal”, a large number of wineries in Israel have evolved from using the Cabernet Franc as a highly successful blending agent to standing on its on as a single varietal that has taken on some Mediterranean characteristics and producing some really great wines. Here we have a lower tiered example of a highly successful use of the grape. Full bodied and still benefits from a bit of breathing room (easily done in the glass after pouring as opposed to pre-opening the bottle) this wine is big, powerful and very interesting. Once you get past the muscular tannins you are able to explore the black forest fruit, lead pencil shavings, Mediterranean spices all tinged with robust but not overpowering wood. Unusual for lower tiered series, this one could probably cellar and even improve in your cellar over the next 3-4 years. A YH Best Buy.

Hagafen, Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley, 2007: Given the hotter climate of California over the Northern regions of Israel it is understandable that this is more like a Cabernet Sauvignon than the Israeli version reviewed here. That said, this is a delicious wine and the first time in a decade Hagafen produced a single-varietal Cabernet Franc – yet another testament to the growing popularity of the grape. Violets and juicy plums and raspberries on the nose accompanied by spicy wood, cherries and cassis make this a rich and concentrated powerhouse of a wine just soft enough to avoid overwhelming you. An interesting and long finish packed with chocolate and vanilla, more spices and strong notes of pepper round out this great wine. One of the best wines in Hagafen’s “regular” repertoire (I am of course biased toward the varietal so take my “best” comment with a grain of salt).

Tanya, Halal Reserve, Cabernet Frank, 2006: I have been following this winery for quite some time and while they make some really good wines (like this one), I am not yet completely on board as they run hot and cold – with some successes followed by some complete failures. Hopefully they will work out the kinks since, in my opinion, this winery has a lot of potential and a definitely recognizable style that sets it apart. Made from 100% Cabernet Franc (and intentionally misspelled), this beautifully purple, medium to full bodied wine has alluring hints of black pepper and espresso along with blackcurrants, blackberries and plums it is not your typical Israeli Cabernet Franc. Tinged with strong, dark chocolate notes and freshly paved road, this is really, really good and interesting wine.

Four Gates, Cabernet Franc, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2006: The 2005 vintage of this wine was my first tasting of the wines from this delightful boutique winery located in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Every subsequent wine I have tasted has also been delicious and the 2006 vintage is no exception to that rule. Lots of green notes including green pepper and eucalyptus on the nose together with tobacco, cherries and raspberries on both the nose and palate with nice herbaceous note together with bittersweet chocolate, cedar wood with a long velvety caressing finish leaving you longing for another bottle. Very enjoyable with (great) food.