Right Time, Right Place: California's Right Bank-Style Wines
There's growing interest in these soft, approachable and food-friendly alternatives to varietal Cabernet Sauvignon.
In 2002, superstar winemaker Heidi Barrett was approached by her business partner, John Schwartz, with the idea of making a high-end Merlot blend. “I was skeptical,” she says.
Having made her reputation with Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Showket), Barrett was understandably reluctant to change course. “Merlot was not my favorite,” she says. “It could be great as a blending wine, but...”
There’s no need to finish the sentence. Merlot’s reputation, especially in Cabernet-centric Napa Valley, was not the best.
Yet, Barrett eventually changed her mind. The decisive factor was her discovery of a great source of fruit in the eastern Vaca Hills (the precise source is a secret), which included Cabernet Franc. The result was Amuse Bouche, the pricey $200 blend whose 2008 vintage Wine Enthusiast rated 95 points.
Around the same time, John Skupny, the proprietor/winemaker of Lang & Reed, was crafting what he calls “our homage to St.-Émilion.” Lang & Reed’s 2005 Right Bank bottling ($60), released last year, is made from 50% Cabernet Franc, 30% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot.
St.-Émilion and its neighbor, Pomerol, form the heart of Bordeaux’s Right Bank, the Left Bank being the Médoc, with its stretch of appellations ranging from St.-Estèphe through Pauillac and Margaux. Cabernet Sauvignon is the foremost red grape variety in the Médoc, but just across the estuary, Merlot and Cabernet Franc take over for reasons both historical and terroir-driven. Over the years, the term Right Bank has come to be used to describe wines blended from these varieties.
There is no formula for Right Bank-style wines in France, except that Cabernet Sauvignon is generally not the lead variety. Some Right Bank Bordeaux, such as Vieux Château Certan, typically have a little Cabernet, but the wines are predominantly Merlot based. Others (Ausone, Cheval Blanc) are comprised primarily of Cabernet Franc. It all depends on the soils and on the proprietor’s philosophy.
For decades, wines modeled on the Right Bank style were a rarity in California. Acreage devoted to Cabernet Franc and Merlot was virtually nonexistent, and there wasn’t any demand for those varieties. Inglenook was one of the first Napa wineries to blend small quantities of Cabernet Franc and Merlot into its Cabernet Sauvignon. But in 1988, with the advent of Meritage wines, winemakers felt freer to move away from offerings made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon. Early examples included Cain Five and Flora Springs Trilogy, wines whose Cabernet content fell below the legally required 75% threshold for varietal labeling.
Now, we’re seeing a surge of Right Bank-style wines. Winemakers are exploring options that don’t necessarily include Cabernet Sauvignon, which some consumers find too heavy or tannic.
Statistics, soils and…that movie
The heightened interest in Right Bank-style wines is reflected in statistics on statewide plantings of Bordeaux varieties. Cabernet Franc is up 22% over the last 10 years, compared to a mere 7% increase for Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot has barely budged in statewide acreage in 10 years, but acreage is up an average of 9.25% in the important coastal counties of Napa, Sonoma and San Luis Obispo.
These new plantings are going into soils that allow for the highest chance of success. For example, Merlot likes clay, which keeps the ground cool and moist.
“We do our Merlot on the west end of the vineyard, closer to the [Napa] River, where you get more clay,” says Armand de Maigret, the estate manager of Screaming Eagle. At Bond, Estate Director Paul Roberts says that they reserve the Cabernet Franc for “one little section of thicker soil, because you don’t have quite the rocky element” that Cabernet Sauvignon prefers.
Opportunity has played a key role in the rise of Right Bank-style wines. Schwartz came up with the idea for Amuse Bouche in part as an alternative to the crowded Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon market.
Things developed along similar lines at Blackbird, another Napa boutique winery. “Michael [Polenske, Blackbird’s owner] saw that the Merlot market after Sideways was underperforming, and, being a businessman, he thought it would be a good idea to get into that category,” says Blackbird’s winemaker, Aaron Pott. Because the word Merlot was almost considered an expletive following the smash 2004 movie, the Blackbird team decided to give a proprietary name—Illustration—to their Merlot-based blend, despite the fact that the 2008 ($90) had enough Merlot to label it varietally.
