In Greece, it is known as Tsapournako, in Spain as Verdejilla Tinto, in the Basque country as Achéria, and in Romania and Switzerland simply as Bordeaux. Most wine people know this variety by its common name – Cabernet Franc.
Cabernet Franc is one of the oldest varieties of red grapes, the parent of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which has long been in the shadow of its much more famous offsprings. Today, however, it has become the “new black” variety that many sommeliers and wine lovers around the world go crazy for.
According to recent scientific research, the birthplace of Cabernet Franc is Spain, or to be precise, the Basque country. It was from there that the vine moved to the south-west of France, to the region of modern Bordeaux. As far back as 70 AD, Pliny the Elder mentions the “Vitis biturica” vine, widespread in the south-west of Gaul, which, according to modern scholars, is nothing else than the ancestor of Cabernet Franc. By the XIV century, the variety reached the Loire Valley. The great epicurean François Rabelais mentioned in his works the elegance and lightness of Cabernet Franc. In the XVII century, Cardinal Richelieu ordered to plant Cabernet Franc exclusively in the district of Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil. In this way, the variety found its second home in the Loire Valley. There it is still known as “Breton”, in the honor of the abbot, who contributed to its expansion.
Little is known about the origin of the variety name. “Franc” means “French”, but the roots of the name “Cabernet” are unclear. Most likely, “cabernet” is a distortion of the word “carmenet”, from the French “carmin” for “red”. The diminutive suffix “et” hints at the small size of the berries of this group of varieties. According to another version, “carmenet” comes from the Arabic “الكرم” (“alkrm”), which means “vine”.
Today there are about 54,000 hectares of Cabernet Franc planted in the world. The leaders are France, Italy, and the USA. However, the variety is also common in Hungary, Chile, Argentina, Canada, South Africa, and even in Kazakhstan and China.
Cabernet Franc is often called a “safe” variety, because it ripens a week earlier than its descendant, Cabernet Sauvignon, so growers are not afraid of the possible rains during the harvest. Cabernet Franc has enough time to ripen. It is also well adapted to cool climates and a wide range of soils. The variety prefers clay, limestone, or sandstone. A typical sign of Cabernet Franc-based wine is the aroma of green pepper. Chemical compounds called methoxypyrazines are responsible for this aroma. They naturally occur in the berry to protect it against pests. However, it was found that the riper the grapes, the less “green” components we will find in the wine.
In France, Cabernet Franc is mainly found in two regions – Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. In Bordeaux, it is often included in limited proportions in the composition of traditional Bordeaux blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. However, on the cool clay and limestone soils of the Right Bank “Bouchet”, as the variety is called there, can show truly outstanding results. In the wines of Château Cheval Blanc its proportion reaches 50%, and in Château Ausone – up to 55%.
Cabernet Franc was once planted in the Loire Valley because of its resistance to cool weather and relatively early ripening. Today, in an era of climate change, Loire Cabernet Francs are gaining more and more attention from critics and journalists. Although Robert Parker is convinced that wines from this variety are not intended for long aging, the best vintages of Clos Rougeard challenge this opinion. The appellations of Chinon, Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil, and Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil are famous for their fine and elegant wines, showing classic aromas of raspberries, bell pepper, and pencil shavings. In addition to red wines, rosés from Cabernet Franc, semi-dry and semi-sweet Cabernet d’Anjou are produced in the Loire valley.
Italy today ranks second in plantings of Cabernet Franc. Most vineyards are located in the north of the country, in Friuli. However, it has not yet been defined which proportion of these vines is a true Cabernet Franc, and which is its relative Carmenere. The two varieties are easy to mix up. This confusion even gave birth to the beautiful “Ca ’del Bosco Carmenero” wine label, which depicts a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Cabernet Franc has also taken root in Tuscany, in Bolgheri, the homeland of Super Tuscan wines. There, Merlot often gives too heavy, jammy wines, while Cabernet Franc retains freshness and balance. Tuscan Cabernet Francs are distinguished by the aromas of baked bell peppers, strawberries, licorice, and leather. “Matarocchio”, one of the most expensive wines of Tuscany, is produced in Bolgheri by the famous Antinori family with 100% Cabernet Franc.
Cabernet Franc is common in the USA both in cooler parts of California, Oregon, and Washington and in the states that sound quite exotic for us – Virginia and New York. The variety is especially popular in the Finger Lakes region, next to the Great Lakes. There it is appreciated for its resistance to disease and cold. These wines, however, are very difficult to find outside the States.
In China, we find a variety called Cabernet Gernischt which previously was associated with Cabernet Franc. Later, it turned out to be again… Carmenere. However, the plantings of a true Cabernet Franc are growing. It is part of the blends of the top Chinese wines such as “Ao Yun”, produced by the luxury conglomerate of Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, and “Long Dai”, a project of the iconic Château Lafite Rothschild. It is noteworthy that Cabernet Franc from China was offered for a blind tasting during the semifinals of the last World’s Best Sommelier competition. Even the Chinese candidate did not guess the country of origin!
In Hungary, Cabernet Franc feels great in the south of the country, in the Villany region, where it is used both as a part of Bordeaux-style blends and in monovarietal wines. Hungarian Cabernet Francs are usually full-bodied, high in tannins and rich in aromas of black currants, blackberries, and spices. They are very long-living wines.
Chile today boasts the largest plantings of Cab Franc in South America. During ten years, the area of vineyards almost doubled there. Cabernet Franc is common in the valleys of Colchagua and Maule, as well as in more northern Casablanca. Chilean examples, especially the ones with wood-aging, demonstrate the nuances of sweet cherries, green peppers, spicy spices, tobacco, and vanilla.
Cabernet Franc in Argentina is often perceived as a noble substitute for the ubiquitous Malbec, which has begun to lose its popularity in international markets. The Argentines were especially perked when in 2018 “Gran Enemigo Gualtallary Single Vineyard 2013” from the Mendosian winery Bodega Aleanna (85% Cabernet Franc and 15% Malbec) received 100 points from Robert Parker. Before this, the American critic has never been so supportive of Argentinean wines.
In Canada, Cabernet Franc is mainly grown in Ontario, next to Niagara Falls. It produces both dry red, sweet ice wines and even sparkling wines. Ice wine is made from berries left on the vine until the first frost and then quickly harvested and immediately sent under the press, preventing the water inside the berry from melting. Due to this production method, the natural sugar content in wine reaches 250 g / l. It is a nectar, a fragrance of raspberry jam, buttercream, and cherry liqueur.
South Africa 🇿🇦
In 1998, Norma Ratcliffe of the Warwick Estate in Stellenbosch first launched a single-varietal Cabernet Franc. Before this, the variety has always been a part of the Bordeaux blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Today, 68% of South African Cabernet Franc is grown in the Stellenbosch and Paarl regions. Over the past decade, plantings have declined; however, the number of monovarietal Cab Francs in the market have increased. Bruwer Raats, owner of Raats Family Wines and one of the pioneers of Cabernet Franc in South Africa, says: “Cab Franc has the elegance of Burgundy, the spice of the Rhône Valley and the structure of Bordeaux. Where Cabernet Sauvignon is a broad-sword, Cabernet Franc is a scalpel that delivers its flavours with great precision. “