David 17 July 2014
Most people know cabernet franc as one of the varieties used in Bordeaux. There you’ll find it blended with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, as well as petit verdot and malbec. There is, however, a lot to like about cab franc playing the starring role as a stand-alone variety.
Cabernet franc is related to cabernet sauvignon, but it tends to produce more subtle and aromatic wines. The wines are usually lighter in colour, less tannic and smoother in the mouth than cab sauv. I find they have the structure and acidity of cab sauv, without the weight and in my book that’s what makes cab franc so unique and appealing.
It seems I’m not the only one - Jancis Robinson MW:
“ I’m not a huge enthusiast of the sexual stereotyping of wines but even I can see that cabernet franc might be described as the feminine side of cabernet sauvignon. It is subtly fragrant and gently flirtatious rather than massively muscular and tough in youth. Because cabernet sauvignon has so much more of everything - body, tannin, alcohol, colour - it is often supposed to be necessarily superior, but I have a very soft spot indeed for its more charming and more aromatic relative, cabernet franc.”
Common descriptors for cab franc include raspberry, black currants and violets. You may also get peppery, spicy aromas and, depending on what soils they’re grown in and the vintage conditions, the wines can be light, fresh and ready to drink or full bodied, well structured, intense and suitable for cellaring. The variety’s character spans from elegant and delicate through to rustic and chewy, which makes for interesting drinking and highlights the importance of knowing the producer.
France has the world’s largest number of cab franc plantings at about 37,000 ha, but globally cab sauv still outnumbers it by about 5½ times. Cab franc likes a slightly cooler climate than cab sauv and its home is the beautiful Loire Valley, where it’s found in the appellations of Bourgueil, St Nicolas de Bourgueil, Chinon, Saumur-Champigny and Anjou-Villages. Here you’ll find several producers who show just what heights the variety can reach. Australia has around 600ha of cab franc, much of which is used as blending material (eg. Jasper Hill) but you’ll still find a few straight varietal examples amongst the smaller wineries.
You’ve probably noticed a shift away from burly, oversized wines at many leading restaurants, with a preference for lighter and more drinkable styles. Good cab franc, a Paris café staple, fits the bill perfectly for this friendlier approach. I recently came across two fantastic, but quite different cab francs, one from the Loire and one from McLaren Vale. Both are made by exciting young producers and provide a great comparison for this often overlooked variety.
Domaine du Mortier - Boisard Fils
Brothers Fabien and Cyril Boisard established Domaine du Mortier in 1996 in the appellation of St Nicolas de Bourgueil, located just west of the appellation of Bourgueil. Both are on the right bank (north side) of the Loire River about 60 km west of the city of Tours. This area, known as middle/central Loire, is where you’ll also find the well known appellations Touraine , Saumur, Chinon and Vouvray.
St Nicolas de Bourgueil covers about 900ha and is essentially a red wine appellation. The dominant variety here is cabernet franc, known locally as Breton, and wines here range from light-bodied, more fruit driven styles to mid-bodied wines that are silky, spicy and more complex. The Oxford Companion to Wine notes: “these fragrant wines are extremely popular in Paris and northern France but have yet to be discovered by most non-French wine lovers.”
The Boisard boys have 13 hectares of vines planted on a mix of sand and gravel which is typical of the appellation’s terroir. The brothers work the vineyards by hand and are big on biodiversity and environmental health. They follow organic and biodynamic principles, which means no herbicides, no insecticides and no pesticides. They have certification from ‘Nature et Progrès’ and ‘Ecocert’, two well regarded organic bodies.
It’s the same story in the winery, with handpicked grapes gently de-stemmed, then crushed by foot and fermented using natural yeasts. There are no enzymes, no additions, no filtration and no fining. They do use minimal sulphur to keep the wines sound.
1. Domaine du Mortier ‘Gravier’ 2011
I enjoyed this wine so much the first time I tasted it that I tried to purchase as much as I could… unfortunately there wasn't much left in the country.