“Even though winemakers are now making Merlot in a Right Bank style, they can’t call it Merlot, God forbid, after the Sideways phenomenon,” says Haley Moore, lead sommelier at Spruce restaurant in San Francisco.
Sometimes these wines occur serendipitously. In 1994, young Will Jarvis was given permission to create a wine for his 8th grade school experiment. Ten years later, when his father, William, tasted it, he was inspired to create Jarvis Winery’s blend of Cabernet Franc (95%) and Merlot, and the polished wine was commercially released as Will Jarvis’s Science Project. The 5% Merlot, says Jarvis’s winemaker, Ted Henry, delivers “that extra fruitiness to bring this fresh package together.”
Food-friendly and approachable
Merlot blends or Right Bank-style blends are generally softer and fruitier than Cabernet Sauvignon, and they don’t require a lot of cellaring to be drinkable. This has become a key selling point. “There’s been a style shift among consumers,” says Wilfred Wong, cellarmaster at Beverages & More in San Francisco. “These blends are popular because they have softer tannins.”
Where Cabernet Sauvignon alone can be hard-edged, Merlot brings in a more delicate feel. Cabernet Franc adds a cherry-vanilla creaminess, and sometimes, pleasing notes of olives and green herbs, as in Chinons from the Loire.
“They used to make them as extracted and intense as Cabernet Sauvignon, but now they’re making them taste more like themselves, especially Cabernet Franc,” says Moore, whose restaurant has created a special menu to pair with three of the Blackbird wines.
For restaurants, Right Bank-style bottlings offer strong, food-friendly alternatives for their wine lists. Paul Einbund, beverage director at Frances in San Francisco’s Castro District, calls the Favia’s 2008 La Magdelena (60% Cab Franc, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon) “one of the best modern-style California wines. It gives something the other Cab Sauvs don’t. Maybe not as blockbustery, but more elegant and Bordeaux-y.”
At Auberge du Soleil, the upscale resort in Napa Valley’s Rutherford district, Wine Director Kris Margerum, who pours Lang & Reed’s Right Bank by the glass, echoes that theme. “There’s an elegance to it,” he says. “I’m not looking for either a Merlot or a Cabernet flavor, but something more balanced.”
The challenge with Cabernet Sauvignon, Margerum says, is that “while we love it, it doesn’t have a wide match of food pairings.” He prefers the Right Bank-style blends with many Auberge dishes, including their delicate, olive-accented spring lamb. “The tertiary flavors you find in Merlot, the dusty herbs like thyme, sage and rosemary, are a good match,” he says.
“My customers veer more toward Cabernet Sauvignon, so I’ll tell them these blends share characteristics with Cabernet, but have a really nice approachability and aren’t as tannic,” says Sommelier Bradley Wasserman of Solbar, the restaurant at Calistoga’s Solage Resort.
There are more quality Right Bank-style wines today than ever before. Of course, these wines are a subset of Meritage-style wines, and the general quality of Meritage wines is better than ever. In the last year, there have been new releases from Von Strasser, Vérité, Merryvale, Dominus, Duckhorn and Staglin.
Even Cabernet Sauvignon’s notoriously hard tannins have been tamed, for the most part, by modern tannin management techniques. Some Cabs from such mountain AVAs as Spring Mountain District, Diamond Mountain District and Howell Mountain, however, still have an old-fashioned toughness that demands a long time in the cellar.
In California, Cabernet is king, and long live the king. But in a drink-now world, the king better watch his back. Soft and approachable has its eye on the throne.
Affordable Right Bank-Style Wines
Most Right Bank-style wines are made to please from the start. While it’s true that the best of them are expensive, here are eight wines, $40 and under, that show off the style with flair.
