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Cabernet Franc, a Versatile Wine From France to California

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This grape makes herbal, elegant varietal wines that age well.

It’s not quite a unicorn wine, but if there’s one bottle that’s guaranteed to make a group of normally civilized oenophileseven ones with completely different palatesclamor for a glass, it might be Clos Rougeard, a wine from France's Loire Valley, made with 100 percent Cabernet Franc.

"When you have a Clos Rougeard that you really like, it’s where the lightbulb comes on," says Berkeley, California winemaker Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars. Brockway’s wines, among which there is one Cabernet Franc, are made in a warehouse with grapes carefully chosen from select vineyards around California.

Cab Franc is... beloved for its versatility with food, its ability to age, and its unique herbaceous flavor.

Regardless, for many wine drinkers, Cab Franc (as it is affectionately called) is most often found as a blending grape in full-bodied Bordeaux wines. But in the Loire Valley (and parts of the U.S.), Cab Franc is made as a varietal wine (meaning, 100 percent from the same grape) and is beloved for its versatility with food, its ability to age, and its unique herbaceous flavor. According to DNA analysis, Cab Franc and Sauvignon Blanc are the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon.

In California, Broc Cellars and Santa Barbara-based Lieu Dit are two startup, boutique wineries producing Loire-style Cab Franc, with grapes from Happy Valley Canyon in the Santa Ynez Valley, near Santa Barbara.

"Cabernet Franc, though it’s well-recognized, it’s always been more Bordeaux-focused here in California," meaning people use it to make Meritage blends (the name for Bordeaux-style blends made outside of that region) as opposed to a Loire-style varietal wine, states Brockway.  Emphasizing that he works with each vineyard differently, in line with what the site-specific conditions seem to require, Brockway says that the vineyards where his Cab Franc grows are "kind of a Bordeaux project" and that he harvests early to "emphasize the herbal notes and balance out the pyrazine aromas" in the wine, often described as a bell pepper scent. To achieve Loire-style Cab Franc flavorwhich Brockway explains as "leaning toward those herbal flavors instead of ripening the fruit out"he ferments whole cluster grapes as opposed to de-stemming them and removing the skins. This "lessen[s] the Cabernet part of it, increasing the Franc ... less focus on the fruit and structure, more focus on something easy to drink," he professes.

Meanwhile, Lieu Dit is made by Justin Willett and Eric Railsback, two friends who became enamored with Loire Valley wines during their college years in Santa Barbara. "Burgundy was too expensive, but we could get Sancerre, Chinon, all this stuff we found really interesting," says Willett. "There is an opportunity to really grow these varieties successfully out here," he continues, adding that California, despite the drought, is seeing consistently good harvests, while France has had rather erratic growing seasons in recent years.

"Cabernet Franc has grown in demand as the Loire Valley has become a bigger place of interest to sommeliers and consumer," says Patrick Cappiello, partner at Manhattan restaurants Pearl & Ash and Rebelle, the latter of which features a French and American wine list. "I think the fact that the wines are food friendly, complex, and a great value have been the contributing factors."

Curious to try? Below, five great Cab Francs with which to experiment. Generally speaking, all bottles will require some time to open up, except Bloomer Creek below, drink that one right away.

Cabernet Franc BOTTLES TO TRY:

All photos by Alex Ulreich

Producer: Bloomer Creek
Wine: Dry Rosé, 2014
From: Finger Lakes, NY
Retail: $27

This Finger Lakes rosé is from a boutique winery that’s pioneering natural winemaking techniques in a region that’s been slow to adopt such a philosophy. It's a lightly sparkling wine made in the pétillant-naturel stylemeaning the wine is bottled while finishing fermentation, so the bubbles form naturally. Pretty, floral and light, with just a hint of residual sugar, this is a perfect aperitif bottle.

Producer: Lieu Dit
Wine: Cabernet Franc, 2013
From: Santa Barbara, CA
Retail: $29

People all over the country are buzzing about the Loire-inspired wines coming from friends and upstart winemakers Justin Willett and Eric Railsback in Santa Barbara. Their Cabernet Franc is on the fuller side, with condensed, juicy fruit that’s followed by a strong mineral finish. The herbal notes really come through after the wine has been open for some time.

Producer: Broc Cellars
Wine: Cabernet Franc, 2014
From: Berkeley / Santa Barbara, CA
Retail: $37

What a beauty: herbal, bright and mineral. Broc Cellars’ Cab Franc may be from California, but try blind tasting it next to a Loire Valley wine and see if you can tell the difference. Those unable to find winemaker Chris Brockway's wines (they are fairly limited in production) can opt for one of his Loire Valley favorites (along with the coveted Clos Rougeard): Jerome Lenoir, in Chinon. But that wine is also limited production. Nab ‘em if you can!

Producer: Olga Raffault
Wine: Les Picasses, 2010
From: Chinon, FR
Retail: $26

This is one of the classics, essentially a benchmark for outstanding Cab Franc, and price-wise it is an extraordinary value. "Les Picasses" grapes are sourced from a nicely sloped vineyard with 50-year-old vines, in Chinon. The wine sees a few years of oak aging, and then is aged in bottle before release. The 2010 really shows the potential of Cabernet Franc to mature, but if you can find the 2002, or especially the 1986 vintages, you’ll really see the grape's aging potential. Pair this wine with light or medium foods, like chicken or pork, to appreciate its tannic structure and medium body. Ideally, the wine needs 30 to 60 minutes to open up, and some may wish to decant so that those floral and herbal aromas come through strong.

Producer: Catherine and Pierre Breton
Wine: Trinch!, 2014
From: Bourgueil, FR
Retail: $24

Centuries ago, a monk named Breton was entrusted with planting Cabernet Franc in Bourgeuil, so it is fitting that Pierre Breton now makes wine from that grape. This winery is part of the natural wine movement in the Loire Valley, which emphasizes the limited use of sulfur, a preservative that stabilizes wine. The story goes that Catherine and Pierre Breton started reducing sulfur use because they realized it caused a hangoverand they wanted to imbibe without repercussions. "Trinch!" is a refreshing, glouglou-style wine, meaning it goes down easy, with bright herbal notes and medium body. Serve this bottle chilled.