Winemakers Applaud Napa’s Other Cabernet. So Why Aren’t More People Drinking It?

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Maybe it’s the time I’ve spent in the Loire Valley, or maybe it’s because one of the first Napa Valley Cabernet Francs I ever had was one of Tom Garrett’s iconic Detert bottlings, but I’ve always loved Cabernet Franc. I love its violet aroma and vibrant, earthy flavors of cedar, dried herb and crushed rock atop a brambly berry core. It can present such a lovely, harmonious balance between fruitiness and floral notes, with great acidity and structure.

It has the potential to be a great grape here, a softer, gentler alternative to Cab Sauv, if ever given its proper due.

Which is exactly why I’ve lamented that it’s relatively invisible in the regions I cover, especially Napa. Sure, there are devotees, like Detert, Lang & Reed and Crocker & Starr, but for every Cab Franc-minded producer, there are easily hundreds more focused on Cabernet Sauvignon.

That’s true in the ground as well. Cabernet Franc doesn’t even crack the top six varieties planted in the Napa Valley. At 51%, Cabernet Sauvignon is far and away the most dominant. But there’s also more Merlot (9%), Pinot Noir (6%) and Zinfandel (3%) than Cab Franc.

It has the potential to be a great grape here, a softer, gentler alternative to Cab Sauv, if ever given its proper due.

“Cabernet Franc is my favorite variety,” says Genevieve Janssens, the longtime director of winemaking for Robert Mondavi Winery who now focuses on her own brand, Portfolio Winery, as well as consulting. “It combines the winemaking skills of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. It is very delicate, very aromatic, with silky, satin tannins. To be able to capture all the nuances of this variety, the winemaker needs to be tuned to the site, the vintage.”

The Loire's Cabernet Franc Enters a New Era

Like me, Janssens has wondered why the grape hasn’t had the same fame as the other Cabernet or even as much as Merlot.

“I’m attributing this late start to the complexity of cultivating it,” she says. “It will be very sensitive to its environment, it will be more hands-on. It has a strong sense of place.”

Winemaker Ted Henry of Clos du Val calls Cabernet Franc his absolute favorite blending tool and says,“it may be my favorite grape we grow, period.”

“The way we farm Cabernet Franc, with extreme leaf pulling, tends to give the wines more chocolate and cocoa notes and less of the obvious green and herb notes that Cab Franc has in the past been known for,” he says.

Janssens calls it poetic, “a variety that flirts with you, evocative and gracious on the palate.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’d just love to see more of it.

Three To Try

La Jota 2016 Cabernet Franc (Howell Mountain); 96 points, $85. Complex and lengthy, with juicy red and black fruit and lasting accents of dried herb, sage, lavender and violet. Drink 2024–2026.

Clos du Val 2016 Hirondelle Vineyard Estate Cab­ernet Franc (Stags Leap District); 94 points, $100. Herbal, earthy and structured, with thick, firm tannins and dry, toasted oak alongside intense layers of black currant, violet and blueberry. Enjoy 2026–2031.

Robert Mondavi 2016 Cabernet Franc (Oakville); 93 points, $64. Dusty gravel and crushed rock earthiness make for a heady, memorable bouquet, while dried herb, currant and cassis flavors mingle around a soft, well-integrated texture of lengthy tannins and classic oak.

Published on May 12, 2020
Topics: California