2011 was a great year in the Loire, with grapes achieving full ripeness and maturity. This is simply a delicious wine - polished, textured and smooth. It comes from 30-year-old vines planted in gravely soil, hence the name ‘gravier.’ The wine spends about 10 months ageing in oak after its natural fermentation.
It’s a rich, rosey red colour and has a generous nose, combining typical cab franc red fruit characters, but there’s also a savoury farmyardiness. You’ll find notes of liquorice, thyme and olive juice. It’s dry and mid-weight, with a beautiful silky texture and soft tannins, yet still with some grippy acid to give structure and a long, lean finish.
Definitely no write-ups by the critics, so here’s a tasting note from the winemaker: “ Deep red in the glass with purple highlights. Scents of raspberry and currant dominate the nose and are backed by a dusting of stones. The red berry fruit follows through on the palate. This is a full and round red with loads of juicy berry fruit, a great mineral backbone and it finishes with a note of sweet spice”.
This is the kind of wine groovy French sommeliers are into, pretty obscure here in Australia… but gee it’s good. I believe no other retailers are carrying it, although you’ll find it at Felix Restaurant for $70 a bottle.
I can offer it for $35 a bottle (limited availability) SOLD OUT - Check availability
2. Jauma ‘Seaview Birdsey Vineyard’ Cabernet Franc 2013
I’ve heard Loire cab franc described as ‘some of the most interesting and gloriously bohemian reds,’ which leads me nicely to Jauma (James in Catalan) whose motto is ‘Wild, expressive, South Australian wine’. This venture is the work of James Erskine - dreamer, musician and highly talented natural winemaker.
Along with Tom Shobbrook (of Shobbrook Wines, Didi & Didier) and Anton van Klopper (of Lucy Margaux & Domaine Lucci), James is part of the Natural Selection Theory project. This band of merry, bohemian wine-men is at the forefront of the natural wine movement in Australia.
Aside from having spent time in Berlin as an experimental musician, James has some serious wine credentials that show he really knows his stuff:
- Graduated as a soil scientist with a degree in agriculture
- Len Evans Scholar 2009
- International Court of Master Sommeliers certified dux 2009 (Vic/SA)
- Gourmet Traveller Sommelier of the Year 2009
- Negociants Working With Wine national winner 2009
- Set up and is chief judge at the Adelaide Hot 100 wine show
Situated in the Adelaide Hills in the old 1860s Jam Factory, Jauma winery produced its first vintage in 2010. Fruit for several wines, made in minuscule quantities, is sourced from biodynamic vineyards in both the Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale.
James focuses mainly on grenache and chenin blanc, but also makes a tiny amount of cab franc, sourced from the Birdsey vineyard in McLaren Vale. This block has been farmed biodynamically for over 10 years and James tells me the grapes are ‘happy here.’ The fruit is handpicked and fermented in whole bunches with natural yeasts before being pressed by foot. Only the free run wine from the ferment is used, which is then aged in old oak. Nothing is added, save a small amount of sulphur and there is no filtering or fining.
Here we have a cool climate variety grown in the warmth of McLaren vale - what a contrast to the Loire. Intuitively this juxtaposition feels wrong, but this vineyard and this vintage work so well, which is why it merited Jauma’s first release of a straight cab franc. Prior to this James blended it into other wines.
This is so different to the Loire wine… but what a fascinating comparison. The wine is a deep purpley, plummy red, darker in colour than the Frenchie and a full 2% higher in alcohol. There’s loads of fresh, pure sweet fruit to enjoy with flavours of juicy raspberry and spice. It’s mid-weight, yet surprisingly rich for a cab franc and as it opens up you’ll find a little liquorice. It has that lovely mouth-feel that comes with natural winemaking - generous, soft and velvety, yet bright and above all very drinkable. Refreshing, luscious, and ready to drink now.
Unfortunately, like the Loire wine, there are no reviews for this wine and very little of it around town. I did see it at the groovy Nomad restaurant in Surry Hills for $75 a bottle.
I can offer it for $39 a bottle (limited availability) SOLD OUT - Check availability