I have been taking part in #CabFrancDay for half a decade or so now. Helmed by a foodie world friend Lori Budd of Exploring the Wine Glass, December 4th is always on my calendar to shine the spotlight on this underdog grape variety. Along the way, my appreciation for the grape and the wines have grown immensely. I think, in the beginning, I just didn't appreciate its understated elegance. Perhaps my palate has improved as my exposure has increased. Cabernet Franc is now one of my favorite wines with its delicious restraint.
And this year I was able to take part in a meet-the-winemakers webinar ahead of the day to hear from Leah Jørgensen and her eponymous cellars out of Oregon; Diana Jones and Tanner Pardue of Jones von Drehle from North Carolina; Kristie Tessier of Tessier Winery out of Healdsburg; David Stannard of Paradise Rescued in Bordeaux; Jacob Stuessy of Blue Victorian Winery and Vineyard, part of the Vezér family portfolio; Steve Mirassou of L’Autre Côte in Livermore; Peter Selin of Selin Cellars of Santa Rosa; and, lastly, Michael Budd, Lori's other half, of Dracaena Wines of Paso Robles.
Lori kicked off the event by posing the question to all the winemakers: Why Cab Franc? The winemakers detailed what they love about the grape and what got them started making wines with it.
"It's sexy. There’s a mysteriousness to the wine. It only shows a little bit of itself with the first sip, then it reveals more and more." ~Steven Mirassou
And that set the tone for some amusing banter amidst some real wine geekery. As I took notes for the duration of the two-hour roundtable, there were so many terms I flagged to go back and research. So much to learn! But more than anything, all of those winemakers are bottling love letters to this grape that is more than a blending grape.
Let's start with that: "Cabernet Franc is a blending grape." True, certainly. But it's not just a blending grape; it's those single varietal wines that intrigue me the most.
Leah mentioned that in Oregon, a wine has to comprised of 90% to bear the name of the grape on the label. So an Oregonian Cabernet Franc has to be 90% Cab Franc. She, however, leans heavily into the single varietals. Where it is used as a partner grape, say in Bordeaux, David characterized it as the princess while Merlot is the prince; Cab Franc is there to improve the Merlot!
Tanner said it succinctly, "Cab Franc is the type of wine that doesn’t necessarily jump out at you. It’s not pointy, but what’s there is more subtle and it makes you contemplate it as you drink it. There is beauty in the subtleties." Peter characterized it as alluring. Kristie commented on its interesting complexity, that it was both earthy and floral. Diana pointed to its food-friendliness. And it's that subtlety of flavor that can get lost in a blend.
So, while it has been used historically as a blending grape, all of these winemakers are sharing their passion for Cabernet Franc as a standalone grape worthy of the spotlight. And I am more than happy to taste and learn.
As I dove into this year's #CabFrancDay, I was able to more easily find bottles from the East Coast. I poured the 2020 Ravines Cabernet Franc out of Finger Lakes, New York and the 2019 Barboursville Cabernet Franc Reserve from Virginia. I wasn't sure why those bottles were easier to source until Diana explained it this way, "It’s a grape that does well in our part of the country - from North Carolina all the way to up to New York. Cab Franc isn’t as unknown in our area as other areas. In fact, it’s our largest red grape planting."
2020 Ravines Cabernet Franc, Finger Lakes, New York
Made with fruit from two of their estate vineyards - 61% from White Springs and 39% from 16 Falls - this Cabernet Franc poured a vivid violet color with aromas of red fruits, herbs, and some redwood duff. I noted black cherry and cassis along with mint and cedar. This wine was seductive and spicy.
2019 Barboursville Cabernet Franc Reserve, Virginia
With 90 acres of vines in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this estate has ties to Italy since their vines were planted in 1976 by Gianni Zonin, a 6th- generation winegrower from Gambellara, Italy. Also, the winemaker Luca Paschina hails from Piemonte and the associate winemaker, Daniele Tessaro, brings his experience from the Collio region of northeast Italy.
This Cab Franc was fruit-heavy on the nose with aromas of currants and strawberries. But on the palate, there were more nuanced layers of spices, licorice, and cocoa on the finish.
Matching an 'Unpairable Food'
And for both of those wines, I poured them with an 'unpairable food,' the artichoke! It is said that artichokes are difficult to pair due to the presence of cynarin. For some people eating artichokes makes their tastebuds perceive accompanying foods and wines as more sweet than they actually are; for others, cynarin makes foods taste more bitter. Hmmm...
However, Italians seem to have no problem eating artichokes and drinking wine, so I found inspiration there. Maybe it's the palate-coating olive oil that counter those effects. For the New York Cab Franc, I served braised duck legs, saffron risotto, and a steamed artichoke with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. For the Virginia Cab Franc, I went with roasted spaghetti squash topped with caponata and a steamed artichoke with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt.
The artichoke was definitely not 'unpairable.' Here are some tips to getting and cooking a good one...
When you are shopping for artichokes, pick them up and make sure they feel heavy. If they are light, they are likely not as meaty as you would like. If you squeeze the artichoke, the leaves will squeak. Also the leaves should be closed. Remember, the artichoke is the flower of the plant. Just as you wouldn't buy roses fully open, don't buy open artichokes either.
My favorite way to cook artichokes: steam them. I usually add a couple of bay leaves, some garlic, and lemon wedges to the steaming water to infuse the artichokes with even more flavor. Simple, delicious, and a lovely match for two Cabernet Franc wines from the East Coast.
This is just the first of my posts for 2022's Cabernet Franc Day. Stay tuned!