Can I be frank about franc?
Most of the time, I find that cabernet franc, one of the world's most important grapes, is a bitter letdown. Usually it comes on strong with a green, stemmy quality that suggests the grapes just didn't get ripe enough, which is usually the case. It thrives in relatively cool climates, but unless it's left to ripen long into autumn, it can remind you of what the sage critic Robert Parker describes as "yesterday's plate of green beans or asparagus." To me, most cabernet francs resemble red sangria that has been steeped with bell peppers and unlit cigarettes instead of fruit.
Wisely, winemakers tend to restrict cabernet franc to a supporting role, blending it with its richer, fruitier genetic offspring, cabernet sauvignon, or with merlot to add subtle whiffs of pepper and tobacco. Some honest growers also will admit that cabernet franc is their vineyard insurance policy for a Bordeaux-style blend, tapped more liberally in years when the superior, late-ripening cabernet sauvignon is ruined by bad autumn weather.
Some franc apologists make a virtue of the variety's "herbaceous" tendencies. They inevitably point to two districts in France where the grape reigns supreme, Chinon and Bourgueil in the Loire Valley.
Funny. I think that pointing to those districts proves my point, not theirs. Though the quality has generally improved, there are few Chinons and Bourgueils I'd go out of my way for (Philippe Alliet's from the former appellation would be an exception, and those of Catherine et Pierre Bréton from Bourgueil would be another, but they're hard to find and expensive).
Virtually all the people I know who rave about Chinon and Bourgueil are wine geeks, the kind of people who champion varieties nobody else does precisely because nobody else does. You can find many of these same people downloading unsigned artists to their iPods.
When the Loire Valley reference fails to sway an audience, franc fans will pull out their Big Gun and invoke Cheval Blanc. That's the famous and fabulous Bordeaux blend made primarily of cabernet franc (though there's usually a lot of merlot in it). Most red Bordeaux wines, by contrast, are predominantly cabernet sauvignon or merlot.
You won't catch me contesting the majesty of Cheval Blanc. It's the real deal and is so great that it has become a movie star, featured explicitly in the recent films Sideways and Ratatouille . The 1947 Cheval Blanc is reputed by many experts to be the greatest wine ever made.
But you know what they say about exceptions. They just underscore the rule. And $450-a-bottle wines are lousy examples for winemaking in general. It's much easier to obtain ripe fruit from a vine when you can afford go to extremes, such as lopping off half the clusters in mid-season to funnel the plant's resources into tiny quantities of remaining fruit. That's not economical for most wineries making products for salaried schmoes like me and most of you.
And yet, just when I'm about to write off affordable cabernet franc completely (which happens about every six months), along comes a good one to rock my world. It's like finding Kobe beef in a Harvey's bun.
I have been pondering cab franc lately because in recent weeks I have come across not one but three good examples. All three also happen to be from Canada and are available directly from the winery boutiques or websites.
At the price, Tinhorn Creek Cabernet Franc 2007 ($17.99 through www.tinhorn.com) isn't just a terrific cab franc, but a great buy too. Full-bodied and seductively creamy, this B.C. red shows plum, dark chocolate, tobacco, vanilla and cedar notes, with a nice undercurrent of spice. Great balance and depth of flavour. A fine offering from winemaker Sandra Oldfield.
Quite possibly my consistent favourite among Canadian cabernet francs is Pentage, also in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley. And the winery has done it again with its current release. Pentage Cabernet Franc 2006 ($28 through www.pentage.com) is remarkably soft, in contrast to the much more acidic reds of the Loire. The texture is smooth, delivering flavours of ripe, dark-skinned fruit, tobacco and cedar. It's earthy, not vegetal. This vintage won the best-in-class trophy at the 2009 All Canadian Wine Championships.
From a relatively new winery in Niagara comes Organized Crime Cabernet Franc 2007 ($34 through www.organizedcrimewine.com). Yes, that's the winery name: Organized Crime. It's a play on words referring to a historical incident near the property involving the theft of a pipe organ from a church. Full-bodied, this red shows dark-fruit flavours and a polished texture. It also has impressive smoothness and ripeness, with a hint of vanilla.
Pick of the week
At its price, Tinhorn Creek Cabernet Franc 2007 ($17.99 through www.tinhorn.com) isn't just a terrific cab franc, but a great buy too. Full-bodied and seductively creamy, this fine B.C. red from winemaker Sandra Oldfield shows plum, dark chocolate, tobacco, vanilla and cedar notes. It also has a nice undercurrent of spice