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(This page last updatedMon, Sep 29, 2003)

CABERNET FRANC
The 'Other' Cabernet Grape Takes Root In New York
Part 1: The Basics/Regions
Part 2: New York Wines
Part 3: Loire Wines
Part 4: Conclusions

Last of The Summer Rosês: Goats Do Roam, Vin Gris de Cigare and Rose of Virginia.
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JOHN ACQUAVIVA
"New world wines are just too techno for me."
Featured wine region 3:
SOUTHERN RHÔNE WHITES
Featured wine region 4:
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The Geography
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Now with updated reviews
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What the Experts Say about East Coast Cabernet Franc:

Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion To wine: "New World regions that have shown a particular aptitude for well-balanced, fruity wines based predominantly on Cabenet Franc include Long Island in new York State…."
Hugh Johnson,
Pocket Wine Book 2002: "Cabernet Franc appears overall to be the East Coast's most promising red."
Jancis Robinson, BBC Wine Course: "The easternmost tip of Long Island … the climate, thanks to the ocean which surrounds it, is mild enough to allow vinifera vines to flourish. Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Merlot do particularly well here and have a finesses, natural acidity and delicacy that distinguishes the from most other America wines."
Oz Clarke, Pocket Wine Guide 2002: "Long Island's cool region has a long growing season and concentration of fruit in the wines can be wonderful in a good year. Best grapes are Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Franc."
(Back to the feature)

CABERNET FRANC
THE 'OTHER' CABERNET WINE
TAKES ROOT IN NEW YORK

THE BASICS

It's referred to around the wine world as 'the other Cabernet.' But Cabernet Franc need suffer no inferiority complex up against the wider known Cabernet Sauvignon. For one thing, it's physically a bigger grape. (Take that!) For another, recent DNA tests have proven that, thanks to some long-ago cross-cultural fling with the white grape Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc is in fact the father of Cabernet Sauvignon. (Take that too!) In short, Cabernet Franc has ample bragging rights. The fact that it rarely exercises them serves to justify its quiet but stable reputation as a grape of sophistication, purity and class.

How Cabernet Franc looks on the vine:
round berries in medium clusters.

How it looks in the bottle: two examples from New York's Finger Lakes.


From a wine drinker's point of view, Cabernet Franc can be extremely amiable. It's relatively light in tannin and alcohol (usually in the 11-13% range), yet generally full of fresh fruit and famed for its vibrant acidity. It has an aroma often compared favorably to pencil shavings and fresh tobacco, while its fruit profile is usually one of cherry, cranberry, raspberry, blackberry and blackcurrant. Though it can lean towards a certain 'green' herbaceousness if under-ripe, in good years its aforementioned qualities come together to make deliciously accessible medium-bodied wines – with substantial cellaring potential.

Likewise, from a wine producer's point of view, Cabernet Franc can be exceedingly amenable. It buds and matures a good week earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, and needs less heat to ripen fully. This makes it not only an excellent blending grape in warm weather climates (where it offsets Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in hot years and makes up the difference in cooler ones), but also a perfect grape for cooler, inland climates. In addition, because Cabernet Franc is less tannic and aggressive than Cabernet Sauvigon, it rarely needs heavy oak treatment to tame it, something admired by both its producers and its consumers.


THE REGIONS

In Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc forms a solid two-thirds of Cheval Blanc, the esteemed first growth of St-Emilion; throughout that village, neighboring Pomerol and much else of the 'right bank' of the Gironde, it is more widely planted than Cabernet Sauvignon. (Merlot, the third major Bordeaux grape, tends to over-shadow both its Cabernet rivals on the right bank.) As recently as the late 1960s, Cabernet Franc took up equal vineyard space to Cabernet Sauvignon throughout Bordeaux, but as growers replaced unprofitable white grapes with red, they leaned towards the heftier and more internationally renowned Sauvignon varietal. As a result, throughout the left bank villages of St-Julien, St-Estephe, Margaux and Pauillac, Cabernet Franc receives very much second or third billing among the major 'claret' grapes.

It's in the middle Loire that Cabernet Franc reigns supreme. The region, which includes everything under the Touraine AC, remains under-rated by international wine reviewers who prefer big, fat, oaky reds (and whites) that scream of ripe fruit and alcohol. Yet such underdog status suits Loire lovers just fine, keeping prices down and availability up. The red wines of Saumur, Saumur-Champigny, Chinon, Bourgueil and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil are almost always exclusively Cabernet Franc, and apart from offering great drinking values compared to Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhône, are also remarkably long-lived. Thirty years until full maturity from these latter appellations is not uncommon.

