Cabernet franc is by no means new to the valley. By 1885, H.W. Crabb and other Napa Valley vintners who were eager to make fine claret like Bordeaux planted cabernet franc and other supporting varieties to add to their cabernet sauvignon wines. In the early stages of the industry’s rebirth following phylloxera and Prohibition (1940s, ’50s), historic producers such as Inglenook and Louis Martini were blending cabernet franc into their top cabernet sauvignon wines.
While popularity for pure cabernet sauvignon wines has held favor on and off over the decades, many vintners today continue to understand the important role that cabernet franc plays in blends. The grape is valued for the bright fruits and aromatic lift it gives to the structural backbone of cabernet sauvignon’s substantial tannins, acidity, color and core of dark fruits.
During a St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners tasting panel, held at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone earlier this month, panelist John Skupny of Lang & Reed, said, cabernet franc is hard to source today. “There are less than 1,100 acres in the valley, versus close to 21,000 acres of cabernet sauvignon. They vie for the same price. The demand is not for making cabernet franc as a varietal, it’s for the uber-blend. A lot of times it’s hard to find really good cabernet franc because it’s being absorbed by the Harlans and Abreus of the world, because it’s a really important addition to cabernet sauvignon.”
Skupny recounted, “When I worked for Caymus in the ’80s, Charlie Wagner always felt that cabernet franc would impact Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon more than the other blending grapes, because we already had roundness and softness. What we needed was lift, freshness.”
Skupny would go on to create the highly respected Lang & Reed brand, based on cabernet franc wines. Indeed, the grape variety today commands a price per ton close to that of cabernet sauvignon.
Figures from the 2015 Napa County Agricultural Crop Report show $6,065 per ton for cabernet franc, and $6,289 per ton for cabernet sauvignon. While acreage has increased over the decades, the plantings remain low. In 1983, there were 164 bearing acres of the grape, followed by 616 in 1993, 997 in 2006, and just around 1,100 acres today.
Cabernet franc is the star grape in other regions of the world, most notably the Loire Valley with its Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny wines. Yet cabernet franc’s historical streak in Napa Valley was always as bridesmaid, never the bride.
During the panel tasting, 27 cabernet franc wines from the Napa Valley were tasted and discussed. Each of the wines was dominated by cabernet franc, and several were 100 percent varietal wines.
When it holds court, being labeled as a cabernet franc varietal wine or playing the dominant role in a blend, cabernet franc can show charm and grace, as panelist and longtime winemaker Tom Rinaldi discovered with the 2014 cabernet francs he reviewed.
“I’m glad to see that there’s so many cabernet francs out there. In my early days, it was strictly a blending grape, and it did very well as that. But now to see them on their own, it’s nice,” he said.
Panelists tasted cabernet franc from the 2013 and 2014 vintages, and used descriptors for the wines such as: earthy, raspberry, plums with cinnamon, blackberry jam, and blueberry pie.
Kyrsta Scully, local wine director and wine buyer, called the 2014s “the surprise of the night.” While vintners love the powerful 2013 vintage, she explained, the 2014 cabernet franc wines show the potential of what to expect from the 2014 vintage.
The top-scoring Napa Valley Cabernet Franc Wines from the tasting are:
Cornerstone Cellars 2013 Cabernet Franc Napa Valley ($45) showing rich red cherry fruit with cedar and fresh forest floor. The winery also makes an Oakville appellation Cabernet Franc wine.
Goosecross Cellars 2013 Cabernet Franc Yountville ($59) is an aromatic wine with redcurrant and rich red cherry fruit supported by aromas and flavors of toast and mocha.
Oakville Ranch Vineyards 2013 Robert’s Cabernet Franc Oakville ($110) has a silky texture with deep aromas of concentrated black cherry and black currant fruit layered with sweet baking spice, toast and savory herb complexity.
Ballentine Vineyards 2014 Pocai Vineyard Cabernet Franc Calistoga ($50) has vibrant aromatics of blueberry pie and boysenberry fruit, with a hint of chocolate and floral adding to the deliciousness of the wine.
Coquerel Family Wines 2014 Cabernet Franc Coombsville ($40) is a hedonistic sip of black and red plum fruits, earth, and chocolate, and has the refreshing lift of acidity that seems to come with all Coombsville wines.
These wines also received star status at the tasting:
La Jota Vineyard Co. 2013 Cabernet Franc Howell Mountain ($75)
Silverado Vineyards 2013 Mt. George Cabernet Franc Coombsville ($50)
Mira Winery 2013 Cabernet Franc Napa Valley ($85)
PEJU 2014 Cabernet Franc Napa Valley ($65) Made from 80.5 percent cabernet franc
Merryvale Vineyards 2014 Cabernet Franc (100 percent varietal) Napa Valley ($90)