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Rags to Riches with Cabernet Franc

Kevin Peterson

Cabernet franc is an orphan grape. The proud parent of the mighty cabernet sauvignon and merlot has no known caretaker to call its own. Recent ampelographic research places its birthplace in Basque Country, suggesting it’s a close sibling of hondarribi beltza, one of the two obscure grapes of Txakolina, but cab franc’s parents are most likely long gone.

I like the idea of the orphan grape, especially considering cabernet franc’s role as an “insurance policy”* in Bordeaux, where it subs in for merlot or cab sauv when the region’s two stars can’t perform. Poor cab franc.

There are several theories as to why/when/how the orphan grape journeyed up the western coast of France to the Loire Valley. I will venture so far as to say it is well suited there, regardless of the conditions surrounding its arrival. It’s a mid-ripening grape that thrives in clay and limestone, producing refreshingly leafy wines. It also does well in sandy soils where more serious, cellar-worthy wines are produced.

Domaine Bernard Baudry is a prime expression of cabernet franc’s success in the Loire Valley. Joined by his son Mattieu, Bernard farms several hectares in Chinon, where the Baudrys are staunch traditionalists who practice organics, harvest by hand, and use natural yeasts to start fermentation.

Their “Domaine” bottling showcases cab franc’s range. Its easily identifiable flavor profile makes it a great starting point for new-world drinkers who want to get into nuanced, old-world wine. Vines are between 30 and 35 years old, planted into a sand-limestone plateau. Fermentation lasts 15 days in concrete tanks, and the wine ages 15 months in concrete and wood. The result is a cool violet wine with notes of black fruit, pepper, smoke, and a mineral finish. Its great structure offers aging potential yet it drinks well young.

Like all great orphan stories, cab franc’s pursuit of a home is only half the tale. A child of the world, perhaps it realizes its full potential not by taking deep root in one particular place, but by spreading the love. Indeed, the grape is enjoying resurgence on the American west coast. And it’s arrived with a cool, new attitude.

I love me some new-world take on old-world grapes, and cab franc is the latest to catch the attention of my forever thirsty palate. Two producers currently have me hooked. First off, you know I love Broc Cellars, and Chris Brockway's Coucou Cabernet Franc is no exception. It’s sleek and slippery. The fruit is undeniably California. Yet the grape remains true to itself, expressing its quintessential vegetal edge.

The other winery I’m digging is Division Winemaking Company out of Portland, OR.  Winemakers Kate Norris and Tom Monroe produce a bistro blend of cabernet franc, gamay noir, côt, and pinot noir called Béton, the French word for concrete. Sporting a map of the Paris Metro on the label, the wine was inspired by the countless glasses of Touraine blends Kate and Tom took down in the city’s iconic bistros.

Division Winemaking Company is a small, up-start winery in Portland, OR. Founded in 2010, Kate and Tom source their fruit, most notably from the Applegate Valley where Herb Quady – one of Oregon’s best growers – tends their cabernet franc. Fermentation starts spontaneously, and some of the cab franc undergoes carbonic maceration while the rest of the grapes are vinified traditionally. As the name suggests, the wine is then aged in concrete.

Like Coucou, Béton is a splashy mélange of old-world core finds new-world wardrobe. It sets itself apart with a darker, more substantial gut – thanks in part to the blending of côt. It’s also much more herbaceous than Coucou, and in this sense, truer to its roots in the Loire.

There are currently only 98 acres of cab franc grown in Oregon (as compared to 3,480 in California and 14,710 in the Loire Valley). We’ll have to wait and see if the orphan grape will find another home in the Beaver State. For now, I’m happy to support its journey and call it a friend.


*Robinson, Jancis, et al. Wine Grapes. Harpercollins Publishers, 2012.