As a grape variety, Cabernet Franc has neither the pedigree nor the adoration of Cabernet Sauvignon.
In fact, it's often hidden away in blends both in its native France as well as on the West Coast. Yet in the past half-decade, more vintners are allowing this important red grape to play a central role in their winemaking by bottling Cabernet Franc on its own.
Cabernet Franc is believed to have originated in southwestern France and now is important both in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. In Bordeaux, it is one of five grapes used to craft the world's most famous red blends. In Loire, it is the most important grape in the Chinon region.
About 15 years ago, researchers discovered that Cabernet Franc and the white Sauvignon Blanc grapes were the parents of the now more famous Cabernet Sauvignon.
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Cabernet Franc has been planted in Washington since at least the 1970s and has played an important viticultural role because it can survive the Columbia Valley's occasionally harsh winters better than most varieties. Today, Cabernet Franc is Washington's fourth-most-important red grape, after Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. In 2010, winemakers crushed 2,500 tons of Cabernet Franc, a number consistent since 2005 but down a bit from a decade ago.
Generally speaking, Cabernet Franc is smoother and lighter than Cabernet Sauvignon and often is used to tame the latter's bold tannins. In the Northwest, classic versions of Cabernet Franc can reveal notes of herbaciousness or even pipe tobacco along with red cherries, raspberries and black pepper. It will pair nicely with lean grilled meats, pepperoni pizza or polenta-based dishes.
While you won't find Cabernet Franc dominating grocery store shelves, it is not hard to find dozens of examples from Northwest regions at your favorite wine merchant. Here are a few we have tasted recently.
DiStefano Winery 2007 Sogno, Columbia Valley, $25: This Woodinville, Wash., winery helped break ground when it began producing Cabernet Franc as a single variety bottling in 1997. Its theme of high-toned red fruit includes cassis and strawberry, and it's balanced by a strong thread of tannin. Just underneath are strips of cedar and a pinch of oregano.
Arbor Crest Wine Cellars 2009 Conner Lee Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley, $18: The nose revives memories of cassis and sage, backed by coffee, chocolate mint, graphite and a bit of spiciness akin to red pepper flakes, followed by flavors of black currant, blackberry and coffee.
Woodslake 2007 Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley, $20: The folks at Patterson Cellars in Woodinville, Wash., created this second label and named it after a favorite road in their hometown of Monroe. Aromas of poached plum, vanilla bean and fresh-baked brownie still allow for hints of tobacco and dolma grape leaf to emerge. There's amazing richness on the palate with lots of plum, deep, dark cherry and blackberry.
Grande Ronde Cellars 2008 Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Valley, $25: This will appeal to "Francophile" fans, those who appreciate the tones of red currant, Van cherry, oregano and green bell pepper. The subdued barrel notes and sandy tannins give this lots of food applications.
Walla Walla Vintners 2009 Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley, $28: This winery deserves much of the credit for making Washington-grown Cabernet Franc so popular in the Northwest. The nose is rich with blueberry, Marionberry, cherry, cracked blakc pepper, black olive and porcini mushroom earthiness. There's even more richness found in the flavors of dark cherry, vanilla bean, more pepper and chocolate lavender bar.
Woodriver Cellars 2008 Cabernet Franc, Snake River Valley, $25: This offers aromas of cranberries, raspberries, orange zest, mint, cinnamon and just a sliver of bell pepper. On the palate, it picks up black cherry, cassis and blueberry flavors, fine-grained tannins and a pleasing dose of acidity.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.