Cabernet Franc: Earning Fatherly Respect
For many years it was just another component of the traditional Bordeaux blends. But today, Cabernet Franc –the father of Cabernet Sauvignon– stands on its own to reclaim its place of honor. And it is in Chile that it has found a place of privilege where it can shine on its own.
What is perhaps the most prestigious and widespread variety of all –Cabernet Sauvignon–was born from nothing but a mundane affair between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Back then, Mr Franc did not admit his parenthood, most likely for fear of being socially condemned for flirting with a white variety. But recent genetic studies have revealed the truth, precipitating a scandal among conservative wine writers and winemakers alike.
After centuries playing a modest secondary role in Bordeaux blends, today Mr Franc occupies center stage in this new unfolding story. “I am your father,” he exclaims in a firm, authoritative voice. He is a tough guy who knows how to express himself with elegance. And this is not only true in Saint Émilion or in the Loire Valley, but also in the New World –Chile included– where his personality changes from north to south, from the Andes to the coast, but always remains true to his aristocratic lineage.
In northern Chile, almost on the border with the Atacama Desert, Cabernet Franc develops its best attributes: flowers, herbs and minerals. In the coastal vineyard called Espinal, just 3 kilometers from the Tabalí winery, the viticulturist Héctor Rojas manages 1.5 hectares. This is a very special project characterized by small production. The idea took shape in the minds of the team after the publication of a terroir study and the plantation of 75 new hectares of Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Viognier back in 2009.
The space assigned to Cabernet Franc was minimal. But the results were astounding. The soil of this small block planted in 2010 was simply ideal: A 40-centimeter layer of clay near the surface sits over another layer of alluvial rock saturated with calcareous components. “Everybody knows that Cabernet Franc thrives in chalky soil,” Mr Rojas explains.
Serious production began in 2014, and since then the evidence of its quality potential has been confirmed. According to Mr Rojas, the wine has a fresh, herbaceous profile. The mouth is vibrant, with lots of herbs, chalky and graphite notes. “I love it. The wine is simply awesome. We age the wine using less invasive wood that really brings out the essence of this variety. This is it!” he exclaims.
His biggest inspiration is Cheval Blanc in Saint Émilion. In good years, the blends produced there can have up to 30% Cabernet Franc, although most of the time the variety goes unnoticed. Merlot receives all the accolades. That is why Mr Rojas believes the proposal from Tabalí is more similar to Chinon, where wines have a solid structure and a powerful mouth.
Cabernet Franc can easily adapt to the Chilean countryside, where the sun is very bright. It is a vigorous variety that protects its clusters better than other red cultivars. It also tolerates the heat very well. “In Chile light comes from all sides, so we need to grow varieties that can resist that. We have even planted it in Río Hurtado, at an altitude of almost 2,000 meters, and it seems to love the place. Just by tasting the grapes you can already feel the vibrancy,” Mr Rojas concludes.
Since the very beginning, the Loma Larga project has been a daring one. Planting only red varieties in a valley initially conceived for whites seemed like a real folly. But eventually the cool-climate reds, especially Cabernet Franc, convinced even the most skeptic minds.
In total, there are 12.5 hectares divided into two blocks: one on the valley floor with sandier soil and the other on a north-facing slope with granitic soil. Located just 25 kilometers from the sea, the vineyard was planted in 2001, when the “cool-climate red wine” was barely a nascent concept. The area is like a wind tunnel that creates the perfect conditions for slow ripening.
Despite its relative lack of volume, this variety is present in six different wines: Lomas del Valle, Loma Larga, the blends Rapsodia and Quinteto, and the newly released sparklers Brut Nature Limited Edition and the icon Saga. The bet is strong, and it is very unusual to see so much Cabernet Franc taking center stage. But the truth is that the different terroirs give life to a great diversity of styles.
According to project manager Felipe Díaz, the grapes used in the sparkler are sourced from the flatlands and are harvested in mid-March with 11o of probable alcohol. On the other hand, the grapes for Saga are harvested two months later, with an additional 2o of probable alcohol. And the results are felt right on the nose: enticing notes of herbs and violets with some blackcurrants and black cherries.
“We are producing it after 10 years of harvests. This is the essence of a cool-climate red wine,” Mr Díaz adds.
Chocalán is another winery that has raised the Cabernet Franc flag from the beginning. Ever since I tried its wines for the first time I have felt a special tension that other local reds do not have. Located inches away from what the legislation establishes as the Maipo Costa appellation, the rolling vineyard is in an area of climate transition, where Cabernet Franc can develop fully ripe flavors and deep sensations in the mouth.
