Consider Napa’s Other Cab

Versatile and Compelling Cabernet Franc

 


It is a chilly, sunny February afternoon in Napa Valley.  Tasting rooms are packed and wine routes are busy, much busier than I remember from previous visits.

It’s been five years since my last visit to the region and just over a decade since I spent weekends roaming Napa’s wine routes while working on a nine-month project in the Bay Area.

Napa served as my introduction to wine a dozen years ago and the foundation of my initial wine education. Those early trips were largely about cabernet sauvignon, but today I’m in search of Napa’s other Cab — cabernet franc.

Cabernet sauvignon may be King of Napa Valley — 23,000 of the 43,000 acres of vines in the region are planted to the grape — but, over 30 grape varieties are being cultivated for wine across the region.

Among the other varieties thriving in vineyards across the Valley is cabernet franc, the ancient red grape of the right bank of Bordeaux and the Loire Valley where it’s grown for centuries (though recent genetic analysis indicates the grape originated in the Spanish País Vasco, Basque Country).  It’s also the genetic parent of cabernet sauvignon.

Often used to add bright aromatics to red blends, cabernet franc wines are lighter, juicier, softer, more perfumed and versatile than those made from its progeny.  

Two weeks before this trip, I organized a Napa BYOB dinner with friends to get reacquainted with wines of the region.

There were several exceptional cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays, a serviceable merlot and a seriously delicious ribolla gialla shared that evening, but it was a 2016 cabernet franc from Detert Family Vineyards that stole the evening.  

Aromatically charming and intense, a perfect blend of new world fruit and old world spice and earthy notes, the grapes for the Detert Cabernet Franc were grown in To Kalon, the iconic American vineyard.

To Kalon — Ancient Greek for ‘the highest beauty’ — is situated between Highway 29 and the edge of the Mayacamas mountains in western Oakville in the heart of Napa Valley.

Established in 1868 by Napa wine pioneer Hamilton Walker Crabb, To Kalon spans 678 acres today and is the source of Cabernet Sauvignon for some of the most prestigious and expensive American wines.

The origins of cabernet franc in Napa are opaque but one of the first plantings is thought to be seven decades ago in To Kalon. Planted along the northwestern edge of To Kalon in 1949, the seven acre plot has been farmed by the Deterts Family Vineyards team for six decades.

Like the cabernet sauvignons made from grapes grown in the gravelly soils of Ta Kalon, the complex and expressive Detert Cabernet Franc is one of the most acclaimed in Napa.

About 20 miles southeast of the Detert vineyard at To Kalon, cabernet franc is thriving in vineyards planted on Sugarloaf Mountain East in southeast Napa.  

Cabernet franc evangelist John Skupny, and his wife Tracey, founded Lang & Reed (the middle names of their two sons) in 1996 in St. Helena to focus on Napa’s other cabernet.   

The Skupnys left their careers in the restaurant industry in the midwest to move to Napa in 1980.  “We drank a lot of cab franc when we lived in the midwest working in the restaurant industry so we had an appreciation for the potential the grape and believed it could make excellent wines in Napa,” explained Skunpy.

“We made an experimental cab franc in 1993, started commercial production in 1996 and have made one every vintage since.”

In 2007, Napa viticulturist Bill Hill contacted Skupny about buying cab franc grown on Sugarloaf Mountain in southeast Napa.  “I’ve been working with cab franc in Napa so long I’m like an orphanage for it, growers often contact me about buying fruit,” said Skupny with a chuckle.

“I wasn’t looking for new fruit sources at that time but said I’d be interested in walking the vineyard.  Bill sent me a map and I noticed it was planted with the Entlav 214 clone that originated in the Loire Valley and thrives in cool sites like Sugarloaf Mountain east.”

In his over two decades of experience working with cabernet franc in Napa, Skupny has gained a deeper appreciation for the importance of site and clonal selection, “I’ve found Entlav 214 performs great here in cooler sites that drain well and are planted on the mid to upper benchlands.  Cab franc vines on Sugarloaf Mountain are planted just above the fog line on a 20% slope with southwest exposure which is why the wine is so expressive.”

Elizabeth Vianna, winemaker at Chimney Rock Vineyards who farms nearly four acres of cabernet franc in the Stags Leap District, is a big fan of the grape and feels it’s underrated but starting to get more deserved attention, “Cab Franc is a niche grape here [in Napa] but there is definitely a growing buzz around the grape as a varietal wine for sure.”    

Adding to cabernet franc’s appeal is the grape’s versatility as a varietal wine.

