California’s Other Cabernet – Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Sauvignon, with apologies to Pinot Noir, is arguably the world’s most distinguished red wine grape. It’s the principal red grape of Bordeaux and the sine qua non of the extravagant new SuperTuscans. It’s what Spanish winemakers add to Tempranillo to bring it up to snuff. And in California… Cabernet is king!

The earliest distinguished wines to come from California? Cabernets from Inglenook and Beaulieu Vineyards. First wine to trample the primacy of the best of Bordeaux? A Cabernet from California (Stag’s Leap). A dozen or more wineries now make truly world class Cabernet Sauvignon in California.

Before we raise our glasses in celebration, however, consider that great California Cabernet Sauvignon is no longer a terrific value. While in former days the best California Cabernet Sauvignon could be purchased for about one-tenth the price of a first growth red Bordeaux, today the difference is inconsequential. Today’s premium “Cal Cabs” are priced up to $250 (750ml), about the same as many of the best from France, although the average price is around $75.

California Cabernet Sauvignons fall into four classes: Super Premium, Fine, Commercial Grade, and Economy and are priced roughly as follows:

Super Premiums: $40 – 250 Fine: $15 – 25 Commercial Grade: $7.50 – 10 Economy: below $7.50

Tired of paying huge amounts for a few moments of supreme pleasure? Then here’s some great news: there’s another great California Cabernet for you; and many of the best examples are priced around $20 or less! It’s a close cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon called Cabernet Franc The widely believed lie is that the French consider it to be a blending grape. Well, that’s true if you recognize that the French consider every varietal a blending grape, save Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which all but the Australians realize should not be tampered with. It’s the main grape behind some of the world’s most revered and expensive red wines, such as Ch. Cheval Blanc in St. Emilion. It’s also the chief red varietal of the Loire region.

What’s Cabernet Franc like? For starters, it’s thick, dark, bright, and richly flavorful. The great chateaus of the Medoc use it to bring their otherwise paltry Cabernet Sauvignons up to snuff. Another plus: it ages extremely well, thanks to its inherent balance and tannins. I cellar my Cabernet Francs for at least five years to allow them to develop maximum aroma and reasonably soft tannins; but they can often be kept for decades under optimum storage conditions.

In California, Cabernet Franc hasn’t really caught on yet because most wine drinkers don’t know what it is. If you are accustomed to drinking Super Premium Cabernets, then this may not be your cup of tea — it will assault your palate like a monster Zinfandel, except with Cabernet characteristics and lower alcohol. But if you occasionally shell out $20-30 for a special red wine, be sure to give Cabernet Franc a test drive. Here are some dependably fine ones:

Benziger Cabernet Franc Imagery Series; Dehlinger Russian River Cabernet Franc; Gainey Santa Barbara County Cabernet Franc Limited Selection; Justin San Luis Obispo County Cabernet Franc

Published on: April 16, 1998

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Alan Boehmer has directed hundreds of wine tasting events in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and San Luis Obispo, where he makes his current home. Longtime advocate for California wine, he joined Suite 101 New World Wine in 1998 as one of the earliest contributing editors, writing for their California Wine topic. He now edits Suite 101′s more expansive New World Wine topic.

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