Top Ten California Cabernet Francs
Bouchet, now known as Cabernet Franc, originated in southwestern France in the 17th century, and soon made its way to the Loire Valley, courtesy of Cardinal Richelieu, who transported the budwood. By the 18th century, plantings of Bouchet appeared in various regions, including Pomerol and St-Emilion. In 1990s it was discovered that the world’s most popular red variety, Cabernet Sauvignon, is closely related to Bouchet. It turns out that Cabernet Franc was crossed with Sauvignon Blanc, resulting in Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cabernet Franc is a well-regarded grape variety that is predominantly cultivated as a Bordeaux blend component. Its companions, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot often take center stage. Cabernet Franc is a lighter, perfume-like grape, that contributes elegance and finesse to the blend. At its best, its distinguishing characteristics include bright red and blue fruit, tangy tobacco notes, and lovely florals. When vinified as a standalone, Cabernet Franc makes a powerful statement. Some of the most well-known brands include the legendary Cheval Blanc in France, Le Macchiole in Italy and many well-known Loire Valley producers which bottle it as Chinon. The US has a relatively brief, yet very successful history with the variety, particularly in California and Washington.
Not many wineries choose to bottle it as a monovarietal. When they do, readers should take notice – it means the wine is very special.
Below are my favorite interpretations of Northern California Cabernet Franc:
Fritz Hatton, a prominent wine auctioneer, founded the brand in 1996 in partnership with the legendary vintner John Kongsgaard. The label pays homage to Beethoven Arietta Opus, which serves as an inspiration for epic wine craftsmanship. Winemaker Andy Erickson makes small quantities of Bordeaux blends and a wonderful white wine called The White Keys. Their Cabernet Franc blend from H Block Hudson Vineyards blew my mind. Made from grapes sourced from exceptionally low yielding single block, its intensity is as formidable as its inexplicable grace and refinement. Masterfully made, it is entirely cellar worthy, if you can resist the temptation.
Gerhard Reisacher, born in Austria, is an eighth generation vintner and winemaker. Fascinated by Napa Valley wines, Gerhard moved to California in the 90s, and in 1995, Delectus was born. Reisacher’s focus was always on delicious and age-worthy wines. All of his releases are held back to ensure bottle age. He makes a number of superb, critically acclaimed, reds (he only works with red varieties,) with a couple of real stunners. One of them is Cabernet Franc, sourced from his Knights Valley vineyard (next to Peter Michael) that is made in 300 case quantity. A box of dark chocolate-covered cherries leaps to mind, intermixed with vanilla bean and baking spice, with refined tannins expertly waltzing you to a lengthy finish. Fragrant, rich and plush, it oozes hedonism.
Detert’s family viticultural roots date back to 1800s. In 1953, proprietor and winemaker Tom Garett’s great-grandmother bought the tranquil Oakville property, which was a part of the famed ToKalon Vineyard. Her son and his wife worked hard to establish and manage the vineyard, the fruit from which went into Mondavi Reserve and Opus One. Subsequently, Tom, whose résumé includes making wine at Turley Cellars, Joseph Phelps and Revana, and his two siblings took the reins. Their single focus is to produce world-class Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, showcasing the vineyard’s distinctive terroir. The wine is made with minimal intervention in miniscule quantities (165 cases.) One of the purest expressions of the variety I have ever experienced, it’s bursting with violets, cherry cola, and earthy spices. Phenomenally concentrated, its depth, breadth and delineation boggle the mind. Lay it down for a decade or decant and dive in!
Philippe Melka hails from Bordeaux, where he earned a Master’s degree in enology and went on to work as both viticulturalist and winemaker at Dominus and a number of other famed estates around the globe. His own brand, Melka, was launched in 2006. His Cabernet Franc blend from La Mekerra Vineyard (named after a river in Algeria that flows near the childhood home of Philippe’s father) is outstanding. Sourced from a hillside vineyard, it has personality to spare. Opulent mouth feel, spectacular fruit framework, it is as generous as it is humble and understated, true to Melka’s genius.
