Northwest Wine

Northwest Wine: Cab Franc catches on with winemakers, consumers

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Follow these basic tips for experiencing the most enjoyment when buying wine at the store or out at a restaurant to go with your meal.
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Follow these basic tips for experiencing the most enjoyment when buying wine at the store or out at a restaurant to go with your meal.

Cabernet Franc is the oldest of the six red noble grapes of the Bordeaux region, yet the French readily credit the Basques and the thaw following the final ice age for its arrival.

In fact, the official website for Bordeaux wine refers to Cabernet Franc as “a gift from Spain.” And a couple of decades ago, University of California-Davis researchers blew the collective mind of the wine industry when it proved Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc came together to create Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps during the time of Columbus. It’s another case of the progeny, not the parents, becoming the bigger pop star.

Cabernet Franc is not viewed as a headliner in France because of the prestige surrounding Cabernet Sauvignon, the prevalence of Merlot and its role as a blending grape whether it be the Left Bank or Right Bank.

In the Pacific Northwest, however, Cab Franc has found a solid home, embraced in recent years by winemakers and consumers. In Washington state, the following for Cabernet Franc has grown in the past five years, with more than 4,000 tons being harvested in 2018. However, it appears as though it will soon be overtaken by its flashy young relative – Malbec.

Winemakers enjoy working with Cabernet Franc for several reasons. The variety helps smooth out the tannin structure of Merlot and adds complexity. Growers have found the grape to be cold hardy, meaning it can handle Washington's occasionally hard winters. That’s a primary reason for its popularity in the Loire Valley, a cooler region north of Bordeaux and east of Burgundy.

And yet, Cabernet Franc is a late ripener, often being one of the last grapes to arrive on the crushpad. We have noticed that red blends with Cabernet Franc as the lead grape tend to come close to mimicking Old World examples of reds from Bordeaux, primarily because the herbaceous notes that the variety exhibits mimic freshly dried herbs.

Plantings of Cab Franc in Washington date to the 1970s, and the first standalone bottlings began to gain traction in the mid 1990s, led by Walla Walla Vintners. Today, scores of Northwest wineries produce a Cab Franc, so finding food-friendly examples should be easy.

Here are several award-winning examples of Cabernet Franc. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or buy directly from the wineries.

Barrister Winery 2016 Bacchus Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley, $31: It’s no coincidence that Spokane-area attorneys Greg Lipsker and Michael White were mentored by Myles Anderson and Gordy Venneri – co-founders of Walla Walla Vintners. Year after year, Barrister’s release ranks among the most decorated examples of Cab Franc in competitions across the country. It’s agreeably herbal in the nose as green bell pepper leads to dusty blackcurrant. Inside, there’s a boldness to the dark-fruited flavors of black cherry alongside plum skin tannins that reflect the influence of Cabernet Sauvignon (15 percent). On the back end, there’s a touch of tar amid the lingering pomegranate acidity. This spring, it earned a double gold medal at one of the oldest judgings in the U.S. – the Indy International Wine Competition at Purdue University.

Duval Dumas Station 16 Cab Franc 9353
The Dumas Stations Wines 2016 Cabernet Franc from the Walla Walla Valley earned a gold medal at the 2019 Cascadia International Wine Competition. Courtesy Richard Duval Images

Dumas Station Wines 2016 Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Valley, $36: Bordeaux-inspired wines remain the focus of Dumas Station, the lone winery in Columbia County and Dayton, Wash. Founder/winemaker Jay DeWitt, a fourth-generation farmer, works with both Birch Creek and Minnick Hills vineyards to craft these eight barrels of Cabernet Franc, which flashes very little new oak. That allows the elegance of the wine to shine with ripe purple fruit, sweet herbs and spices. These wines are featured at the Weinhard Café & Bakery in downtown Dayton, and this earned a gold medal at the 2019 Cascadia International Wine Competition.

Hamilton Cellars 2015 Weinbau Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley $35: Charlie Hoppes, one of Washington's most talented winemakers, crafts the wines for Russ and Stacie Hamilton, neighbors of his Fidelitas project on Red Mountain. This expression of Cabernet Franc comes from Weinbau Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope, one of the state's oldest and warmest sites. A turn of a peppermill, dusty rose petals and mocha help describe the aromatic profile. Silky flavors of blackberry and dark cherry are joined by a sense of smokiness, making for a round and rich finish. This merited the award for best of class at the 2019 Washington State Wine Competition.

Hells Canyon Winery 2017 Heritage Series Cabernet Franc, Snake River Valley $30: Idaho native Steve Robertson, a chef and restaurateur who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, helped pioneer the modern wine industry in the Gem State when he returned home and planted vines at 2,700 feet elevation on the Sunnyslope west of Caldwell in 1981. His Old World approach plays perfectly with Cabernet Franc. Blackberry, Bing cherry and cocoa with light herbs blend together beautifully for a long and food-friendly finish. This earned a gold medal at the 2019 Idaho Wine Competition.

Zerba Cellars 2016 Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Valley $36: Cabernet Franc is grown at two of Cecil Zerba's three vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley, Dad's Vineyard near the winery in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, Ore., and the higher-elevation Cockburn Vineyard – the breadbasket for Zerba Cellars. Brent Roberts, a graduate of Washington State University’s winemaking program, presents a layered and complex version of Cabernet Franc that offers up more of the red fruit and less of the herbal qualities associated with the variety. This was among the trio of gold medals won by Team Zerba at the 2019 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at greatnorthwestwine.com

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