Cabernet Franc: Talking with John Skupny of Lang & Reed

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.

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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.

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