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Monday, July 10, 2006


Cabernet Sauvignon's red headed stepchild….
or should I say red headed step father? Technically, Cabernet Franc is actually a parent grape of its more prestigious baby (a romantic mingling between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc created a universally gorgeous infant vine, which we now call 'Cab'). Much maligned and often only used as a side bar blender for Bordeaux styled wines, Cab Franc is experiencing a baby renaissance of sorts in varied New World regions. Areas that have recently stepped up to the Cab Franc plate include Washington's Walla Walla Valley, Sonoma, Howell Mountain, Oakville, small pockets of California's Central Coast and Long Island's North Fork. Successful wines have been recently produced by the likes of Owen Roe, Detert, Viader, La Jota, Pride, Chateau St. Jean and my dark horse champion, Osprey's Dominion. In spite of this small handful of dedicated producers, Cab Franc remains in the dugout of the competitive wine world. Are there limited plantings of this grape due to the lack of popular demand, lack of appropriate terroir or simply a lack of understanding in general? Perhaps its a bit of all three. Wine reference materials consistently cite notes of bell pepper, green tobacco leaf and other realms of the vegetal spectrum as Cab Franc's hallmark notes. Sounds yummy, huh? My question is whether or not these traits are innate, or are they consequences of enological/viticultural flaws like inappropriate clonal selection, poor location, and various other wine making decisions that just can’t do it any justice? I typically root for the underdog and the under appreciated, so I have to believe that Cab Franc isn't just a lousy quaff by nature, but by lack of nurture.
I'd like to cite a champion example in Cheval Blanc, which has never been characterized by having green tobacco notes chock full of the farmer's best bell pepper. It wasn’t the biased British press or French nationalists that put Cheval Blanc on a pedestal because we all are aware they had an obligation to do so anyway. It is, quite frankly, a superlative wine to any taster that has a tongue w/ any buds to sense taste. But what is Cheval Blanc made of, you ask? That’s right, 60% Cab Franc! But how does Cheval Blanc coax all of these unworldly flavors and sensual qualities out of a garbage varietal like Cab Franc? Good question, perhaps the rap sheet may be a tad unjust.
It's easier to dismiss a rough grape than to baby it. Why spend time, taxing research and frustrating energy to learn how to make Franc flourish when you've got Merlot and Sauvignon pegged (not to mention a group of customers thirsting for familiar varietal flavors). Hell, I've heard even the most open of minds find classic New World Cab Franc examples from the likes of Delia Viader to be too foreign to their palate for them embrace it (and she charges PREMIUM prices for her wines). So why bother? If it's consistently harvested in under-ripe conditions, it produces wines of distastefully vegetal flavors. If harvested too late (as it is in several California sites), it's stymied by a flabby, soft and over-cooked character that is by no means enjoyable. Sounds a bit like the Goldie Lox of wines that needs everything to be juuussssst right. Actually, it sounds strikingly like Pinot Noir. How come Pinot, a notoriously challenging grape to grow, has become so popular and sought after? I’ve heard countless tales of pinotphiles taking out second mortgages simply to scrounge up a couple rusty old vintages that they just had to have. Just imagine these salivating crowds of Burgunhounds clamoring around a gavel at Christie's. They drool over bottles from the Domaine de La Romanee Conti as they were halos to be paid homage to. What if they showed a similar reverence to Cab Franc? Doubtful, unless the creators of the film ‘Sideways’ decide to feature Cab Franc as the main character for the sequel.
All that aside, winemakers need passion and their passion needs a cause, so why not Cab Franc? Well, where to start? Where do they grow this troublesome varietal w/o causing me widespread addiction to prescription pain meds? I say they should start where they always have, in France. Whatever your opinion of the country, this nation's centuries of vinous trial and error have laid the ground work for nearly every New World winemaker's success, and they remain a reference point for excellence. Yes, even with Cab Franc. We all know Bordeaux, and are most familiar w/ the lofty estates of the Left Bank that treat Cab Franc as if it were a seasoning to be sparingly sprinkled on a heartier dish. On the other hand, the Right Bank's successes w/ the varietal extend far beyond the previously mentioned Cheval Blanc. Several estates have large amounts of acreage dedicated to this fussy grape, from prestigious cru chateau to the village wine cheapies; they've managed to craft thousands of illustrious wines from Cab Franc for years. Perhaps France's refusal to label wines by grape type has suppressed this grape’s popularity into obscurity even further, or maybe Saint Emilion is the only place that can consistently crank out decent Franc? I don't think so. Some of Long Island's savvier vintner’s have caught on to climactic and soil composition similarities between the North Fork and the Right Bank, and are taking advantage of their research. Even though Cabernet Sauvignon could probably produce bigger profits, the wine makers of the North Fork aren't interested in making money from diluted Cabs, they are interesting in making quality Cabs (from Cab Franc). Paumanok, Bedell, Schneider, Pellegrini and Macari have all made good to excellent Cab Franc bottlings (either labeled by varietal or labeled as a supporting cast of a meritage blend) by paying attention to terroir and not listening to consumer demand. I found the apex of Cab Franc bottlings to be from Osprey's Dominion. This winery is probably the least pretentious and most easy going success stories of the North Fork. Osprey's was recognized as NY Winery of the Year on an occasion or two by varied critical societies, but the majority of the collective wine press have mentioned very little of them. I found the 2001 and 2002 Cab Franc bottlings to be the best versions of the varietal I had to date. They were dynamic bottlings that made me change they way I view the grape, w/ the '02 being the more expressive of the two as it was marked by a vividly explosive rush of palate coating wild fruits and spice. I couldn't help but notice this tiny and refreshingly fun winery's blatant statement that seemed to proclaim 'Cab Franc doesn't have to suck, dude.'
Plenty of the Island's wines (w/ or w/o Cab Franc) are green, weedy and lack definition, but that is to be expected from a region that is still in it's training wheels phase of evolution. Irrespective of the North Fork's relative youth and inconsistency, there has been remarkable progress and potential exposed in such a brief time span. To say the least, the majority of the Long Island wineries have ignored profitability and marketing for a passion, and that passion has been to express appropriately selected varietals from their respective terroirs. One of those varietals happens to be Cab Franc, and heck why not?!
To punctuate my synopsis I'd like to add that Osprey's Cab Franc can easily compete w/ the west coast powerhouses of Pride, Cayuse, Chateau St. Jean and Beringer, while barely tipping the scales at 12% alcohol and costing all of 25 dollars (some day those Californians will realize that wines can be big, even if they don't have 16% alcohol). Ironically enough, Osprey's Pinot Noir was lousy. I guess the terroir gods can't allow two crabby grapes to flourish in the same place.

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