'Where Bordeaux wines are concerned, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have a tendency to steal all the limelight. However, both history and literature agree that the delightful Cabernet Franc deserves a prize for best supporting role." Pierre Galet, French viticulture lecturer and author.
A blend of grapes consists of a star variety and a handful of complimentary grapes in supporting roles. The classic Bordeaux blend has Cabernet Sauvignon in the leading role, with four other grapes for nuance and complexity.
Think of the blend in cooking terms: Cabernet Sauvignon is the main ingredient in the dish and the other grapes are the seasonings.
By law, the standard Bordeaux blend consists of these five varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. In practice, Bordeaux vintners prefer only the first three.
Volumes have been written about Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but not so much about Cabernet Franc. What follows, then, is a primer on Cab Franc, as it's commonly known: what the grape is all about and the characteristics of the wine itself.
Here are ten things about Cabernet Franc that you may not know:
* Cabernet Franc is one of the world's 20 most planted wine grapes.
* Cabernet Franc, along with Sauvignon Blanc, is a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon.
* Cabernet Franc is called Bouchet in St. Emilion, where the variety makes up about 40% of the total, behind Merlot. In most vintages, Ch. Cheval Blanc, a top St. Emilion, is 51% Cabernet Franc.
* Cabernet Franc is becoming the dominant variety in the southwest regions of Languedoc and Quercy.
* Cabernet Franc accounts for 30% of the plantings in Pomerol, a neighbor to St. Emilion. Ch. Petrus is a noted Pomerol with a high percentage of Cabernet Franc.
* Cabernet Franc constitutes about 10% of total plantings In the Medoc, where Cabernet Sauvignon is king.
* Cabernet Franc is always blended with other varieties in Bordeaux, but stands on its own as a popular varietal in Saumur-Champigny, Chinon, Bourgueil and Anjou Villages, at the expense of Rose d'Anjou.
* Cabernet Franc is growing in popularity in Washington state where it is more frost tolerant than Merlot.
* Cabernet Franc, in the northern Italy region of Friuli, is sometimes identified as Cabernet, while Cabernet Sauvignon is sometimes labeled simply as Sauvignon.
* Cabernet Franc is known around France by many different names, including Gros Cabernet, Bouchet, Breton, Bidure and at least six other names.
In the vineyard, Cab Franc buds and matures earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, thus its favored position in the cooler vineyards of St. Emilion and Pomerol. But an early maturing makes Cab Franc more susceptible to coulure, or poor fruit set. Since the vine can not fully ripen all grapes if all flowers remain on the cluster, it naturally sheds flowers during fruit set. Excessive coulure means a low yield.
Cabernet Franc is lighter in color and tannin than Cabernet Sauvignon, allowing its juicy raspberry flavors to add another dimension to a blend. When pushed in the vineyard to high yields, Cab Franc has a tendency to be herbal.
There is a juiciness to Cab Franc that you don't find in Cab Sauv. Sauvignon is more lean, angular with harder tannins in younger wines. Franc can be deceptive, because the tannin structure is there, but the fruit is brighter and more forward.
Cabernet Franc is grown in many parts of the world, sometimes as a varietal, other times as a component of a blend. If you can't find any of the following wines in your local wine shop, ask for them.
Saint-Emilion: Le Dome, Ch. Cheval Blanc, Clos St.-Julien, Chapelle d'Ausone.
California: Pride Mountain, Lang & Reed, Steven Kent. Ridge Vineyards, Lieu Dit, Chappellet, Relic.
Washington: Owen Roe, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Andrew Rich
It's easy to get in a rut with wine; you know what you like and that's what you drink. Next time you reach for a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, pause for a moment, then make it a bottle of Cabernet Franc. You won't be disappointed.
Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 17
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