Rod Byers: Making a difference with Cabernet Franc
July 2, 2014
Recently I wrote a column about a couple of wineries in our region who are betting their futures on Italian and Spanish grape varieties that they think will not only do well here but potentially shine a spotlight on our entire wine region.
I am reminded that just a few years ago Cabernet Franc was the near consensus choice for Nevada County's flagship varietal, but that buzz appears largely to have subsided.
"That's a pity," said Phil Starr of Sierra Starr Winery. "Cabernet Franc is a versatile grape that could do well in a variety of locations throughout the county."
It certainly appears that at least one of those locations is in his vineyard. This spring they earned a couple of gold medals for their 2011 vintage. One was at the El Dorado County Fair, Sierra Starr's fourth vintage in a row to be awarded a gold medal at that competition.
The other gold medal was at the Finger Lakes International Competition in New York State. The Finger Lakes district is one of the prime regions in the country for Cabernet Franc, so bringing a Gold Medal home from there is most impressive.
Sadly, Cabernet Franc rarely gets the love it deserves. Sharing the same first name with Cabernet Sauvignon has not helped, creating some understandable confusion about the variety. Too often, when people hear Cabernet they leap to Sauvignon, seldom remembering, if they ever even knew, that there is a Franc as well.
Or, if they do know it, they too often think of Franc merely as a blending grape, something to be added to Cabernet Sauvignon to make it taste better.
Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon do share some similar flavor profiles but it is often surprising to many wine drinkers when they actually find out why. The flavor of Cabernet Sauvignon runs through the veins of Cabernet Franc. Indeed, Cabernet Franc is the common ancestral grape of several red Bordeaux varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Carmenere.
Therefore, we really shouldn't be asking how is Cabernet Franc similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, or Merlot for that matter. The question should be, how is Cabernet Sauvignon similar to Cabernet Franc?
However, the question is asked, it is still a good question.
"Cabernet Franc," Jack Starr responded, "is often more aromatic than Cabernet Sauvignon."
"Franc is more approachable, less tannic, and more elegant than Cabernet Sauvignon. It's a great option for people who like the flavor of Cabernet Sauvignon but find it too tough and tannic, he added.
Locally we can thank Mark Foster, the winemaker at Nevada City Winery for establishing Cabernet Franc as one of the leading varietals of our region. He first had experience with Franc when he was working as a winemaker in El Dorado County.
When he came to Nevada County in the early 1990s, he convinced a grower to plant several different clones of Cabernet Franc. Wine grape experiments are a maddeningly slow process but eventually he had the proof in the bottle.
He could take it back to growers to show them why they should include Franc as part of their vineyard plantings.
The critics weren't immune either. The medals started to pile up as Cabernet Franc became Nevada City Winery's most awarded wine including winning the Best Cabernet Franc of California at the California State Fair one year.
Success breeds success. More growers planted it. More wineries produced it. Cabernet Franc was starting to look like Nevada County's break through varietal.
A few years back, the members of the Nevada County Winery Association decided to pool individual lots of a wine into a blend to make a huge five-liter bottle to auction off at a dinner event in conjunction with Grass Valley's Foothill Celebration of Wine.
The varietal they selected was Cabernet Franc. One important reason that Cabernet Franc is more suited to our region than Cabernet Sauvignon is because it ripens sooner than Cabernet Sauvignon. That matters, especially as you move higher in elevation. Sierra Starr's vineyard is at 2,400 feet. Given the diversity of climate and elevation found in Nevada County, Cabernet Franc has a better chance of succeeding in more places than Cabernet Sauvignon ever will.
Somehow, it was never quite enough, or at least the wineries couldn't agree if it was enough or not.
For one thing, Cabernet Franc remains a hand sell item. In the places it does the best, the Loire Valley or Bordeaux, in France, it is not labeled as Cabernet Franc so it never achieved much name recognition.
Another is that like Cabernet Sauvignon, in cooler growing years it has a tendency to be overly herbaceous, something many consumers don't like very much.
However, there is no denying, it generally does well here and it makes lovely wine. Sierra Starr does not intend to give up on it. In fact, they are doubling down. They are in the process right now of planting more vineyards on their property and Cabernet Franc is one of main varieties they're planting.
"I still believe Cabernet Franc is a rising star," Phil Starr explained. "The 2012 Franc in barrel now is fantastic. I think the future is really bright." In fact, that is exactly how they label their Cabernet Franc. They call it, Rising Starr.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. You can find information about his upcoming Sierra College Wine Classes starting in September at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-273-2856.