Christopher S. Miller
AS WE SLIP INTO the cooler months of fall I ramp-up my consumption of bigger and bigger red wines. One of the in-between red grapes is Cabernet Franc. This grape is quite noble and important to wine production partially because it is the parent of Cabernet Sauvignon and partly because it is a main ingredient in many great red wines from Bordeaux. Cabernet Franc can adapt better to cooler climates than its offspring (Cabernet Sauvignon).
One great wine that uses large doses of Cabernet Franc is Château Cheval Blanc of St-Emilion in Bordeaux. This wine is possibly one of the greatest wines I have ever enjoyed, but at an average of $300 a bottle it is a very special occasion wine. Though Château Cheval Blanc is one of my favorite wines, there are other wines based on this classy, but under-appreciated grape in regions such as Northern Italy, the Loire Valley, Sonoma and Santa Barbara. And yes, right here on Long Island.
On my thirtieth birthday, I began an (inconsistent) tradition of having a bottle of Cheval-Blanc for dinner on my birthday. That first birthday bottle happened to be a 1962 (30 years old at the time) and it was amazing, simply sublime. Unfortunately the same could not be said of the wine when it (and I) turned 40. But as I pretend to have a broad palate, I have sought Cabernet Francs of different styles and regions and made some wonderful discoveries—one right in our backyard. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to try about 100 different wines from Long Island. The tasting showed the potential of Cabernet Franc on both the North and South Forks. This month I revisited some local Cabernet Francs and am still impressed.
There are two distinctly different styles of Cabernet Franc produced, the Bordeaux model Cab Franc is richer in the mid-palate and aged in some new oak barrels. While the Loire model is brighter, more aromatic and most see little or no new oak treatment, the palate is also crisper and lighter than the Bordeaux model. The difference in style not only reflects a producer or winemaker’s decisions but also the climates and soils (what wine geeks and the French call terrior). Bordeaux is further south than Loire and its proximity to the Gironde Estuary helps with making a longer and warmer growing season, this all results in sweeter fruit and the richer mid-palate I mentioned above.
As my income has not kept pace with the price of Château Cheval-Blanc, I will have to rely on old tasting notes for this stunning wine. The most recent vintage I tasted was the 1997, which while young, was still lush and seductive with notes of dark cherry, plum, tobacco, toasty oak, spice and licorice, the tannins were tight but after a vigorous decanting it opened nicely and showed the classy and outstanding wine it is.
Closer to my current income bracket is the Pellegrini Cabernet Franc, North Fork. I saw this recently for $18 retail and found it to have a Bordelaise style, with a touch of oak, both black and red raspberry, some cherry and black pepper in the nose. The palate was round and yummy with a finish that demanded another sip. Perhaps it was less classy than the Cheval but the price is far more reasonable.
To illustrate the other style of Cabernet Franc I tasted a Charles Jouget Chinon Clos de la Cure 2003 ($22). This is a classic Loire Valley Cab Franc with notes of ground black and white pepper, bright red raspberries and a bit of cherry in the aromas, the palate was crisp and clean, but with tight and lean tannins that begged to accompany food (a meat stew or Osso Bucco would be nice), the finish was long and had a dusty component. This style of Cabernet Franc is not as popular as the Bordeaux style but has its followers and deserves more. On Long Island, most producers follow the Bordeaux template but some are between the two styles and a couple gravitate to the Chinon model. Old Field Cellars 2002 ($24) was in-between the two styles with bright raspberry and cherry notes mixed with spicey oak, tobacco and pepper; it is a delightful wine with a lingering gentle finish and soft mid-palate. Don’t be afraid to age such a wine. I tested this with both the Pellegrini and the Old Field by tasting both wines after they had been opened two days. Both had improved in quality, complexity and nuance! With a little help from both the consumers and the producers, I think Cabernet Franc on Long Island can really make a stand in the wine markets.