One of the great blending grapes of the world, Cabernet Franc is an underestimated derivative of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. The grapes are purple and look quite similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, but wines made from Cab Franc certainly have their own flavor. In fact, though rare, varietal or majority Cabernet Franc examples are often very prestigious.
Studies have shown that this grape could be found in Bordeaux in the 1700s and possibly earlier. The grape is believed to have been brought there by Cardinal Richelieu after originating somewhere in the Loire. Cab Franc grew in popularity during the 1800s and 1900s and was widespread throughout France. In 1997 studies proved that the grape was a cross of the aforementioned two, which confirmed already existing suspicions among experts.
Cabernet Franc has flavors of pepper, as well as more common tobacco, berry, and sometimes violet flavors. The wine is a pale red, but usually becomes much deeper with age, at which point it can be hard to distinguish from Cabernet Sauvignon. It is not quite as intense as Cabernet, but usually has more perfumed aromas. Smoother and less tannic, it is often disregarded because it lacks the overwhelming power of Cabernet. But growers are making efforts to deepen and intensify the wine produced from the grape, while retaining its unique characteristics.
Cabernet Franc is used primarily in France, where it has been respected for centuries. The two main regions for Cab Franc growth are Bordeaux and the Loire. However, it is widespread in France and can be found in almost all of the country. The ratio of Cabernet Sauvignon to Cabernet Franc in most wines used to be 1 to 1 in the 1960s, but now the ratio is higher with Cab to Cab Franc more like 2 to 1.
Although Cabernet Franc is all over Bordeaux, where it is used almost entirely as a blending grape, the area of Bordeaux where it makes world-class wines is Saint-Émilion. A cool zone with damp soil, the Right Bank mainstay brings out the grape’s fresh flavors, which can often be refreshingly light. However, most blending amounts are still small with two notable exceptions. The Châteaux Cheval Blanc and Ausone use more than 60% Cabernet Franc in their blends, and also happen to be the only two Premiers grands crus classés A in the whole of Saint-Émilion. The respected wines of these estates can easily age for 50 years in the best vintages, and are certainly among France’s most reputed. The results of Cabernet Franc plantings are not quite as spectacular in Pomerol, but Château Lafleur, which is again a Bordeaux leader, uses 40% Cabernet Franc.
The Bordeaux examples of Cabernet Franc are certainly great, but the Loire Valley is a close second. Although the grape thrives in much of the Loire, Chinon deserves a special mention. Reds made there from Cabernet Franc (necessarily at least 90%) range from light, inexpensive, festive wines all the way to heavyweights that can be cellared for 10 or more years.
Italy has a great deal of grapes called Cabernet Franc, but it’s estimated that some of them are actually Cabernet Sauvignon or Carménère. Friuli and Alto Adige are particularly notable spots, but examples from Tuscany (often single varietal) are rapidly increasing.
The other place worth mentioning is the United States. Cabernet Franc, along with many other French grapes, has thrived since its introduction, and is often found in Bordeaux-style blends from California. However, the cooler areas utilize Cabernet Franc more, for example Washington, New York (Long Island and the Finger Lakes especially), and even Virginia. American Cabernet Franc is often more lively than in France. Cabernet Franc plantings are rapidly increasing, and other places it can be found include Hungary, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, and Chile. However, Cab Franc is a finicky grape, more so than its more widespread parent, and it remains to be seen which of these countries will meet its needs.
Cabernet Franc should not be left out of any discussion of great red wine grapes. It is crucial throughout France, and hopefully plantings will continue to increase elsewhere in the world.