92 White Cottage Ranch 2008 Estate Cabernet Franc (Howell Mountain).
A tremendous Cabernet Franc that shows the intensely concentrated fruit and considerable tannins of Howell Mountain. Explosive in cherries, cherry liqueur and red currants, yet for all the power, the wine has a dignified balance. A bit aggressive now. Give it 2–3 years to calm down.
abv: NA Price: $40
92 Arger-Martucci 2006 Cabernet Franc (Napa Valley).
One of the best Cab Francs on the market. This is a variety that can be one-dimensional on its own, but Arger-Martucci’s shows a complex blackberry, black cherry and currant structure. It’s dry, tannic and changes interestingly as it warms in the glass.
abv: 13.7% Price: $35
92 Monticello 2008 Estate Grown Cabernet Franc (Oak Knoll).
One of the prettier Cab Francs on the market, showing fine Napa structure and intricate flavors that grow more complex as the wine warms in the glass. With red and black cherry, red licorice, teriyaki beef and sweetly smoked cedar flavors, it’s a beautiful wine to drink now.
abv: 14.1% Price: $38
91 Conn Creek 2006 Limited Release Cabernet Franc (Napa Valley).
A very fine Cab Franc that shows how well the variety can do when well made. It’s soft and silky in the mouth, with rich flavors of red cherry pie and licorice, edged with spicy, cedary complexities. Drink now with a good steak. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14.8% Price: $25
90 Cinnabar 2008 Mercury Rising (California).
A blend of the five major Bordeaux varieties, this is a deliciously soft wine. So easy to like for its rich blackberry, cherry, raspberry and smoky oak flavors, courtesy of 40% new barrels. Shows lots of class for the price.
abv: 14.9% Price: $21
90 Folkway 2007 Revelator (California).
Mainly Merlot, this Bordeaux blend is a combination of grapes from Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s very rich and likeable now for its crisply acidic flavors of black cherries, red currants and spices, coated with sweet, smoky oak. Give it a brief decant before serving.
abv: 14.5% Price: $26
90 Girard 2008 Artistry (Napa Valley).
Very rich and ripe in fruit, and also rich in new oak. The combination makes for mouthfilling blackberry and cherry pie filling, currant, licorice, dark chocolate and spicy flavors that are frankly delicious. The finish is quick, suggesting this lovely wine is best enjoyed in its youth.
abv: 15% Price: $40
88 Fidelity 2009 Crazy Creek Estate (Alexander Valley).
Mostly Merlot, with a balancing Cabernet Sauvignon, this is a soft, gentle wine, a little simple, but rich and satisfying. And at this price, a bargain for a full-bodied, Bordeaux-style wine.
abv: 14.3% Price: $14
John Schwartz and Heidi Barrett’s Mushroom Risotto with Truffle Oil, Asiago Cheese and Sautéed Arugula
John Schwartz of Amuse Bouche calls this dish “comfort food for the overworked.” One doesn’t usually think of a Bordeaux-style red blend to pair with mushroom risotto, but in this case, it works. “We love the earthiness, richness and exotic blend of flavors, which work so well with Amuse Bouche,” he says. Adds Winemaker Heidi Barrett, “Definitely a fall/winter dish.”
8 cups chicken stock
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
¾ pound fresh wild mushrooms (morels, chanterelles, porcinis, shiitakes)
¼ cup parsley, chopped
2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
3 cups Arborio or carnaroli rice
1 cup dry white wine, unchilled
3 ounces asiago cheese, grated
2 tablespoons truffle butter
Salt and grated black pepper, to taste
Truffle oil, to taste
In a large saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a simmer over medium heat. Meanwhile, in a second large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the fresh mushrooms and cook until softened, no more than 5 minutes. Add the parsley and fresh thyme.
Next, add ½ cup of the simmering stock and cook until the mushroom mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the mushrooms to a warmed bowl and set aside.
Add the rice to the mushroom pan and stir over medium heat until each grain is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the wine and stir until it is absorbed.
Add the simmering stock little by little, constantly stirring until each addition is absorbed before adding more. If necessary, add a little water to keep the grains from drying out. When the rice is nearly tender and appears creamy, about 20 minutes, add the mushroom mixture. Cook and stir until the mushrooms are heated through, 3–5 minutes maximum. Add the arugula at the last minute, and stir until it begins to wilt.
Remove the risotto from the heat and stir in the asiago cheese, truffle butter, salt and pepper.
