In recent years, Cabernet Franc has been stealthily gaining favorable attention among wine enthusiasts and Napa Valley vintners, rising from its former role as an element of Bordeaux blends and moving onto center stage. “The secret is out and for good reason,” says wine writer Kristy Wenz.
But this surge in popularity is no mere fad. Wenz calls Cabernet Franc “eminently drinkable,” known for its freshness, vibrant acidity and versatility in food pairings. It offers a spectrum of flavors, from lush, dark fruits with significant aging potential to crunchy red, brambly fruits with green pepper notes.
Winemaking styles and geography contribute to this diverse range of expressions. Interestingly, the grape is also practical in the vineyard, requiring less growing season than its family member and Napa Valley darling, Cabernet Sauvignon. This makes Cabernet Franc more reliable in cooler vintages and ensures its availability for early harvests when weather conditions and fire smoke pose threats.
Cabernet Franc at La Jota Vineyard Co.
Winemaker Chris Carpenter of La Jota Vineyard Co. says that concern about climate change and fire danger by way of smoke taint makes varieties that ripen earlier more desirable, as California growers “want to get fruit off the vine as quickly as possible before any big fire event.”
Beyond its utility in the vineyard, Wenz notes that an increasing number of winemakers around the world—from Tuscany, Hungary, Languedoc, South Africa, Argentina and North America, particularly California and Washington—are now making exemplary single-expression Cabernet Franc.
Initially attracted by the grape’s distinctiveness, Carpenter has since championed the use of some of the valley’s oldest Cabernet Franc plantings. He sheds light on the historical importance of these vines, tracing their origins back to 1976 when Bill Smith acquired the then-dormant La Jota Vineyard and winery.
Contrary to the previous owners, who were known for their white wine grapes, Smith planted Bordeaux varieties. However, his decision to plant these on St. George rootstock rather than AXR, a common choice in the valley, allowed these vines to escape the devastation of phylloxera. These very vines continue to thrive today, their age contributing to consistent growth patterns, ripening curves and a concentration of flavor and texture that truly reflects the character of the variety.
“That block sets the flavor standard by which we judge all the subsequent blocks we have planted since we took over in 2005,” says Carpenter. La Jota’s current vintage 2019 Cabernet Franc sells for $125 direct to consumers.
Carpenter says Cabernet Franc appeals to wine drinkers who like to have choices when it comes to “varietal expression, across varieties.” He believes this grape offers a unique experience, likening it to the difference between the bands Nirvana and Foo Fighters: “Distinctive though similar, and in a very analogous way as one was derived from the other, as Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.”
The rising popularity of Cabernet Franc is a positive sign of diversity in wine offerings, says Carpenter. He believes that its unique qualities set it apart from other profiles and make it increasingly appealing to both consumers and the winemaking community.
Originating from France, specifically Bordeaux and the Loire Valley regions, Cabernet Franc showcases unique expressions in both areas, enriching the wine experience. Carpenter believes that experienced wine drinkers could argue Cabernet France stands shoulder to shoulder with the greatest of Cabernet Sauvignon wines: “Cheval Blanc being the great example of that.”
As consumers express a demand for unique and authentic flavors, Carpenter expects a thirst for Cabernet Franc to grow. “From an expression standpoint, it has a wonderful red-meets-black fruit balance,” he says. Carpenter also describes an herbal quality, which can present as overt, as in the case of Loire-style focus, or underlying, as in the case of Right Bank style. Cabernet Franc tannins can be similar to Cabernet Sauvignon but present as more gravelly, according to Carpenter. It also has a “beautiful floral rose petal aromatic that balances that herbal side,” says the La Jota winemaker
Historically, selling the idea of varied grapes and wine styles in Napa Valley hasn’t been straightforward, according to Carpenter. However, he believes that Cabernet Franc deserves recognition and celebration. “If enough wineries made an effort, the choices that wine drinkers would have for a Napa Valley experience of this variety would make people pause when choosing California over France,” says Carpenter. “As you may imagine, I am slightly biased that way.”
Lithology Winemaker on Cabernet Franc
Matt Sands, winemaker at Lithology—located at the base of Howell Mountain— is renowned for his work with the Cabernet Franc grape. He is committed to earning recognition for the “abundant untapped potential” of underserved grape varieties growing in Napa Valley. He aims to guide future vintners through his experimentation and passion for high-quality winemaking in an ever-changing environment. “This includes showcasing how phenomenally Cabernet Franc can become a substantial Napa Valley staple,” says Sands.
Having sourced grapes from the renowned Beckstoffer To Kalon and Beckstoffer Dr. Crane vineyards, he shares that Cabernet Franc wines from these plantings are unique, dominated by potent floral aromas, including violets, lavender and wildflowers. Lithology Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Cabernet Franc stands out for its innovative, single-variety presentation from this famous vineyard—the current release 2019 is sold out.
Sands says that Cabernet Sauvignon will remain a regional leader. However, exploring other grape varieties allows winegrowers to express themselves creatively, unravel what works best in their vineyards and share their fascinating discoveries with high-quality wine enthusiasts.
“A handful of next-generation winemakers, like myself, have been keen on exploring the full potential of the Valley,” says Sands. He classifies Cabernet Franc as “prevalent but underutilized” and says he perceives a shift in which these grapes can and should be relevant in Napa. “The more we push the boundaries of what is expected of the region, the more we can unearth its full potential.”
There is a market demand for Cabernet Franc as well, says Sands. “From a consumer standpoint, we’ve seen the emergence of the curious consumer, who branches out from the wine drinker norm to discover more.” Sands believes if a mindset of curiosity continues—coupled with winegrower investment in Cabernet Franc—the popularity of this grape is bound to grow even bigger.