Winemaker Steve Matthiasson says, “Cab Franc is actually an adaptable variety, making more Cabernet Sauvignon-like wine planted up-valley where it’s warmer, and lighter more aromatic wines in the south part of the valley.  It can work on east or west exposures, but again, it’s a bit of a chameleon style-wise, and it will be riper and more powerful on the southwestern exposures, and more aromatic on the northeastern exposures.”

“Cab Francs from the cooler AVAs like Stags Leap express a brighter personality but it is thriving across the Valley because it’s so versatile,” said Vianna, who farms nearly four acres of Cabernet Franc in the Stags Leap District.

“In a blend, Cab Franc brings freshness and liveliness but has a lot to stay on it’s own as a varietal wine,” says Brian Kay, winemaker at Trefethen Family Vineyards, who farms just over five acres of the grape in the Oak Knoll District.

At $8,505 per ton in 2018, cabernet franc is the most expensive grape in the region (compared to $7,925/ton for Cabernet Sauvignon) but is often a serious bargain in bottle compared to the cabernet sauvignon. [Ref. 1]

Cabernet franc may not be the first cabernet that comes to mind when you think of Napa Valley and may always be in the shadow of its progeny, but these wines are compelling and worthy of a place at your table.

For a taste of Napa’s other Cab, seek out Cabernet Franc wines from Corison, Detert, Beringer, Cornerstone, PRIDE Mountain, Crocker & Star, and these producers:

Ref. 1: Price per ton as reported in the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service Grape Crush Report and Napa County Agricultural Crop Report (page 10).
Lang & Reed 2016 Two-Fourteen Cabernet Franc

Named for the Entav 214 clone, Two-Fourteen is 100% cabernet franc grown on the sloped hillside of Sugarloaf Mountain.  This is the only Cabernet Franc in the region made exclusively from the Entav 214 clone.  Medium-bodied and ruby in color, this wine pulls you in to the glass with aromas of red raspberry, blueberry and spice.  Energetic, revealing a complex range of flavors including raspberry, cherry, dried strawberry, tobacco leaf, violet and spice with hints of black olive on the edges. Lengthy dried herb and dark berry finish. Seriously delicious.

Matthiasson 2016 Cabernet Franc

Made from 100% Cabernet Franc from Matthiasson’s home vineyard in the western Oak Knoll District.  An aromatically charming Cabernet Franc from the restrained hand of winemaker, Steve Matthiasson; a bridge from new to old world.  Pale ruby in color, offering aromas of red fruits, spices and dried herbs followed by flavors of ripe plum, sage and mineral.  Mouthwatering acidity with a long herbaceous finish. A compelling expression of Cabernet Franc.

Trefethen 2016 Cabernet Franc

Founded in 1968, Trefethen is now managed managed by the third generation. Made 100% Cabernet Franc grown in Trefethen’s estate vineyard in the Oak Knoll District in southern Napa from vines planted in 2003. Aged 18 months in French oak (22% new).  Cab Franc offering notes of tobacco leaf, violets, dark cherry, and cranberry around a core of dried herbs.  Hints of toasty oak and black tea linger on the finish.

Chimney Rock 2014 Estate Cabernet Franc  

Made from 100% Cabernet Franc grown in the Chimney Rock estate vineyard in the Stags Leap District AVA in southern Napa Valley.  A robust and complex Cab Franc offering pronounced dark fruit, violets, baking spice, and leather aromas with savory notes lingering. Energetic and powerful in the mouth, revealing a range of dark berry and earthy flavors.  Ample acidity. Lengthy vanilla and blueberry notes on the finish.

Barnett 2016 Cabernet Franc

Made from grapes grown in Barnett’s estate vineyard on Spring Mountain in St. Helena at 1,800 feet in elevation, just above the fog line.  A complex and layered Cabernet Franc, offering ripe plum, tobacco leaf, pomegranate, and bright raspberry aromas; the 6% Merlot adds ripe blueberry and cocoa powder aromas on the edges.  Medium-bodied, the palate is expressive, full of dark fruits, cedar, violets, olive tapenade, framed by moderate tannins and a lively red acidity with mint tea on the finish.
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A Virginia native, Frank Morgan founded DrinkWhatYouLike.com nine years ago to chronicle his wine experiences and share stories of local wines and winegrowers. Morgan is the wine columnist for VA Growler Magazine.  He contributes to Piedmont Virginian Magazine, The Virginian-Pilot online, edibleDC, the wine site Snooth, and PBS.  He is the founder of Virginia Wine Chat, a monthly virtual tasting series featuring notable wines and winemakers.  He lives in the Coastal Virginia region with his wife and daughter.  Connect with him on Instagram:  /DrinkWhatYouLike

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