To plate, place a portion in a deep bowl, and top with the asiago and a drizzle of truffle oil.
Wine Recommendation: 2008 Amuse Bouche
Annie and Andy Erickson’s Slow-cooked Ground Beef and Past with Plum tomatoes and Cheese
“One of my family traditions was to spend Sunday afternoon cooking and eating,” Annie Erickson remembers. “As children, we did it with my grandmother, Magdalena. Now, as an adult, I do it with Andy and the girls and whichever members of my family are around. My grandmother made an amazing meat sauce with pork and veal. She used bones to flavor the sauce. I can still taste it! This dish is based on Marcella Hazan’s recipe in her Essentials of Italian Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992). We love it and make it frequently. It calls for beef, but we have, over the years, added veal and pork sometimes.”
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons butter, plus 1 tablespoon for tossing the pasta
½ cup onion, chopped
⅔ cup celery, chopped
⅔ cup carrot, chopped
¾ pound ground beef (check, or 1 part pork to 2 parts beef)
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, freshly ground, to taste
1 cup whole milk
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg, ground
1 cup dry white wine
1 16-ounce can of imported Italian plum tomatoes, chopped, with juice
1½ pounds pasta (any type)
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for garnish
Place the oil, butter and chopped onion in a heavy pot and turn the heat on to medium. Cook and stir until the onion turns translucent, then add the celery and carrots. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring the vegetables to coat them well.
Add the meat and a large pinch of salt and some pepper. Crumble the meat with a fork, stir well and cook until the beef begins to brown.
Add the milk and let the mixture simmer gently, stirring frequently, until the liquid has evaporated completely. Add the nutmeg and stir.
Add the wine, let it simmer until it has evaporated, then add the tomatoes and stir to coat all of the ingredients well. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down so that the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface. Cook, uncovered, for approximately 3 hours, stirring from time to time. While the sauce is cooking, you’re likely to find it begins to dry out, with the fat separating from the meat. To keep the mixture from sticking to the pan, add water whenever necessary. At the end, however, no water must be left. Using a spoon, remove the fat. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, separately cook the pasta according to the instructions on the box. Remove from the heat, drain, and place in a serving bowl with 1 tablespoon of butter. Add the sauce to the pasta and mix. Serve with the cheese at the table. Serves 4–6.
Wine Recommendation: Favia’s 2008 La Magdelena
John and Tracey Skupny’s Standing Rib Roast with Sautéed Mushrooms and Onions
“At the Lang & Reed table, our meals are simply prepared with the freshest of ingredients, sometimes including meats one of our boys has raised or hunted,” says John Skupny. “For very special gatherings, we lean towards locally raised beef, and for a ‘right Bank’ feast the choice is standing rib roast. For a side dish, we like roasted winter root vegetables, owing to the savage nature of the wine due to its base of Cabernet Franc. Serve with crusty artisanal bread, spread with creamery butter and goat cheese.”
1 bone-in rib roast, about 6–7 pounds
1 tablespoon pink salt
4 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon thyme
1 tablespoon oregano
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 cup red wine, particularly a Right Bank blend
2 large sweet onions
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups sliced forest mushrooms (such as chanterelles, trumpets or shiitakes)
For the standing rib roast:
Allow the meat to sit at room temperature for an hour, then preheat the oven to 350°F.
Place the salt, garlic, spices and herbs in a mortar and ground well until the mixture is pasty. Generously rub the roast with the mixture.
Place the roast in the pre-heated oven and roast for about 2 hours, or until an instant thermometer registers 135°F, for medium rare. Halfway through the cooking, add the red wine.
Remove from the oven and allow the roast to rest for 15 minutes before carving. Meanwhile, remove the fat from the roasting liquid, stain and serve as au jus.
For the onions and mushrooms:
In a medium sauté pan set over medium heat, add the butter and onions and cook until the onions begin to caramelize. Add the mushrooms and stir until they become soft, but still retain some texture and the liquid that has leached out of the mushrooms has been reduced by half and blended evenly with the butter. Season with salt and pepper and serve on top of the rib roast. Serves 6.
Wine Recommendation: Lang & Reed’s 2005 Right Bank