“This is a slightly cooler area than the rest of Maipo, so the grapes are harvested later than elsewhere in the valley, that is, during the last week of April or the first week of May. This is a very vigorous late-ripening variety. We are just beginning to tame its vigor and achieve what we may call perfect balance,” the winemaker Fernando Espina explains.
The vineyard was planted in the year 2000 on clay-silt-loam soil with a north-west exposure. “This soil does not have any special barriers that limit its depth,” Mr Espina adds. That is why controlling the vigor has been a difficult task. The clusters are larger than those of Cabernet Sauvignon, with much thicker skins. “Some clones even look like corn ears,” he jokes. This special feature makes the plants very resistant to sunstroke, provided water is managed wisely. If the plant is overstressed, tannins may become simply unbearable.
The winemaker explains that Cabernet Franc adapted very well at Chocalán. Its tannins are a bit grainier and it develops greater volume in the mouth. As far as aromas are concerned, we do not find black currants here but cherries and some menthol, he says. “pH readings are extremely high and the fruit component is fresh. That is why we decided to produce our icon wine Alexia from these grapes. It is a wine with great character,” he concludes.
In Maipo Alto, where Cabernet Sauvignon reaches what is perhaps its ultimate expression, Cabernet Franc has also developed a daring and seducing personality. Further south from the vineyards of Santa Rita, Pérez Cruz planted some Cabernet Franc back in 2009 in an area of alluvial origin. Just as in Chocalán, the soil there has an important clay component.
According to the winemaker Germán Lyon, this Cabernet Franc has a very peculiar grip on the mid-palate. “I prefer drinking Cabernet Franc as a single variety, although I recognize its potential for great blends, especially in combination with Malbec. It has many of the attributes of Carmenère, such as its nicer spices, and none of its flaws. It does not have that annoying tendency towards vegetal notes. Its pyrazines are always spicy,” he adds.
Bottled as a Limited Edition, this Cabernet Franc withstands sunstroke pretty well, although it does not like wooden barrels. The winemaker says they are very cautious when aging it, as it is not before 18 months that it begins to show its best attributes. “I simply love this wine, but it is not a wine for beginners. It is not very intense, but it has a bit of everything: spices, fruit, and flowers. It is a bit austere, but also very broad and deep. It is a wine for a specific niche and is only found in specialized stores and restaurants, not in supermarket aisles,” he says.
Another winery that has specialized on Cabernet Franc, highlighting it in its portfolio, is Maquis. Its icon wine Franco is very straightforward. It is a tribute to austerity, a wine that from its very first edition has impressed critics with its spicy, dry and deep personality.
However, the winemaker Rodrigo Romero does not find it easy to manage. “It is extremely vigorous, so if you do not plant it in the right place, you will never control it. The result will be green wines full of rustic tannins. This variety needs a soil high in clay and with good drainage. It is the only way to tame it early in the season so that you do not need to push ripeness later on,” he explains.
In this vineyard, located at the confluence of the Tinguiririca and Chimbarongo rivers, the first Cabernet Franc is harvested very early, around mid-march, to preserve its fresh, spicy character. “This is a very unusual place.The soil contains as much as 40% clay, but the drainage is simply incredible. Cabernet Franc works just fine in warmer climates and with this type of soil,” Mr Romero explains.
And he confesses that at first he did not like the wine much. “I found it too aggressive. But with time we are beginning to understand its nature. We try to curb the green notes slowly, without stressing the plant too much. Many vintners shut down the water and begin stressing the plant right after veraison, hardening tannins beyond any acceptable limit. A happy plant will find the energy to smooth out its rough edges naturally and reach a friendly balance. The wine has to go after you, not the other way around,” he sentences.
In Apalta, things are not much easier. According to Andrea León, a winemaker at Lapostolle, Cabernet Franc has given them more than one problem. Traditionally they have mana– ged a vineyard that was like a field blend: Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon together. But Cabernet Franc’s mood was very changeable. Some years the wine was simply delicious and others it was plainly forgettable. “It was a permanent headache, because it was a wine that Madame (Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle) enjoyed very much,” Ms León explains.
In Saint Émilion, where she participated in some harvests, good years were a cause for celebration, as this meant great Cabernet Francs would be produced. The winer y was filled with linger ing aromas of flowers. “Merlot is more predictable and consistent. Cabernet Franc adds more emotion,” she adds.
Together with the viticulturist Jorge Castillo, the planted a new Cabernet Franc vineyard in San José de Apalta, and in 2015 Ms León bottled the first wine from her Collection line. “In 2016 we decided to harvest before the rainy season, and the result was fairly borderline. But with Collection I work with varieties that are not for the masses, and I add value to them. It is like an internal exercise. In this little corner we can achieve varietal typicity, make a straightforward wine, without any wood, so we can somehow educate people,” she explains.
