To speak of Cabernet Franc as a novelty is a mistake. Any wine lover should know that it is one of the oldest grapes in the world. It has even been credited with being one of two parents of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Consumers are beginning to accept Cabernet Franc as a varietal in regions that are betting on its expression as a differential.
In France, where it has been cultivated for centuries, it shines in the vineyards of the Loire Valley, especially in the Chinon and Anjou AOC, while in Bordeaux it is a key piece of the great wines of Saint Emilion, in general combined with Merlot. In both regions, no one can deny the importance of Franc, although consumers know little of its existence, since these wines are sought out at the mere mention of their origin.
However, in Italy some Supertoscanos have taken to mentioning it on their labels. The same is happening in some areas of the New World, among them Argentina, which is responsible for taking it to the forefront of international publications. Its cultivation is also growing in the United States, particularly in Finger Lakes, and also in Chile, Australia and South Africa.
The Franc of the Andes
Logically, Argentina specialises in the cultivation of Cabernet Franc along the Andes mountain range, which has become the first differential offered by high altitude terroirs. Although the arrival of the first vines of this varietal on Argentine soil occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century, for decades it was mixed in the vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and was part of a style of field blend wines.
But the history of Cabernet Franc, as we know it today, began in the 1990s, when the winemaker Roberto de la Motta promoted the importation of high quality genetic material from France. From then on, the cultivation of Franc grew slowly to be used as a blending component, while the hectares of Malbec grew by thousands each year. Today, Argentina has just 1,150 hectares of Franc, versus the 33,000 hectares it covers in France.
However, this varietal already stands out in more than one Argentine region. The world has begun to recognise the quality of the Cabernet Franc of these lands. Valle de Uco and Luján de Cuyo are undoubtedly the regions that lead the race, while Patagonia, the Calchaquí Valley (Salta) and Pedernal Valley (San Juan) have much potential to discover.
Why we like the Cabernet Franc so much
Alejandro Vigil, chief winemaker of Catena Zapata, is an authoritative voice to explain how the varietal seduces us, since his Gran Enemigo Cabernet Franc Gualtallary 2013 is the only one to achieve 100 points from Wine Advocate, in addition to obtaining a Gold Medal in the last Decanter Wine Awards along with two other labels, Los Chacayes and El Cepillo, made with the same grape. Vigil believes that “Cabernet Franc has several advantages compared to Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon. On one hand, it is easier to drink and offers exotic aromas that seduce consumers and tasters alike. On the other, it is a very transparent grape and expresses its terroir amazingly well. It’s the combination of taste, sense of place and character which makes it unique.“
As for regions, Cabernet Franc stands out in areas of high altitude and, therefore, colder areas, such as Gualtallary and El Cepillo, in the Uco Valley, or Pedernal, in San Juan. But it also excels in areas where there is good maturation, such as Los Chacayes and Paraje Altamira, in Uco, and Agrelo, in Luján de Cuyo, among the favourites of the lesser expert.
In contrast to Bordeaux Blends or the varietals of Cabernet Franc de Chinon, to mention two world famous styles, in Argentina the Franc is a deep wine, with a concentrated violet colour and very expressive, with aromas of red and black fruits, wild herbs and spices. On the palate, it is voluptuous with good tension and firm tannins, which mean great ageing potential. Many of the 2016 harvest stand out, because it was a fresh, rainy year which gave life to lighter, refreshing wines.
Paz Levinson, the renowned Argentine sommelier, based in France explained, “in Argentina, the Cabernet Franc is unique, it maintains a good balance between the purity of the Loire and the structure of Bordeaux. It is a unique combination, where the acidity is medium high, the fruit very clear and at just the right point of maturity with wild notes of thyme and jarilla. They are impact wines in the mouth. The good thing is that they don’t seem like Loire or Saint Emilion wines, instead they have something from both these regions that displays their own charisma”.
Ones to look out for are, Andeluna Pasionado 2016, Rutini Single Vineyard Gualtallary 2016, Polígonos del Valle de Uco Paraje Altamira 2018, Rompecabezas 2017, Zorzal Pintao 2013, Kaiken Obertura 2014, Bramare Chañares Estate 2015, Riccitelli Viñedos de Montaña 2015 and Pulenta Gran Cabernet Franc XI 2015.
The enthusiasm for these wines is such that many producers have been encouraged to predict a future similar to that of Malbec, although experts like Alejandro Vigil call for calm: “Cabernet Franc has a lot of potential, there is no doubt, but it is difficult for it to become a similar phenomenon. With Malbec we still have a lot to do, and the best is yet to come.”