The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel sat down on a warm Thursday afternoon in the last week of July to taste four flights of Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, totaling 24 wines.
The first three flights were composed of seven wines each from the 2015 vintage, and the last flight made up of three wines from the 2016 vintage. The wines ranged in price from $45 to $140 a bottle.
Panelists included a list of Napa Valley’s top winemakers, Karen Cakebread (Ziata), Simon Faury (Merryvale), Jennifer Lamb (Herb Lamb Vineyards), Shawna Miller (Luna Vineyards), Gabrielle Shaffer (Gamling & McDuck), Tom Rinaldi (Pellet Estate), John Skupny (Lang & Reed), Scott Sublett (Trinchero Family Estates), Andy Schweiger and Becca Wolf (Schweiger Vineyards), Linda Trotta (Jamieson Ranch) and Alan Viader (Viader), joined by Peter Molinari of Domaine Storage and Christie DuFault and Master Sommelier Bob Bath, both instructors at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, where the tasting panel was held.
What is Cabernet Franc?
It is a black-skinned French wine grape variety grown in most wine-producing nations. The variety is most famously known as the third grape of Bordeaux and can be found in many of the world’s top Bordeaux-style blends. Cabernet Franc most commonly appears in blended red wines, where it adds herbaceous accents of tobacco and dark spice.
As a varietal wine, Cabernet Franc is light- to medium-bodied and often shows vegetal characteristics, particularly green bell pepper. This has led many wine drinkers to incorrectly identify Cabernet Franc as unripe Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc is commonly compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, which is not without justification — Cabernet Sauvignon is the result of a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. (Recent DNA profiling has shown that Cabernet Franc is also one of Merlot’s parents.)
But in the vineyard, Cabernet Franc ripens at least a week earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. While it has thinner skin and lower acidity, it is also known for its hardiness and often grown as an “insurance” grape. Cabernet Franc prefers cool, inland climates, according to Wine Searcher.
For each acre planted to Cabernet Franc in the Napa Valley, there are six devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc plantings amount to 1,286 acres, while Cabernet Sauvignon amounts to 22,042 acres, according to longtime Cabernet Franc grower and producer John Skupny, who attended the tasting.
In 2017, grape cost per ton in the Napa Valley for Cabernet Sauvignon shot up to an average $7,421 per ton, an increase of 9 percent over 2016. Cabernet Franc grape cost per ton was even higher, commanding $7,969, up 10 percent from 2016.
“Really interesting price range , from $45 to $140,” said Bob Bath, who was impressed overall with the ripeness and oak levels. Cabernet Franc is an expensive grape, and the wines can be hard to find.
Jennifer Lamb mentioned the diversity of the wine she had tasted. While some wines appeared ready to drink now, other wines were showing the potential for further aging.
Although most of the wines hit all of the descriptors typically associated with the grape variety, some of the wines were more difficult to distinguish from Cabernet Sauvignon.
Following the discussion, the wines’ scores were revealed. Panelists selected the following first-place wines:
Barlow Vineyards 2015 Cabernet Franc, Calistoga ($45) with luscious red cherry, raspberry, blackberry and black currant notes, hints of eucalyptus and vanilla. The wine displayed nicely integrated tannin and acidity, conveying a sturdy structure.
Cornerstone Cellars 2015 Cabernet Franc, Oakville ($75) was showcasing bright red cherry, strawberry and raspberry, with hints of vanilla.
Oakville Ranch Vineyards 2015, Robert’s Vineyard, Oakville ($110) A lush and complex wine, with black and red fruit, hints of eucalyptus, and a pleasant balance of acidity and tannin. Robert’s Cabernet Franc is produced using grapes grown in the red volcanic soil of Oakville Ranch’s highest mountain vineyard blocks.
Mt. Brave 2015, Cabernet Franc, Mount Veeder ($80) The unique terroir of the high elevation Mt. Brave vineyard (1,400 to 1,800 feet) creates distinct concentrated flavors of black cherry, black berry, white pepper and eucalyptus for this Cabernet Franc. Balanced acidity and tannin combine with subtle vanilla characters to produce a wine with a long finish.
Clos du Val 2016, Cabernet Franc, Stags Leap District ($100) A savory wine with delicious rich blackberry, plum and red and black cherry flavors. The wine is nicely balanced with a long finish.