In Sagrada Familia we find one of the oldest country’s vineyard of Cabernet Franc. the mass selection was planted around 1920s on deep colluvial soil and trained vertically at high density (7,000 plants per hectare). For Brett Jackson, the winemaker of Valdivieso, Cabernet Franc is neither as intense nor as robust as Cabernet Sauvignon. “It has a tendency to produce herbal notes that combine very well with its fruit. Its aromas are always subtle. It has a nice structure and a grain that I like a lot, without the concentration of other great reds,” he says.
This is not the type of wine with a super impressive nose that critics long to receive from the New World. It is different. It is not an exuberant wine, but a very balanced one. Its aromas greet the nose gradually, in slow motion, creating suspense and great expectation.
Mr Jackson is currently in Sri Lanka, and between his visits to paradisiacal islands, he has to sell the wine. “Here you have to explain everything in greater detail. But among all reds, this is an emblem of our Single Vineyard line. Cabernet Sauvignon sells more, but Franc follows it closely. In more evolved markets, like the USA, people already know it. Personally I just love it.” he concludes.
Gillmore Estate, the winery established in the dry-farmed lands of Loncomilla, considers Cabernet Franc to be one of its flagship varieties. Together with Carignan, this cultivar has helped to solidify the winery’s prestige, character and identity as a premier wine producer.
Its winemaker Andrés Sánchez explains that this Cabernet Franc was grafted in the 1990s onto old País rootstock, and the results have been spectacular. It was Francisco Gillmore, his father-in-law, who came up with the concept and the label for this Cabernet Franc –Hacedor de Mundos–, which draws its inspiration from its restless and visionary personality. “There are still people out there who insist that País is not a good rootstock. As the saying goes, there is no one as blind as those who do not want to see,” he sentences.
The quality of Cabernet Franc depends on a number of factors that, as if by magic, are found in the field: the presence of very old País grapevines in the dry-farmed inlands, the granitic soil of the Coastal Range and the influence of the ocean, which is just 40 kilometers from the vineyard. These conditions allow for low production, vibrant acidity and heaps of character.
“This is a variety with distinct vegetal tones, so people are not very fond of it. But in the dry-farmed lands it develops nice spiciness and prolonged tannins. It never falls short in the mouth. It is an underrated, though very flexible and elegant variety. It is hard to place it in some markets, just like all other Chilean wines over USD 8,” he points out.
However, the winemaker says, today’s consumers are more informed. “Minds seem to be more open. Sommeliers have without doubt made a great contribution in this sense. Cabernet Franc is one of Gillmore’s signature varieties, but in Hacedor de Mundos the varieties used are not so important. What really matter s is the origin, and the varieties used must help to express the land where they grow,” he explains.
Further north but still within Maule’s dry-farmed territory, Garage Wine Co harvests Cabernet Franc from two neighboring fields: Loncomilla and 4 Esquinas. This is the vineyard I know where Cabernet Franc is still bush trained. “The coolest part is that the vines appeared out of the blue,” says one of the partners Derek Mossman.
Cabernet Franc is not a muscular wine like so many others produced in the New World. It is more elegant and floral. “It is a rather soft-mannered father,” he jokes, and this makes me wonder how on earth this variety could give life to the very strong Cabernet Sauvignon.
“There are too many broad-shouldered Francs out there and actually there is no use asking for the opinion of Chilean or Argentinean winemakers. These wines are interesting, but if you ask me, they are not pure Franc. Many of them include other varieties in the blend,” he affirms.
To achieve an elegant and light Cabernet Franc in the dry-farmed lands, the grapes must be harvested when the seeds become brown. “The sensation is different,” explains Mr Mossman’s wife and fellow winemaker Pilar Miranda. Vinification is also important. Extraction should not be conducted with high temperatures. “You may obtain some color at the beginning, but when alcohol increases you need to be extra careful and proceed with caution,” she points out.
In the dry-farmed lands of Maule there is another basic climatic element: the cool nights. During the grape ripening season, a cooling ocean breeze begins to blow towards 5 pm. “Cabernet Franc is also ver y susceptible to the har vest date . You need to pic k while still slightly green. These fresh notes are part of the wine. If the grapes are too ripe you will lose those violet notes,” says Ms Miranda. “Utilizing a good 3rd or 4th-use barrel is also key,” Mr Mossman adds. “A new barrel will simply kill the Franc. So if you intend to sell a case for USD 75 or more you need to put in something extra, something that reflects the variety and the place,” he exclaims.
It is not a question of starting to make Cabernet Franc like crazy, but to use the head to make good Cabernet Franc. This variety is not an easy one. It does not like the masses or fashions, neither here nor across the Andes. But it is slowly beginning to show its attributes without any fuzz. After all, the father deserves respect.
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