Cabernet franc is often thought of as sort of a little brother to king cabernet sauvignon. Where one is planted, you’ll typically find the other. It’s this way in its native Bordeaux, and it’s this way in Washington state.
One reason for this is because cabernet franc typically has gentler tannins, so blending it with cab can make a wine smoother. In Washington, cab franc has the added benefit of being winter hardy, so it can handle the Columbia Valley’s occasional harsh winters better than, say, the more tender merlot.
We are seeing a lot more cabernet franc being bottled as a stand-alone wine, something that we find delightful because the resulting wines are often complex and delicious, revealing classic notes of plum, blackberry and fresh herbs.
In Washington, it remains a minor grape, as just 4,300 tons out of more than 250,000 harvested last fall were cabernet franc. It’s a similar story in Oregon, where most of it is planted in the Rogue Valley. Production fell to just 389 tons, according to the 2015 industry census, however its average price per ton of $2,267 was just behind pinot noir ($2,280).
And while it’s not easy to find cabernet franc bottled on its own in the Northwest, the search should be rewarding. Here are a few examples that may turn you into a Francophile. Inquire at your favorite wine shop or contact the wineries directly.
Convergence Zone Cellars 2013 Downburst Cabernet Franc, Red Mountain, $26: Western Washington vintner Scott Greenberg works with Red Mountain pioneers Kiona Vineyard for his cab franc. There’s a theme of richness throughout, starting with a nose of strawberry fruit leather, black cherry and raspberry with moist earth. Massive black cherry, plum and vanilla flavors mix with round tannins, leading to a big and complex finish of toast, mocha and mint. (14.4 percent alcohol)
Domanico Cellars 2013 Domanico Vineyard La Fille Estate Cabernet Franc, Yakima Valley, $32: Grower/winemaker Jason Domanico credits his wife, Jill, as the winemaker for their latest cabernet franc. That’s why it’s named La Fille, which translates to “the girl.” She made the picking decision from their vineyard, a choice that was 10 days later than Jason initially wanted. It’s floral, herbal and fruity, opening with blueberry, cola and mocha with green peppercorn notes. Juicy raspberry acidity, soft tannins and dark cassis finish make this quite approachable and ready to enjoy with pork or other rich dishes. (14.2%)
Leah Jørgensen Cellars 2014 Clos Rogue Valley Reserve Cabernet Franc, Southern Oregon, $50: Portland vintner Leah Jorgensen continues to grow her following by producing several expressions of cabernet franc from the Rogue Valley. This is a showy cab franc as sweet cherry, blueberry and dusty raspberry aromas include just a hint of dried herbs. Inside, it’s vibrant and refreshing as boysenberry and cassis take the lead on the palate. There’s a pleasing overlay of oak that makes for a nicely balanced finish of milk chocolate, black currant, graham cracker crust and black pepper. (14.8%)
Owen Roe 2014 Rosa Mystica Cabernet Franc, Yakima Valley, $28: Rosa Mystica is a reference to the Virgin Mary, and this cabernet franc by David O’Reilly is heavenly, starting with aromas of boysenberry jam, sugared plum, chocolate and black licorice. On the palate, it’s reminiscent of black cherry and black currants with fine-grained blackberry seed tannins that don’t get in the way of its fruit-forward approach and beautifully long finish. This won a unanimous double gold medal and best cabernet franc at last fall’s Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition. (14.1%)
Armstrong Family Winery 2014 Dineen Vineyard Fronk Cabernet Franc, Yakima Valley, $32: Pat Dineen and the Rawn brothers farm these 87 acres in the Rattlesnake Hills for more than 30 wineries in Washington state, and their cabernet franc is a particular favorite of Jennifer Armstrong. Her husband, Tim, allows for the Bordeaux grape’s charming dried herbs to peek out behind the aromas of Marionberry pie, cinnamon toast and charcuterie. Inside, mouthfilling dark cherries, blackberry and juicy red currant flavors pick up blueberry skin tannins, a scrape of toast and a nibble of celery seed in the finish. (14.9%)
Plain Cellars 2013 Cabernet Franc, Yakima Valley, $28: Winemaker Garrett Grubbs helped put this Leavenworth winery on the map, thanks to his deft touch with seemingly every red variety. This elegant and classic cabernet franc is loaded with aromas and flavors, starting with notes of toast, mocha, wheat Chex and cherry. On the palate, flavors of pomegranate, cranberry and cherry cola meld with notes of coffee and brown spices. It’s all backed by modest tannins that give way to a memorable finish. (13.7%)
Seven Bridges Winery 2013 Seven Hills Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Valley, $38: Owner/winemaker Bob Switzer in Portland focuses much of the attention for his red program at Seven Bridges on Seven Hills Vineyard, across the state in Milton-Freewater, Oregon. Black cherry and blackberry aromas offer charming herbal notes and complexity of dusty minerality. There’s creaminess to the mouth feel of dark cherry and pomegranate, presenting a medium structure and that leads to a long supple finish.(14.8%)