A Prince of a Wine (Cabernet Franc)

#228 – October 12, 2012

Given my 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 confirmed that Cabernet Franc and 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 and more famous son.  However, like any good parent, Cabernet Franc has historically been willing to stay out of the limelight, allow its offspring to shine while remaining ever ready in the background to lend a helping hand whenever and however necessary (usually by allowing itself to be blended into anonymity with its more regal patriarch in many well known and famous blends, including some of the world’s most famous wines).  In recent years that trend of silent anonymity seems to have come to an end – at least in Israel (and a few Californian kosher wines) and today Israel produces some terrific kosher single varietal Cabernet Franc wines, which shine in a number of Israel’s top Rose wines as well.

While Cabernet Franc is very similar to Cabernet Sauvignon in many ways, 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 usually 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 with hints of greenness. 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 terroir.

Another area in which Cabernet Franc bests Cabernet Sauvignon is its food-friendliness, as it is a significantly more food-friendly wine than Cabernet Sauvignon (whose bold strong notes can sometimes compete with the food for your palate’s interest).  Given much of the wine world’s [gradual] transition over the last decade from big, ripe and powerful wines to more subtle wines that go with food, it is understandable why Cabernet Franc has enjoyed so much recent success in Israel, as discussed below.

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 outside of the Loire Valley, where the best Cabernet Franc is grown.  Irrespective of Mile’s professed love and adoration for the Pinot Noir grape, it is Cabernet Franc that is the primary grape in his treasured Cheval Blanc 61’ you see him gulping greedily at the end of the film Sideways (ironically the rest of the blend is comprised of Merlot – the grape he professes to despise and spends much of the film maligning).

While many bemoan the overlooked potential of the grape, Israel is actually one of the few wine growing countries who have taken its potential to heart (according to Adam Montefiore, the first quality Cabernet franc in Israel was utilized by the Golan Heights Winery in the 1990s, where it was blended into the flagship Katzrin), a fact evidenced by the substantial number of pure Cabernet Franc varietal wines Israel has and continues to produce with tremendous success.  Cabernet Franc also appears as the dominant grape in many of Israel’s successful Rosè wines, including the relatively new Flam Rosè.  In fact, Cabernet Franc has done so swimmingly well in Israel, that there are many who agree with my past (and current) assessment and prediction that Cabernet Franc has what it takes to be [at least one of] Israel’s Grapes – a varietal so suited to Israel’s terroir as to represent the varietal the country’s winemakers should be focusing much of their efforts on, rather than continuing to chase Bordeaux and Burgundy varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  As an aside, Cabernet Franc was actually widely planted in Israel under the auspices of Baron Edmond de Rothschild (when it was known as Bouchet or Bordo) but gradually disappeared due to its low yields and lack of market for higher-quality (read expensive) table wines.

Much as Israel’s first attempts were, 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).  One example is New Zealand where vintners are of the opinion that their cool climate induces some Cabernet Franc-like notes in their Cabernet Sauvignon and therefore nearly no Cabernet Franc is planted at all.  With its great food matching ability to stews and other slow-cooked or braised foods, Cabernet Franc is the perfect wine to crack open as the weather turns cooler, much as we have been experiencing over the last week or so here in New York.  Listed below are notes for some of the best Cabernet Franc wines available with other worthy options including the Psagot and Domaine Ventura.

Carmel, Appellation, Cabernet Franc, 2009:  Ever since its launch, Carmel’s Appellation series has provided good value wines, with the occasional really interesting wine extra-worthy of attention.  This Cabernet Franc wine is no exception with true complexity and characteristic Cabernet Franc notes.  A medium bodied wine with plenty of red fruit on the nose and palate with judicious oak providing a nice backbone of vanilla and tobacco leaf to back up the fruit.  Much of the same on the palate with additional hints of dark chocolate, eucalyptus and cedar all culminating in a medium finish.  Drinking nicely now, this wine should cellar nicely through 2014.

Ella Valley Vineyards, Cabernet Franc, 2009:  Given my public love affair with Cabernet Franc, it will likely not come as a surprise that this is one of my favorite wines from the winery, one I have been following since its first inception in 2003, and one that continuously ends up being one of Israel’s best and easily the one I enjoy the most.  The 2008 vintage of this wine was spectacular and the 2009 vintage is shaping up to be even better with an exceptionally elegant structure and a luscious medley of fruit, wood and green notes.  A rich nose of mostly juicy red fruit including raspberries, cranberries and currants together with the characteristically true green pepper and notes of pine (although Doron took pains to reduce the overt green notes) follows onto a palate of more fruit, spicy oak, near-sweet cedar, cured tobacco leaf and a mineral streak that is starting to become more prominent in many of Ella Valley’s wines.  Amazing now, this wine will continue to develop in the bottle and should stick around for 4-5 more years through 2016.

Flam, Rosé, 2011: Given my well-documented love for Rosé, I was happy to add another quality example to the repertoire of summer possibilities.  Made from 100% Cabernet Franc (what’s not to love) which give this light/medium bodied wine some welcome bite, the wine is blessed with a nose that takes some time to open but once it does, you are rewarded with subtle notes of strawberry, melon, citrus peel, lavender and a pleasing bitterness.  A refreshing yet somewhat subtle palate of bright summer fruits, citrus and some minerality with good balancing acidity, a characteristic green note of green and some complexity that is rare in a Rosé (maybe a trade off for the lack of typical nose bursting with freshly picked fruit).  As with most Rosé wines, especially the well made ones, a good match to many light dishes and perfect for summer.

Four Gates, Cabernet Franc, 2007.  One of my favorite Cabernet Franc wines and a scrumptious wine.  Four Gates is truly a tremendous winery whose wines are only available directly from the winery.  Well worth the effort and make for fantastic pairing with food.  As with many of the wines from Four Gates, the wine benefits from substantial aeration, either by allowing it to open in your glass (my preferred method) or by decanting, but once it does – Mama Mia!  A rich nose of dense black fruit assails you with black plums, currants and cherries combined with toasty oak, cedar, tobacco, roasted herbs and rich baker’s chocolate with the characteristic green notes and slight bitter streak in the background.  Most of the notes are present on the medium to full bodied palate that it layered and complex with expressive floral notes and mouth coating tannins together with the fruit, spice and judicious oak usage.  A more elegant wine than the powerfully delightfully 2006 vintage while retaining the four Gates characteristic feel – a tremendous wine and one I am quite happy to have stocked up a bit on.

Gush Etzion, Lonely Oak, Cabernet Franc 2008:  As I have written in the past, Gush Etzion Winery seems to have turned a corner and is regularly producing nice and interesting wines, with this Cabernet Franc being one of their best (and a legitimate successor to the 2007 vintage).  A beautiful nose of ripe black fruit with plenty of green notes including mint, eucalyptus and a delightful herbaceousness develops floral accents as it opens up that are complemented by Mediterranean herbs, slightly smoky oak and tobacco.  A medium bodied palate has more black fruit, some red fruit nuances, with nicely integrating tannins and plenty of toasty oak that just manages to avoid stealing the show, creating a well-balanced wine that is well structured with good acidity and will continue to develop for a few years.  Round and mouth filling with freshly cracked black pepper and some warm spices complementing the fruit and greenness.  A long and lingering finish with more oak, chocolate and green notes rounds out this delightful wine.

Older Tasting Notes (6/4/10)

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.