Another Oakville star, Paradigm Winery, is well-regarded for its stellar, incredibly well-priced wines. They are best known for their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, however their Cabernet Franc is also a head-turner. Ren and Marilyn Harris, thirty-year veteran winegrowers purchased the vineyards in 1976, and released their first wine in 1991. From the inception, the wines have been made by renowned Heidi Peterson Barrett. The Cabernet Franc is a broody, masculine fellow, with intense, expansive fruit, that is reminiscent of a freshly baked berry pie. Ripe, rich, rambunctious, it still manages to retain a ton of style, thanks to the refined tannins and mid-palate magic. Beautifully balanced for the wine of its size, its long finish makes for a complete experience.
An iconic Spring Mountain producer, Pride Mountain wines has achieved legendary status. Their Cabernet Franc, produced since 1999, has been a critic and consumer favorite equally as long. Dark and delicious, the wine is all about ultra-ripe black and fruit, cocoa powder, forest floor, exotic spice and smooth tannins. It is voluminous without being heavy or overbearing. Once you have a glass, you will not be able to stop.
Made by a mega-talented winemaker, Michael Hirby, who also crafts D.R. Stephens, Husic, Realm and Sarocka wines, Relic has become one of my favorite brands. I strongly urge you to try every single wine in their portfolio, all of them invariably score high with the critics. Hirby only made a Cabernet Franc blend for the last two years, but what spectacular two vintages it has been! Titled the Prior, it’s a blend of Stagecoach, Frediani and Kenefick vineyards. Immensely fragrant, showing off tons of sweet fruit, subtle spice, intense minerality, solid mid-palate, softly wrapped by elegant tannins it is a wine of great presence and sophistication.
Proprietor Jean Noel Formeaux has been making wines in California for thirty years. His entire portfolio is fantastic, and one of my favorites is the Cabernet Franc. Made in tiny quantities (less than 150 cases) from a Mt. Veeder fruit source, a vineyard called Wild Cat, it is immensely impressive. Heady floral aromatics (tea rose, violets) give way to intense, ripe red fruit, coffee and cacao notes, and fine tannin. The finish lasts a full minute. It’s pure, lush and lovely to the very last drop.
Argentinean-born proprietor Delia Viader spent early years in Europe and moved to Napa Valley in the mid-eighties, where she purchased land on Howell Mountain. Her first vintage, 1989, marked a new mega-successful brand, born of Delia’s vision, creativity and tenacity. Her son, Alan Viader, whose mentors include world renown consultant Michel Rolland, is responsible for winemaking. I adore all of the wines, especially the “Dare” Cabernet Franc. It features unique cassis and licorice notes, milk and white chocolate flavors, combined with wild flowers, baking spice and hints of caramel. The texture is superb, the wine has a feminine, classic quality that is simply unforgettable.
Proprietors Chuck and Anne McMinn purchased Vineyard 29 in 2000 and transformed the famous site along Highway 29 into a full-scale, state-of-the-art, spectacular winery. Philippe Melka, one of the most sought-after winemaking consultants, makes a handful of terrific wines from the estate vineyards (in addition to Vineyard 29, Chuck acquired the celebrated Aida vineyard.) Their Cabernet Franc has been a favorite of mine for a while. Sourced from their 15-year old vineyard, that shows amazing maturity and depth of flavor, Philippe coaxed some magic out of the grapes. Boasting massive black and blue fruit, silky tannins, bright acidity and great structure, it is deeply satisfying. Recently tasted 2012 was spectacular, and well worth a spot in your cellar.
This list features some producers that made Cabernet Franc for nearly two decades and others, for a mere two years. The common thread is how each one of them has embraced this less common variety and showcased its unique and worthy characteristics. The varietal offers a divine departure from a more common Bordeaux blends, and a thoroughly stimulating sensory experience.