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Cabernet Franc – The Unsung Hero

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Everyone is familiar with Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the most widely planted varieties in the world, but what of its parent, Cabernet Franc? How often do you see a bottle of Cabernet Franc on the shelves and would you recognize it as such if you did? Yet Cabernet Franc is one of the world’s 20 most planted varieties.

Cabernet Franc is widely planted in Bordeaux, representing around 10 percent of the vineyard area. But there it is generally blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, which is often a kind of insurance policy since it ripens a week earlier than its more powerful offspring and is less susceptible to poor weather during the harvest. It’s also cultivated all along the Loire, making light, early-maturing reds. Yet you won’t find it labelled as Cabernet Franc, you’ll find it under the French appellations of Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil, Chinon, etc. It’s also found in Italy, especially in Veneto and Friuli, but it’s often produced from high-yielding vines and may have the prominent herbaceous notes you find in underripe Cabernet Sauvignon. What’s more, many of the vines have actually been found to be Carmenère! In Bolgheri and Maremma, it yields rich, yet elegant, complex wines; however, they are also blended or often sold with ’fantasy names’ such as ’Dedicato a Walter’.

Winemakers in the south of Hungary, however, are taking Cabernet Franc very seriously. It was first known in Hungary at the beginning of the 20th century but has become more widely planted since the 1960s. In fact, the region of Villány is now betting on the variety as their regional flagship and have even relabeled, rightly or wrongly, their local take on it as ’Villányi Franc’. Although Portugieser was Villány’s emblematic, historic variety, it produces a light wine without much tannin. Such wines are not particularly trendy at the moment, so the more concentrated, tannic Cabernet Franc fit the bill perfectly. But why Cabernet Franc rather than its Bordeaux blending partners Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot (which are both also widely planted)?

In 2000, Michael Broadbent wrote in the UK magazine Decanter that Cabernet Franc “comes into its element” here and that it had found its true home in Villány. The Villány winemakers naturally picked up on this and since then the variety has grown in popularity and now represents more than 15 percent of the vineyard area. The searing heat in Villány and its ‘devil’s punch bowl’ mean that the variety thrives and ripens reliably every year, more so than Cabernet Sauvignon. In spring 2014, many of the region’s winemakers got together and decided to promote what was clearly becoming its flagship variety. They now also organize an annual conference in November called Franc&Franc, where producers, journalists and other experts meet to taste and discuss the future of the variety. Each year they invite guests from other regions producing Cabernet Franc, such as the Loire, northeast Italy and, this year, the new world. The following day, the public descends on Villány to tour the wineries and taste plenty of Villányi Franc.

Cabernet Franc has small to medium-sized bunches and small, dark blue berries with bloom and generally makes medium-bodied fruity red wines with ripe tannins, marked fragrance, and some of the herbaceous notes found in unripe Cabernet Sauvignon. It has delightful acidity and elegant structure, making it perfect to produce long-lived wines. Oz Clarke, always eloquent, writes that the variety “has an unmistakable and ridiculously appetizing flavor of raspberries, pebbles washed clean by pure spring water, and a refreshing tang of blackcurrant leaves”.

The style in hot Villány is rich and powerful with plenty of warm, ripe fruit. It is generally quite oaky, especially the premium and super premium versions, while the Classicus wines are lighter and fresher with less evident oak. The cooler subregion of Siklos generally produces more restrained, elegant wines. Not only winemakers are taking it seriously, but consumers and experts love it too, with numerous Villányi Franc wines scoring highly in any Top 100 rankings in Hungary.

The slightly cooler region of Szekszárd also produces powerful yet elegant Cabernet Franc worth seeking out. The variety also thrives in more northerly Eger, where very elegant wines can be produced. In Eger, Cabernet Franc also frequently ends up in the Bikavér blends.

Cabernet Franc makes a good match for traditional roast meats and game. Pair it with crisp duck or goose and red cabbage, and its fresh acidity will cut through the fat nicely. You could even try it with a dark chocolate dessert. Or simply sip on its own!

photo credit: Lefteris Papaulakis