Wine Business Monthly, recently hosted the 4th WiVi Central Coast Wine Industry Conference and Tradeshow. Loaded with exhibits and seminars geared towards winery owners and winemakers, this is an educational event in Paso Robles and well attended each year.

Seminar with tasting flight
Seminar with tasting flight

On the agenda, I found a seminar titled “Varietal Focus: Cabernet Franc” and as a cabernet franc fan, I couldn’t resist attending this session. I have grown cabernet franc grapes on my property (planted in 1981, these were the first cabernet franc grapes in the Paso Robles AVA) and used the fruit to create standalone varietal wine as well as Bordeaux-style blends at Pretty-Smith Vineyards & Winery. I have always felt cabernet franc is an under-appreciated varietal and was curious about what the panel of winemakers would have to say.

Wine Business Monthly has a Varietal Focus series and they decided to bring that to WiVi. The basic idea is that for each article, Lance Cutler selects a varietal and three regions. He invites a winemaker from each region to participate. The winemakers discuss the varietal stylistically and then describe what they do in the vineyard and winery to achieve that style in their region.  Luckily, for those of us who attended, we were able to taste 10 cabernet franc wines along with the panel discussion.

The winemakers and their regions for this varietal focus were:

Cabernet Franc by the Region

Cabernet franc is one of the five well-known Bordeaux red varietals. Typically in Bordeaux it is used as a blending grape to add aroma and spice to the Bordeaux blends. It tends to ripen earlier than cabernet sauvignon and have less tannins, so in a cold weather climate it is a wonderful grape to plant for blending in case the cabernet sauvignon has trouble ripening during the growing season. The most highly recognized cabernet franc comes from the Loire Valley in France (50% of all cabernet franc planted in France can be found in this region, totaling approximately 15,000 acres); however, it is planted in many regions around the world with great success.

Ten Wines - Three regions
Ten Wines – Three regions

The regions selected for this seminar were all in California, yet each region had notable differences. One of the key messages from all three of the winemakers on the panel is that cabernet franc is a varietal that is site specific/terrior driven. It is also a varietal that does not have a set style expected, so winemakers can work with what the vineyard delivers to create their wine.

El Dorada was by far the smallest region represented. Established in 1983, the El Dorado AVA, includes portions of El Dorado County located between 1,200 and 3,500 feet in elevation and is approximately 2,000 acres with 50 different varietals grown. Paul Bush has always found the varietal to be intriguing, extremely food-friendly, and feels that it showcases the essence of the region the best. Wines tasted from this region were:

  • 2011 Narrow Gate Vineyards -these 10 year old vines were planted at 2,300-ft and the winemaker blended a little cabernet sauvignon into the wine — fairly light weight with notes of cherry, herbs and strawberry jam
  • 2011 Madroña Vineyards – this wine was more European in style with very classic violet aroma and nice acidity
  • 2012 Lewis Grace Patriot Wine – this wine was riper (a warmer vintage helped that) with a  round mouth feel and slight tannins on the finish — would pair with bolder dishes

Central Coast is a huge appellation spanning from Santa Barbara up to Monterrey, with approximately 100,000 acres planted (36,000 of those are in Paso Robles). As Damian Grindley noted, even within Paso Robles there are a lot of diverse climates and soil structures. The far west side has seen approximately 23-inches of rain this year while to the east less than 14 inches have been received. He enjoys the varietal since it is so vineyard specific and food-friendly. He feels the food-friendly message hasn’t gotten out to consumers enough. Wines tasted from this region were:

  • 2014 Halcyon Wines – this was the first vintage produced by this new Paso Robles winery and in addition to the dry red, they will also be producing a sparkling and rosé cabernet franc — I am going to have to taste all of those in the near future.
  • 2013 Brecon Estate – planted at 1,300 ft elevation these 38-year old vines were grafted to cabernet franc from chardonnay 10 years ago — the wine reflects the expression of older vines and the winery uses the grapes to create stand-alone cabernet franc as well as using some for blending. I really enjoyed this wine and look forward to tasting more from this winery.
  • 2012 Carlson Wines – this wine had lovely aromatics of violet and drier tannins than the previous wines — the consensus seemed to be that this wine needs more time to integrate
  • 2010 Happy Canyon – this wine shows that the varietal can age well; however, a few people made comments that it did not seem true to the varietal — it was very ripe with cherry candy notes and lots of dark fruit — tasty but not what you would think of for cabernet franc. Researching on their website, I believe the wine we tasted was a Bordeaux-style blend that was not really dominated by cabernet franc.

Napa Valley has a total of 45,000 acres planted and just 1,000 of those are cabernet franc. Known for cabernet sauvignon, this region uses a fair amount of that cabernet franc for blending purposes. John Skupny at Long & Reed Wine Company makes 100% cabernet franc (some would say this is a risky business given the consumers love/hate relationship with the varietal). He also reinforced that the varietal is highly site specific. He felt vineyard management was key – utilizing pruning to reduce what could be large crops and thinning leaves to reduce the vigorous canopy. He was a fan of the European style, Loire wines created from this ancient grape. Wines tasted from this region were:

  • 2013 Long & Reed “Two-fourteen” – the grapes were purchased from a vineyard plated at 200-ft elevation and showed ripe, dark fruit with dry tannins. Although the wine exhibited clear characteristics true to cabernet franc, it was suggested that this wine may have been handled in the winery more like a cabernet sauvignon.
  • 2012 Clos Du Val – this wine was from an older planting with alluvial soil. The nose was true to cabernet franc and it had a lovely lingering finish (one of my favorites from the tasting)
  • 2012 La Jota – the mountain characteristics and the volcanic soils were evident on this wine — the biggest and boldest of the bunch.

Eat this with cabernet franc…

The fact that the wine can be made in so many styles with varying levels of tannins, earthy notes, red-to-dark fruit notes, acidity and spice (think cloves and tea leaves) means that different cabernet francs will pair with different food. On the lighter side, you could go with fish or goat cheese, on the bolder side it can handle gamy meats and even a juicy rib-eye steak. I have always been a fan of pairing it with grilled vegetables and lamb.

The Winemakers
The Winemakers

My thoughts

Overall, I would have to say I enjoyed every wine and having the opportunity to taste 10 in a single sitting, from three different regions, really did showcase how site specific the grape can be (as well as how much influence the winemaker can have on this varietal). From the lightest to the boldest, I would agree with the panel members that cabernet franc is extremely food-friendly…and under appreciated! Hats off to the panel members who made this session not only educational but also entertaining.

I am looking forward to another opportunity to explore the varietal, the Paso Robles CaB Collective are also shining the light on the grape on April 13th during their annual CaBs of Distinction Trade and Media event. The session is titled “The Other Cabernet”   and is described as “In-depth exploration of the deliciously complex glories of Paso’s next big Bordeaux-style wine: Cabernet Franc. Join this session for an opportunity to taste and compare five different Cabernet Francs and discuss techniques and styles with the winemaker panel.”