Thoughts on Cab Franc

Wine Friend 2 insists that cab franc is really a blending grape, although she recently said that Arterra’s 2016 Cab Franc may change her mind, and is one of the few single-varietal cab francs she likes.  At one time I thought that Cab Franc was the grape in Virginia and symbolized Virginia wine, and it seemed everyone had a cab franc for sale.

Savor Virginia, an online magazine (maybe print too? Haven’t seen it in print yet) recently shared this article on Cab Franc as the signature grape of Virginia.  It was written by someone who tweets interesting thoughts on Virginia Wine often.  The article talks about the ways in which Virginia climate and soil are a good match for cab franc.

The big complaints I hear about cab franc (and tend to agree with) are an overabundance of green pepper and vegetal notes in it.  Perhaps there are ways to manage that.  From the article:

Noted winemaker Luca Paschina, who planted his first Cabernet Franc vines in 1992 at Barboursville Vineyards in Orange County and now farms 28 acres (the largest Cab Franc planting in the state), says, “the key is to avoid uneven ripening [by canopy management] and over-cropping.”

“I think we should embrace the savory, green part of Cabernet Franc and work with it instead of erasing it,” says Matthieu Finot, winemaker at King Family Vineyards in Crozet. “If you do not have the combination of the right terroir, good rootstock and clone, as well as proper canopy management, the wine will be thin with the wrong type of green peppery characteristics.”

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This made me think about what I heard from a pourer at Winery at La Grange recently who shared that they source their cab franc from the West Coast because it doesn’t get ripe enough here, leaving it tasting green and overly peppery.  This isn’t necessarily a contradiction, but rather may be due to inadequate canopy management on the vineyard sites or just variations in microclimate, and overall weather differences year over year.  And that fits well with another quote in the article:

“I think that the growing season is slightly too short in some areas for Cabernet Franc to be the main grape,” says Jordan Harris, winemaker at Tarara Winery. “I also think Cabernet Franc is more vulnerable to vintage variation than many varieties. One site can make opulent and even over-the-top ripe wines one year and green the next.”

Jim Law at Linden wrote about the important variables affecting good crop harvest, and mentioned what cab franc needs and prefers to express itself well in wine:

Cabernet Franc has similar, but not as exacting site preferences as Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine quality of Cabernet Sauvignon will fail miserably when planted in a high capacity soil. In that same soil, Cabernet Franc has a chance of making a fresh, herbal, easy drinking wine. The diversity of styles of a St. Emillion vs. a Loire is reflected in the chameleon-like qualities of Cabernet Franc grown in Virginia. On warm slopes with restrictive soils, these grapes can trend towards high alcohol, overripe characteristics. It needs cooler slopes with just a bit more water availability than Cabernet Sauvignon. Blocks with a diversity of soils can be problematic during harvest, as Cabernet Franc ripening times can be greatly influenced by soil differences.

Linden doesn’t currently have a single varietal cab franc on their tasting menu or for sale, but they have their Hardscrabble Red and Claret, which range in the teens for percentage of cab franc in the blend.

The article lists a few Virginia cab francs you’ll want to try.  I have to admit I’ve tried exactly zero of them.  But the ones I currently enjoy are:

  • Arterra’s 2016 Cab Franc (of course!) all grown in Virginia by the winemaker. The ’15 Cab Franc was also very strong, but is sold out.
  • Early Mountain’s 2017 Madison County Cab Franc – young, but strong, and hopefully will just get better with time!
  • Winery at La Grange’s 2014 Reserve Cab Franc (on their members only tasting list I think…) – note, I am fairly certain this is from grapes sourced from the West Coast!  But it’s produced in Virginia, by a Virginia winery, and it’s REALLY good, so I list it.
  • I’ve liked Chateau O’Brien’s Cab Francs – their Buddy’s Bistro Red and straight Cab Franc, especially the ’11 (sold out a while back).  The ’12 was released in 2016 (I think), and I didn’t love it as much as prior vintages. These are, I believe, all Virginia grapes.

I’m hoping to see Virginia Cab Franc continue to develop, and maybe it really is about learning to manage the canopy and determine the best site selections.  I’m betting that given the horrible raininess of the 2018 season, vineyards are looking at grapes like petit verdot that adapt to these annual variations to become the big grape.  The article noted that Viognier became the official state grape in 2011, and it has struggled – I feel like I used to see a lot more Viognier at wineries than I do now. Among white wine grapes, Petit Manseng is showing up a lot, and I’m really hoping to see more Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc moving forward.

What do you think about cab franc?  Do you have a favorite? Or should it only be blended?

Quotes sourced from:
Morgan, Frank. “Fabulous Virginia Cabernet Francs.”  Savor Virginia. January 2, 2019. Available online on January 3, 2019 at: http://savorva.com/fabulous-virginia-cabernet-francs/
Law, Jim. “Soil, Slope, and Water.” April, 2018. Available on January 3, 2019 at: https://www.lindenvineyards.com/articles-by-jim-law/2018/4/10/soil-slope-and-water

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