Often cabernet franc is viewed as a kinder, gentler version of its big brother, cabernet sauvignon.
In fact, cab franc is part of the more famous cabernet sauvignon’s parentage, as California researchers discovered through DNA testing that cab franc and sauvignon blanc are the parents of cabernet sauvignon, which today is Washington state’s No. 1 wine grape.
Cabernet franc is most famous in France’s Bordeaux region, where it often is blended with cabernet sauvignon to soften the latter wine’s famously bold tannins and to add complexity to the finished product. It also is well known in France’s Loire Valley, where it is grown above the town of Chinon and bottled under that name.
Generally speaking, cabernet franc is a lighter version of cabernet sauvignon, so if you are put off by the famously sturdy tannins of cab, then cab franc is a good alternative. Cab franc also tends to reveal aromas of sweet or dried herbs, in addition to ripe dark fruit and notes of chocolate.
In Washington, it’s becoming easier to find single-variety bottlings of cabernet franc, thanks to an increase in interest in the grape beyond its use in blending. In fact, cab franc is the No. 4 red wine grape amid planted varieties, trailing behind cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. A year ago, Washington winemakers crushed 3,400 tons of cab franc — double what they did less than 20 years ago.
Cab franc is famous for being winter hardy, meaning it can withstand winter cold. This is undoubtedly why the early grape growers planted it throughout Washington in the early 1970s, as the occasional harsh winters in the arid Columbia Valley can be damaging to grape varieties such as merlot and syrah.
Here are several examples of cab franc, all of which won gold medals or better at the fourth annual Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition last month in Hood River, Ore. One is from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, while the rest are from Washington wineries. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant’s or contact the wineries directly.
Owen Roe 2014 Rosa Mystica Cabernet Franc, Yakima Valley, $28: David O’Reilly uses fruit from acclaimed DuBrul and Red Willow vineyards to put the “frank” in cabernet franc for its dry and dark fruit.
Tranche Cellars 2012 Blue Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Valley, $40: While cabernet franc and “charm” rarely are mentioned in the same sentence, here’s the exception. This offers great juicy fruit, a whiff of smoke, a jolt of revitalizing acidity and a persistence rare for the variety.
Revelry Vintners 2013 Weinbau Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Wahluke Slope, $52: Come-hither fruity aroma yields to an interpretation of cabernet franc that comes down solidly on the cherry/berry side of the varietal equation.
Finn Hill Winery 2012 Bon Mot Cabernet Franc, Wahluke Slope, $35: A firm take on cabernet franc that eschews politeness for a frank talk about what the variety is expected to represent, which in this case is integrity and muscle.
VinAmité Cellars 2014 Cabernet Franc, Okanagan Valley, $29: This wine will reset anyone’s expectation of cabernet franc. No longer an herbal-scented understudy to cabernet sauvignon, here it stands alone as a fiercely proud emulation of bright smoked cherries.
Côtes de Ciel 2012 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Red Mountain, $39: Densely colored, comforting in its warmth on the palate, and exceptional in its rich texture and candid complexity, here is a substantial and enduring example from the Holmes family.
Bonair Winery 2013 Cabernet Franc, Rattlesnake Hills, $15: Cabernet franc demands an understanding ear, or rather, palate, which is no problem here thanks to this warm embrace and clearly defined expression.
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.