These days, whenever I mention that I picked up a bottle of Cabernet Franc during one of my tasting trips, I always get a knowing nod of approval from my fellow wine enthusiasts. Cabernet Franc is definitely gaining attention among American consumers, and it has slowly begun to emerge as more than just a mere blending grape for Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ve pondered Cabernet Franc’s recent rise in popularity, and have developed a theory regarding the varietal’s growing niche within the American market: Over the past 30 years, U.S. consumers have come to accept Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as two of the standards among fine red wine.
Both varietals, along with Pinot Noir, will always be the front-runners among reds. Pedigree, history, and tradition make this an immutable fact. Still, the adventurous consumer will continue to look elsewhere for new tastes and values. And since Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have already been embraced by the masses (and can fetch top prices), the lesser-known Bordeaux varietals, such as Cabernet Franc, have now become the new frontier.
As a devoted bargain hunter, I’ve searched for Cabernet Franc among dozens of wineries throughout the Napa Valley, and have discovered many noteworthy wines. Some of these wines present better values than others, and I have discovered strong offerings from Del Dotto, Crocker & Starr, Robert Sinskey, Vineyard 29, Arger-Martucci and Rubicon. Among the best of these wines, however, are the Cabernet Francs from Lang & Reed, a small St. Helena operation that fills a critical niche within the American market. Lang & Reed devotes its entire production to Cabernet Franc, offering both an early release, their North Coast, and a reserve release, their Premier Etage. The North Coast Cabernet Franc is set to be bottled in June, and the winery will produce less than 3,000 cases of the 2006 vintage.
I tracked down John Skupny, the founder and winemaker of Lang & Reed, to discuss the winery’s current North Coast bottling and to get his insight on Cab Franc in general. Lang & Reed has been producing Cab Franc since 1996, and their wines have earned consistently high marks among the wine community. I met with Skupny at his St. Helena office last month, where we tasted wine during a leisurely Saturday afternoon. Skupny is an affable gentleman with a wealth of winemaking knowledge, who has been making wine (either at home or professionally) since the early 1980s. The following Q&A features a few highlights from our conversation.
So, what sets Cabernet Franc apart from the other red varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot?
Cabernet Franc is generally a more delicate grape and more fickle. It’s kind of the chameleon of the Bordeaux red. It’s willing to take on anything you bring to it. If you bring Merlot to it, it gets big, round and soft. If you blend it with Cabernet Sauvignon, it will often add structure and tannin to the blend.
Cabernet Franc makes Cabernet Sauvignon taste more like Cabernet Sauvignon. But I don’t think Cabernet Franc will ever get to the critical mass that something like Cabernet Sauvignon has, or even in a populous way, that Merlot has. It’s a little eclectic. For people who like Cabernet Franc, it’s sort of like the Sauvignon Blanc lovers versus the Chardonnay drinkers.
That’s a good analogy. Sauvignon Blanc has some ardent fans, although they’re much fewer in number than Chardonnay drinkers.
Ironically, they’re genetically fairly close, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. They’re actually the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon, which resulted from an accidental cross of the two grapes – or it could’ve been on purpose, nobody really knows. Cabernet Sauvignon is only about four or five hundred years old, and one has to assume that the ancient writings about Cabernet in the singular actually refer to Cabernet Franc. Being an ancient varietal, it even responds as such. Looking at the pantheon of grapes, Pinot Noir is also an ancient varietal, very adaptable, but also very fickle.
When did you make your first vintage of Cab Franc?
With Lang & Reed, we made the first prototype in 1993, and in 1996, we started commercial production. The idea with the North Coast release was to create a Cabernet Franc that had an early-to-market aspect to it, that didn’t take itself outrageously seriously, that was drinkable, but not simple. I wanted it as flashy and dynamic as a young, frothy Beaujolais, but I didn’t want it to have a two-month lifespan in the marketplace. I knew Cabernet Franc had the make-up to satisfy that. If you look at the Loire models, the producers who make Cabernet Franc make an early-to-market red, and they’re the café wines in Paris. But they also concentrate on making more serious interpretations. We do that our Premier Etage – that’s our “reserve” wine for lack of a better word.
You had mentioned that you’re bottling your early release in June. Where do you source your grapes for the North Coast version?
I’ve made a shift over the last three years. The majority of the new release grapes come from Lake County. That’s because there has always been a finite amount of Cab Franc in Napa Valley. When I started in 1996 there was about 900 acres, now there’s 1100 acres.
