The flipside to that whole "getting away from a wine varietal that I've really enjoyed in the past but haven't tried in awhile" issue I discussed in the Riesling column is "this has been right in front of my face for years -- why haven't I been drinking more of this?" Not long ago, I grabbed a bottle of Cab Franc on the recommendation of a friend of mine, and I found I really, really liked it. Predictably, research followed.
Anyone who's been drinking wine for awhile has probably heard of Cabernet Franc, but it's usually just a blending grape -- often mentioned as the "third varietal" in most Bordeaux blends and meritages, backing up Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. (Petit Verdot and Malbec being numbers 4 and 5 of the five in Bordeaux, as you might remember.) It also gained a small degree of infamy by being the other grape dissed by Miles in Sideways, but without nearly the vitriol he reserved for Merlot.
So, what is it? Cabernet Franc is a red grape. It's chemically very similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, and little over a decade ago, some grape taxonomists discovered that Cabernet Franc is one of the two parent grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon. (Sauvignon Blanc is the other.) I found this fascinating, since Cabernet Sauvignon usually produces heavy, tannic wines, while both its parents vinify in a much lighter, more acidic style.
While the grape hails from Bordeaux, the only French wine made exclusively from Cabernet Franc is Chinon from the Loire Valley. Cabernet Franc grows relatively well in cooler climates, so it can be found domestically in places like the Pacific Northwest, cooler areas of California, and more and more in New York. Canada has begun growing a fair bit of it as well.
Cabernet Franc yields a lighter, somewhat perfumier, more subtly flavored wine that often has an "herbal" character. Aside from its chemical similarities, it's easy to see after tasting it why it's blended so often with Cabernet Sauvignon. Its fruitiness and relative lack of tannin can be used to "round off" some of the harshness that exists in many Cabernet Sauvignons, especially young ones.
Foodwise, most cabernet francs aren't going to be the best pairing for big beefy meals with rich sauces. However, the herbal character and acidity make it one of the few red wines that can go with salads. It also generally pairs well with pork, chicken, and fish. You can also have it with Mediterranean foods, roasted vegetables, and it makes a nice alternative to Chianti for red sauces.
Since it's not still produced in huge quantities as a single varietal, these wines tend to be a little tougher to find and are a little more expensive. There aren't many Cab Franc dominant wines that have the high end price point of Cabernet Sauvignon (other than Chateau Cheval Blanc, Miles' "special bottle" in Sideways, which, ironically is about a 50/50 blend of Cabernet Franc and his other favorite, Merlot) but there aren't very many on the low end of the scale either. I've rarely seen one for much under $15. There are some reasonably priced ones out there, like the following:
Domaine de Pallus "Les Pensées de Pallus" 2005 Chinon -- If you want to understand why Cabernet Franc done as a single varietal can be a stand-in for an Italian red, try this one. Again, Chinon is the only French 100% Cabernet Franc variety. Like most French reds, it's best with food, and definitely needs to be allowed to breathe for a minimum of half an hour after you uncork this pink-topped bottle. Once the fume and the funk clear, the fruit begins to open, and you start getting aromas of raspberries and smoke. As for the weight and flavor -- imagine a Beaujolais and a Chianti snuggling up and getting to know each other really well. It's got the chalky minerality of a Chianti, but the fruitiness of a Beaujolais -- and it's best served with a slight chill. It's heavier than either of those wines, and it's OK on its own. I tried it with a Spanish recipe for monkfish that called for a rosé. The Chinon worked just as well, and it played nicely off of the red pepper, onion, and almond puree that made up the sauce. (The whole thing was over couscous.) Also balanced well against the sautéed spinach we had as a side. $17-20.
Wit's End. "The Procrastinator" 2006 Cabernet Franc -- This Australian Cab Franc from McLaren Vale has a name after my own heart. What struck me first about this wine was the mouthfeel. It's got a slightly thick, velvety texture even though the body itself isn't all that heavy. A very "friendly" wine for starting an evening . It's smoky and seductive like a pinot noir, but has a bit more weight and tannin. The nose is a clean smell of cherries, which are the flavor we picked up the most. We had this with a mustard-covered, grilled pork loin chop with some roasted vegetables. This pairing was "absolutely heavenly," according to the SPinC. The roasted, grilled flavors brought out more of the tannin and smoke in the wine, which still keeps much of its fruity brightness with the food. Around $20.
Hahn 2006 Central Coast Cabernet Franc -- For a great contrast in styles of this grape, you'd be hard pressed to find a better one than this wine from California and the aforementioned Australian. This wine is initially quite "hot" tasting and really needs a little time to decant, like most any California cabernet. It's much more alcoholic and has considerably more weight and tannin than the Aussie entry. The nose again is cherries with a little bit of leather and smokiness. The wine is medium bodied, with some fruit, but a full, tannic finish with some chocolate flavors lingering. Mushroom burgers (beef burgers topped with sautéed mushrooms, not grilled portabellas) and bulgur with walnuts and chopped spinach were our pairing with this one, and the higher levels of tannin and alcohol allowed it to set up nicely next to earthy, meaty flavors. The acidity also held its own against the spinach. A "food" franc rather than one to drink on its own. About $15.