Let’s talk Franc

By Celia Strong
This week we’ve got a wine from a grape variety that we’ve never ever talked about before. Truthfully, I didn’t think that was possible but it apparently is. Our grape is a red variety called Cabernet Franc. This grape is native to the Bordeaux region of France where it is used mainly for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It is able to make wines on its own, though, like in the Loire Valley town of  Chinon. In addition, and mostly in the New World, Cab Franc is used to make wonderful ice wines.
Cabernet Franc is believed to have been established in the Libournais region in southwest France  at some point in the 17th century. Cardinal Richelieu was responsible for transporting cuttings of Cab Franc to the Loire River Valley.  There the vines were planted at the Abbey of Bourgueil under the care of Abbot Breton. His name is still associated with this grape. By the 18th century, plantings of Cabernet Franc, also known as Bouchet, were found throughout Fronsac, Pomerol and St-Emilion.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Cabernet Sauvignon became more popular. But the similarities between the two Cab varieties did not go unnoticed, and, in 1977, DNA tests showed that Cabernet Franc was crossed with Sauvignon Blanc to make Cabernet Sauvignon. (You might remember the “son is bigger than the father” line about this family of grapes.)
Cabernet Franc makes lighter bodied wines than Cabernet Sauvignon. They are a bright pale red shade. In blends they contribute finesse and a peppery perfume. Depending on their growing conditions, this variety can also give tobacco, raspberry, bell pepper, cassis, and — my all time favorite — violet flavors.
Compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc buds and ripens earlier, by at least a week. This lets the variety thrive in cooler climates which explains its success in the Loire Valley and in Canadian ice wines. The grapes themselves are very small with fairly thin skins, which is cool weather friendly. They do well in sandy, chalk soils where they can produce heavier more full-bodied wines. But they do adapt to other soil types fairly easily.
In the United States, interest in Cabernet Franc basically began in the mid-20th century when producers started to make Bordeaux-style blends, or Meritages. Sometimes, in the beginning, Cab Franc was mistaken for Merlot. (What would we do without DNA tests?) The plantings of Cab Franc in the mid-1980’s reached 3,400 acres, most of them in Napa and Sonoma counties. Successes there led to its spread to the Pacific Northwest; Long Island, N.Y.; Virginia and more locations.
Our Cabernet Franc this week comes from Lake County, California, located directly north of Napa and directly east of Mendocino.
Lake County is part of the North Coast AVA. Within Lake County there are five other AVAs. In 2007, Lake County was third in wine grape sales after Napa and Sonoma. There are 25 wineries here with 8,000 acres of vines. The base elevation is 1,350 feet but some of the vineyards are as high as 2,700 feet. The county is dominated by Clear Lake, the largest natural lake in California.
Lake County was part of Napa County until 1896, but it was not able to maintain its grape-growing industry during Prohibition like Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino were. In fact, the industry in Lake County was not really revived again until the 1960’s. Now, almost 100 labels make use of Lake County grapes and more than 200 wines are labeled with Lake County AVAs.
The two dominant grape varieties are Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. It is the red soils with coarse fragments of black obsidian rock and other rocks and minerals that Cabernet Sauvignon thrives here. Obviously, Cab Franc does too. The fruit flavors are very concentrated, yields are low and the wines can age well.
Our Cabernet Franc comes to us from Steele Wines. To really appreciate it, though, we have to look at Jed Steele, owner and founder. As of this year, Jed has been in the California wine business for 44 years. He started as a cellar worker at Stony Hill in Napa in 1968. Then he went to UC Davis for his enology degree. Then he started Edmeades in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino where he stayed for 10 years. Then, he was hired by Jess Jackson to be the first winemaker at Kendall-Jackson, where he stayed for nine vintages. The year he left Kendall-Jackson, they passed the million case mark. And, in 1991, he started Steele Wines.
This journey has given Jed the chance to work with top quality grapes from all over California. Despite the multitude of wines that Steele Wines produces, not many of them are large production wines. Many are limited to less than 1,000 cases.
Jed’s approach to winemaking is minimalist. That means they use natural fermentations, no extra additives or enzymes, gentle pumping and gravity flow (keeps the wines from being bruised in the cellar), and hand-picked grapes. The whole idea is to enhance the aromas and flavors of their wines, which, of course, we all know we like better.
For Steele Cabernet Franc, their location in Lake County lets them make a spectacular wine. In the beginning, with this variety, they bought the grapes from a grower, Floyd Silva, and made some of the best Cab Franc wines they had ever tasted. When Floyd retired, Steele Wines bought his vineyard in 2005. The Silva vineyard, now known as Stymie Bench Vineyard, is on a gravelly bench that overlooks the Big Valley. (Takes you back to that TV show doesn’t it? With Heath and Audra? And Barbara Stanwyck was the matriarch. Remember?) But, I digress.
This wine is made, like most of their reds, with a warm fermentation followed by pressing and racking. The wine then goes into oak barrels, both French and American,  for about 14 months. Those of us who have tried Cabernet Franc wines always like this one. It is rich and full and smooth with plump flavors of blackberries, plums, coffee, and — yes! — violets.
The wine is also really well priced at $15.99. Most really good Cab Francs cost a lot more and give you a lot less. And food-wise? This pairs really well with seafood, poultry and strong cheeses like aged cheddar and Gouda.
Oh goody! Another new wine to love. Enjoy!

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