That’s not exactly and explosion in plantings, all things considered.
No, but there has been an explosion in price. Because we’re not making a $50 bottle from these particular grapes, it relegated me to become sort of a bottom feeder within Napa, and I didn’t want to be in that position. I wanted to find good, sound fruit and be able to discuss with the growers how we can make it better for what I’m trying to do. Lake County I think is dynamite. Sauvignon Blanc grows so well up there, it makes sense that Cabernet Franc would perform well also.
Do you have contracts with several growers up there, or is there one main vineyard you’re dealing with?
I’m sourcing grapes from a couple vineyards up there -- one is called High Chaparral, which is on the west side of Clear Lake, by Kelseyville, on a flat plateau at about 2300 feet, with red soils. The High Chaparral vineyard was planted in 1981, and it’s distinguished by the fact that it’s planted own its own roots. It’s the only non-grafted vineyard I’ve ever worked with. This year, I’m going to take a couple rows and keep them separate and see if I can make a qualitative statement about non-grafted versus grafted vines.
As Cab Franc has become more popular, has it become necessary to search for more and more different sources of fruit?
I’ve always used the idea of multiple vineyards, particularly for our early release wine. With winemaking, you can take a single vineyard and have multiple varietals in it, and create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts, or you can take a single varietal from different soil types throughout the valley and also come up with something more complete. Also, by buying fruit from different sources, I’m not beholden to anyone economically. If the grower suddenly decides to start his own winery, then I’m not out of luck.
What are some of the basic specifications you try to achieve at harvest time for your North Coast release?
I like to pick between 23.5 and 24.5 brix – that’s sort of my zone. I think that at higher sugars, you tend to bake the varietal characteristic out of everything. Unfortunately, I think that’s one of the maladies of some wines being produced today. I buck a trend a little bit from what I ask of my growers, and they’re a little surprised. We harvest the grapes early in the day because it’s the nature of the beast. With the North Coast release, I’ve never been fanatical about the grapes coming in really cold because I like fermentation to start pretty quickly.
In what ways, if any, do you guide the fermentation?
I use a selection of different designer yeasts. The real workhorse is called #2056, which is a Rhone isolate, culled from the area that Cote du Rhones are produced. It makes a sort of up-front, slightly lighter styling, and it brings up a real nice spiciness. A lot of people find a pepper characteristic coming from the wines, and that’s not necessarily an inherent thing in Cabernet Franc.
So with a lighter styling, you also take a lighter approach with the oak?
With the North Coast release I use five- to six-year-old French barrels. I learned really early on that I didn’t need to do much tannin exchange. Having learned my creed from Cabernet Sauvignon, it took going to my Pinot Noir confreres to understand how to be a little more deft at hand with everything. That drove me to use slightly more seasoned barrels. I only buy barrels from wineries that I like, and that I know have good housekeeping. All the wines for the early release are aged eight to nine months in the barrel, and I bottle it in either June, July or August. Some people in the market are nervous about a wine that is just one year old, but that’s the style, and I like it that way. I like this wine fresh and young. And the wine changes dramatically in the first year, which is amazing to watch. It loses its baby fat after eight or nine months as the carbonic aromas dissipate.
What is your approach in terms of filtration?
I do filter now, but I didn’t originally. It wasn’t philosophical; it was just that up to a point, I didn’t need it. Then in 1998 and 1999, I started to get a fair amount of Brettanomyces bloom every now and then. Those are actually the vintages where buyers of French wines really like them! I don’t mind a little corruption, but I feel that the 1998 went awry on me. From that point on, I really tried to understand filtration, and to do it as lightly as possible, just to make sure the wine doesn’t have any bugs before it goes into the bottle. I don’t produce a huge volume, so what little I lose in flavor and profile I gain in security.
Being a winemaker for so long, how does the art versus the science of winemaking now come into effect for your wines?
I learned that there’s a balance between the art and science. If you develop a good taste memory, that’s also an important thing. When I do my blending, my wife Tracey is always included. She and I have both been in the wine business for an equal time. I spread butcher paper over our dining room table, and then I bring in all the cuvees and different components. I build two or three potential blends. Then I call her in to taste them blindly, and she always nails it. She hasn’t followed these wines from the beginning – she only sees them occasionally – so she doesn’t have any prejudices about what I might’ve done wrong this year. We taste the blends against a control wine, not to necessarily match it, but get within a target range of it. And she can always pick the proper one.