Cabernet Franc exceeds in the middle Loire, around the general Touraine appelation, and the specific villages of Saumar, Chinon and Bourgueil. Map from Berry Brothers web site


Cabernet Franc is also ingrained in the wine-producing regions of north-east Italy, to the extent that, as in the Loire, it is often bottle simply as 'Cabernet.' (Consumers expecting Sauvignon need know this or receive bottle shock!) Red wines from Friuli, Veneto and Trentino in particular maintain a solid, but internationally disregarded, reputation for the grape. Cab Franc is also the grape of choice among growers in Kosovo, should you find yourself in that nation's wine regions for any reason!

As wine-drinkers tire of one-dimensional Cabernet Sauvignons and wine-makers study their options, Cabernet Franc has increased its presence throughout the New World. New Zealand seems an obvious candidate given its cool climate, but the country is doing so well with the more finicky Pinot Noir (of Burgundy origin) that we rarely hear of its efforts with the Loire's indigenous grape. Of other New World territories, too many are hot weather regions that believe they have a license to grow any grapes they want, which is why I've seen (though not tasted) Californian Cabernet Francs with unsuitably high alcohol contents of up to 14.5%. The inland growing regions of Washington State, in the U.S. Pacific North West, are far more suitable for the grape, and initial results appear to have been positive, but Washington continues to gain more attention for its success with Merlot.

This leaves the East Coast of America. The burgeoning wine industry of New York's Long Island initially planted the 'classic' Bordeaux grapes Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and there have been many satisfactory bottlings of each (and of Bordeaux style blends too) over the last 20+ years. But as producers learn more about their micro-climate, recognizing that it's actually cooler than Bordeaux's, they're increasingly entertaining the notion that Cabernet Franc may be the most suitable grape for the region. (Click here to read what the British wine experts say on this matter.)

Much of the promotional leg work has been undertaken – and many of the rewards subsequently reaped – by Bruce Schneider, who grew around his father's New Jersey-based wine importing business and, in 1994, still in his 20s, decided to act upon his gut instinct for Long Island's Cabernet Franc. He bought five tonnes of juice from different growers and hired Kip Bedell of Bedell Cellars make 300 cases of Cab Franc to his own specifications. To the surprise of many and envy of many more, the Schneider Cabernet Franc immediately won acclaim, focusing domestic and international attention on the grape's potential in Long Island, and after Bruce signed up to Columbia University's Business School to retroactively learn more about the financial aspects of wine-making, he became one of the first recipients of a special $250,000 investment loan from the School. This loan, for which Columbia has received equity in the company, allowed Bruce and wife Christiane to finally plant 22 acres of their own vineyards in early 2000 as well as to build their own wine-making facility and tasting room - all around Riverhead, at the junction of the North and South Forks, which makes the ever-pioneering Schneider the most western winery of Long Island. This year Schneider launches a 'second tier' Cabernet Franc to add to its flagship bottling and its everyday Potato Barn labels. Meanwhile the Schneider web site (which could do with updating) serves as a veritable treasure trove of information about – and tribute to – the Cabernet Franc grape, including an extensive listing of other producers' wines. It may not all be a result of Schneider's trailblazing, but just about every producer on the North Fork now bottles Cabernet Franc, either in isolation or as part of a blend.

Wine is made up and down New York State, and increasingly it's Cabernet Franc that draws attention. The best regions for the grape are the North Fork of Long Island, the Hudson River Valley and the Finger Lakes. Map found at nywine.com


But Long Island is just the high-profile hub of East Coast Cab Franc acitivity. Heading Upstate to the Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes, where the weather is too cool for satisfactory Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc has generally proven more successful than both Pinot Noir and Merlot and is meriting increased attention. Heading down from New York, as the climate gets warmer in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the vastly under-rated wine growing state of Virginia, Cabernet Franc has also been meeting with positive results. From my own personal perspective, as someone observing the East Coast wine scene with a native's passionate eye, I've found the subtle but perceptible shift towards Cabernet Franc as one worth following.

That means I've been buying bottles from up and down the East Coast, hoarding most of them for an opportunity to taste and compare. What I once thought might be a fun dinner theme for four soon grew into what I decided should be a genuine challenge: comparing several East Coast Cab Francs to the 'real thing,' i.e. their Loire counterparts. So I stealthily invited a few people over who know and love sharing their Loire wines, and at least one person who knows and loves his East Coast Cab Francs, and arranged enough other wine and food to ensure they'd make it to Brooklyn even in bad weather (as they did, in a November nor'easter). There was brief discussion about blind-bagging the wines to avoid advance anti-American prejudice (and this among Americans!), but it turned out to be unnecessary – this was an open-minded crew of wine lovers of varying expertise who worked their way enthusiastically and knowledgeably through a revealing set of wines.


Continue to
Part 2: The New York Wines
Part 3: The Loire Wines
Part 4: Conclusions

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