Monday, December 12, 2022

Cab Francs for the Memories

One way to think about Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon is to compare them to Muddy Waters and The Rolling Stones. (Note--if you're a blues fan, ymmv with this analogy.) CF is the genetic daddy of CS (along with Merlot and Carmenere), but isn't as well know among the masses. You could argue CS turned up and popularized the volume on CF, in the same way that Mick and the gang (perhaps, in this case I should say Keith and the gang?) upped the ante on everything. (At least there's no race issues and appropriation concerns when it comes to the grapes.)

So it's good to know someone cares to blow Cab Franc's trumpet, which is what December 4th's Cabernet Franc Day in Paso Robles was all about. This inaugural event featured a seminar on Cab Francs around the world and then, not surprisingly, drove the CF point home with a tasting from 16 producers from Paso Robles. Lori Budd of Dracaena Wines was the instigator of this event, partially because she makes a very fine CF, but we'll get to that.

First there was the seminar, hosted by Kunal and Neeta Mittal (in the middle and right in the above photo) of LXV Wines. (Bet you can guess what one of their favorite varietals is.) To their left was the presenter of the seminar, Wes Hagen, who is as quick with a quoted quip as he is with a reasoned guess at the amount of stem inclusion in a particular pour. In many ways he was a perfect host as his storied career has centered in Santa Barbara on Pinot Noir--as a double outsider he brought refreshing, new insights to all things CF. He even had his own musical metaphor to kick off, calling CS heavy metal and CF jazz. And he also offered this wonderful "theory" of drinking: "I drink beer standing up, wine seated at the table, and spirits between the table and the floor." (He tasted with us pacing, so maybe presentational consumption created its own categories.)

We got to taste along in a global trip through six CF producing regions, kicking off with its classic representation, one from the Loire. This was the 2018 Vignerons de Saumur Rouge "Les Epinats," a lighter style of the grape, with lots of dusty tannins, pepper, and mineral notes.


Wine #2 took us to the right bank in Bordeaux for a 2018 Château Bel Air St. Emilion. This was a bit of a cheat as it's a 50/50 CF/Merlot blend, and it turns out the two bring out fine qualities in the other. Despite its practically slutty color it's an elegant pour with just a hint of brett; Hagen argued that helped age it faster in a way, an "acceptable flaw" at such a slight addition. The wine didn't suffer from any Band-Aid nose, that's for sure.

Wine #3 was my favorite of the international six and a true surprise, as I haven't imbibed much from Hungary, to be honest. But the 2017 Havas & Timár, Franom, Eger Region offered plenty of the varietal characteristic strawberry on the nose and palate, but gave a twist on the typical bell pepper notes by bringing some red bell pepper. (What else from the land of paprika?)
We moved to the New World with wine #4, a CF from the Garage Wine Co. (yep, the so on-the-nose version of garagiste led to numerous Hagen jokes), Pirque Vineyard, Maipo, Chile. Hagen hailed it as the most varietally typical up to that point (take that, France), discussing what calling something a round wine meant to Germans--not to describe a zaftig wine, but one that told a full, beginning, middle, end story. This Maipo had that narrative flow down, especially bringing the characteristic pyrazines. That hint of green pepper is often (not always) a signature of CF. The Maipo even had a kick of mint to it.

I will do my best not to be a catty Californian about wine #5, from Virginia. You have to hand it to the Stinson Family for making a quaffable CF 10 miles from Monticello, where Jefferson struck out trying to make wine from any grape centuries prior. So they've got that on one of the Founding Fathers. This 2020 had less of the usual fruit than the others, so they made up for that with other notes, like whole berry fermentation (if destemmed) and probably more oak.

We closed with Napa, and the biggest of the wines, because, as I wrote, Napa. The 2016 Crocker and Star is officially a "Red Wine of Cabernet Franc" as it's 68% CF, 23% CS, 7% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec. This one was a teeth-stainer, dark dark red and by far the oakiest of all the pours. Definitely for a certain taste, but it pulled that velvet hammer pummeling successfully.

All in all, a delightful trip around the globe in a series of CF glasses, such as the one Hagen contemplates above. One of his closing comments certainly left us all with something to consider; he said, "Wine is the only time machine that's quantum." And getting to go to Hungary five years ago while sitting on my ass in Paso certainly proved that.

Between the global tasting and the Paso tasting there was a quick Paso panel that featured Stasi Seay, Director of Vineyards at Hope Family Wines, Michael Mooney, President/Winemaker at Chateau Margene, and Steve Peck, Director of Winegrowing at J. Lohr. Hagen, as moderator, kept it quick and the panelists kept it clever. Mooney was sure to point out that "Paso is not Paso--it has 11 sub AVAs reflecting differences from altitude, proximity to the ocean, soil composition." And to set us up for the Paso tasting, Peck admitted, "At J Lohr, about our best wine in the cellar is a Cab Franc, and about our worst wine in the cellar is a Cab Franc." So volatility can be expected.

Not that what anyone was pouring from the Grand Tasting was anything less than good--actually 8 of the 16 wines poured were already sold out (thanks for sharing, kind wineries!). Perhaps it comes down to CF being an easier grape to grow than something fussy like Pinot Noir; perhaps it's because a winemaker has to love the grape to want to make it, given consumers aren't busting down the door to buy it (heck, there's slightly more CA acreage of Petit Verdot than CF)(sure that's mostly going into blends, but still).

That said, the standout for me was Union Sacré, a small producer that generally focuses on Alsatian wines that's based in Tin City. Their website wonderfully announces: "These are not wines of privilege and power, these are wines made from a lifetime of labor for the untelevised tables that unite the very heart of the world." So, consider their CF as literate. Bright and balanced, plenty of fruit but also violets, spice, just enough earth to keep things grounded. A gorgeous effort.

And I promised you I'd get back to Dracaena. (BTW, there's science and stars and dragons and dogs in the name--go to their website to get the full story.) Their 2019 Classic CF (they do a reserve, too, but that's long gone) gets a bit more backbone with 8% Petit Verdot, and it all comes together in wine delivering dark cherry and plum with some cocoa and a rich mouthfeel--particularly good on a bit of a blustery December day. Also notable is their NV Phoenix that blends 77% Cabernet Franc, 18% Merlot, and 5% Petit Verdot as a way to deal with the smoke taint in their vineyards after all of the fires in 2020. The wine does have a hint of smoke--but as a mezcal and Islay lover, that's kind of fun in a wine, now and again. So if you want something a bit unusual....

And I'd be remiss not to discuss the great food pairings put together by Neeta Mittal and chef Charlie Paladin of Cass Winery (where the event was held). The grazing bar offered all sorts of spreadable, from a smoky baba ghanoush to a hummus of some depth thanks to fried garbanzos, but it was the passed apps that really starred, from South Indian lentil cakes to a dusk breast seared rare with a cherry demi-glacé. Every bite proved what a versatile wine pair Cab Franc can be.

There were lots more fine wines, some of which I'll get to whenever I get to part two of the story covering a special media and friends celebration dinner the night prior. But in the meantime, here's the view for the grand tasting, wine country winter in all its ragged glory.

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