Tasting Wine: The other cabernet is no second fiddle

In the Loire Valley, when you say “cabernet” it is assumed that you are referring not to cabernet sauvignon but to cabernet franc, one of the genetic parents of cabernet sauvignon. Arguably the most important of the secondary Bordeaux grapes (merlot and cabernet sauvignon being the primaries), cabernet franc is probably from northern France, possibly Brittany, and it is widely planted in the Loire.

My first real introduction to cabernet franc was at a tasting at a friend’s studio apartment in the East Village in 1990. We had some of the greatest examples of cabernet franc made, including Château Cheval Blanc from Bordeaux and Quintarelli’s Alzero from the Veneto, as well as some less expensive wines such as the Cosentino cabernet franc from California (no longer made) and the Gristina from Long Island. I was hooked.

Cabernet franc is not as lush as cabernet sauvignon, but it tends to have more acidity, subtlety and a distinctly spicy character of pepper and tobacco. It is grown in numerous regions, from northern Italy to California. Wines from cooler climates such as the Loire usually have greater spice, while those from warmer areas have more fruit. Chinon, an appellation in the Loire Valley, is usually credited as rendering the most complex examples of this grape.

You can spend big bucks for wines such as Château Cheval Blanc, but you can also pay a lot less and get fantastic and interesting wines made from this grape. Here are three of my favorites.

Château Soucherie Anjou Rouge, 2006 (Loire Valley, France): Anjou is next to Touraine, the area in the Loire that is best known for cabernet franc. However, some of the wines here give Chinon and Bourgueil a bit of a challenge. Château Soucherie is an amazing estate that is best known for its white wines made from chenin blanc. What is so interesting about this unoaked Anjou rouge is that the almond-oil, marzipan quality of the area’s white wines sneaks into this red wine as well, adding another dimension to this already multifaceted character. With cedar, dried flowers, black pepper and cherry fruit, this is a very generous wine, especially for the cost. Suggested retail: $15

Batic Cabernet Franc, 2003 (Vipavska Valley, Slovenia): I know I’ve written about Batic Cabernet Franc before in this column, but it is worth another mention. Ivan Batic is one of the top winemakers in Slovenia, a country that is on the rise in the wine world. He makes one of the most interesting pinot gris wines in the world, and his cabernet franc remains among the best I’ve tried. Although this wine is more than four years old, it has just really come into its own, showing a good level of spice, with moderate fruit intensity and an underlying tobacco, minerally earthiness. Suggested retail: $25

J. Runquist Cabernet Franc, 2006 (Clarksburg): This is really juicy cabernet franc, a crowd-pleaser if you will. It is from Clarksburg, and as such is pretty typical of warmer climate cabernet franc. Medium-bodied with tobacco, blackberry and toasty oak. A definite contrast to the others, but for the style it is very well made. Suggested retail: $20

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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