It is not easy to deliver a concise and definitive synopsis of Cabernet Franc. Some would describe the red grape variety as a close relative of Merlot; relatively soft and accessible, it has less tannin than Cabernet Sauvignon and consequently lacks the imposing structure of Bordeaux’s number-one grape. Yet Cabernet Franc is more resistant to cold winters than Merlot and tends to have more perfume and freshness, even when grown in warm climates. In addition, the grape shares many of Cabernet Sauvignon’s aroma and phenolic compounds, although it lacks the deep color of its genetic offspring. Ultimately, Cabernet Franc refuses to be pigeonholed.
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It is also a grape that continues to divide opinion. In addition to being a common sight in the Right Bank in Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc is widely planted in the Loire, with a burgeoning profile in Italy, South America, California, Australia, New Zealand, and Washington State. However, ironically, some of its strongest detractors are in Bordeaux, where it has been maligned for its susceptibility to grapevine diseases and rot during inclement weather. There are even those who consider Cabernet Franc a second-division variety. “In comparison to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc lacks structure, density, and length. Some people argue that the grape offers elegance. Still, I find many of the wines to be dilute and second-rate when compared to Sauvignon,” said the outspoken Matthieu Bordes last year, directeur général at Chateau Lagrange.
“There is a surfeit of poor-quality clones of the variety, planted in the 1970s. Winemakers realize that Cabernet Sauvignon will always produce better wines,” he added. But the grape also has its share of acolytes, not least the de Bouard family of Chateau Angelus. Moreover, its role in the wider Bordeaux region continues to be hotly debated, as Cabernet Franc makes the transition from playing a (relatively) minor role to becoming a key blending partner in the Right Bank.
History and viticulture
Cabernet Franc has played a supporting role in the wines of Bordeaux for centuries. Even today, the variety rarely dominates any famous wine in Bordeaux, although the legendary estates Cheval Blanc and Ausone typically use at least 40% Cabernet Franc in their signature blends. Nevertheless, Cabernet Franc has flourished as an important (but not domineering) part of Bordeaux’s viticultural landscape since the late 18th century. However, it has probably been present in the Loire Valley for far longer. It remains a key grape variety in several Loire appellations, including Anjou, Chinon, Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny.
Viticulturists believe that Cabernet Franc originated in northwest France, transported to the vineyards of the Right Bank in the 1600s by one Cardinal Richelieu. The Cardinal is said to have ‘borrowed’ vine cuttings from the Abbey of Bourgueil in the Loire; by the mid-1800s, the grape was prolific across Bordeaux, particularly east of the Dordogne. In the 19th century, the French writer Armand d’Armailhacq released a seminal book on the grape varieties of the Medoc. It included numerous references to ‘Gros Cabernet,’ which we presume to be Cabernet Franc. The grape was also widely referred to as Bouchet and found throughout the vineyards of Fronsac, Pomerol, and Saint-Emilion. Cabernet Franc’s heyday arrived in the early 20th century; vine for vine enjoyed the same status as Cabernet Sauvignon, with nearly equal amounts of land dedicated to growing these two grapes. Sadly, its popularity declined towards the end of the 1900s, as plantings of Merlot and indeed Cabernet Sauvignon increased.
Agronomists have long believed that Cabernet Franc is prone to mutation – a theory confirmed by scientists in 1997. After undertaking a DNA study of the grape, they discovered that Cabernet Franc was a progenitor of Cabernet Sauvignon, after the variety crossed with Sauvignon Blanc sometime in the past. It has also been proven that Merlot and Carmenere owe their parentage to the grape.
But is Cabernet Franc a challenging or forgiving variety to grow? It very much depends whom you ask; Chateau Angelus’ MD Stephanie de Bouard is very proud of the estates’ Cabernet Franc vines, many of which are over 60 years old. However, she believes that if cropped at low yields, Cabernet Franc can produce “beautiful and fragrant wines,” adding that it is necessary to cultivate the variety on soils “with substantial clay but not above 10% to 20%.” Many of the best wines of Saint-Emilion benefit from the freshness and vigor inherent to this complex grape.
That said, Cabernet Franc is not easy to cultivate. Once used as an insurance policy in the Medoc against unripe Cabernet Sauvignon (a common hazard in cool vintages), Cabernet Franc buds and ripens about a week earlier than its offspring. As a result, coulure can be an issue in cold and wet years. This is when the infant flowers drop off or fail to develop during the flowing season, usually in June. In addition, it is susceptible to rot if rain arrives at harvest time, partly due to its relatively thin skins and small berries. Powdery and downy mildew also cause growers no end of headaches if the weather turns inclement in the summer. If the grape is to reach satisfactory ripeness levels, then it requires plenty of sunshine, well-drained soils, and an adequate supply of moisture.
Above all, controlling yield is vital. Unripe or overcropped Cabernet Franc is extremely unappealing, suffering from a distinctly vegetal and ‘green’ flavor profile. In addition, many believe that the vines must be at least 15 years old to produce top-quality fruit, while young vines are prone to yielding berries with astringent tannins. To get the best out of Cabernet Franc requires patience, superior terroir, and great skill in the winery. To quote Ornellaia’s chief winemaker Axel Heinz: “Cabernet Franc can produce the most amazing wines, but it is a rather demanding variety, comparable in a way to Pinot Noir or Sangiovese. It is either brilliant or a failure, with little option in between.”
Aficionados of Cabernet Franc are in complete agreement; the variety can shine as a mono-varietal style of wine if the raw materials are first-rate. Sadly, Cabernet Franc is seldom encountered as a standalone wine in Bordeaux, although many brilliant examples exist in the Loire – and indeed in the New World. Yet winemakers in certain appellations in Bordeaux place a high value on Cabernet Franc’s ability to contribute acidity, perfume, and texture to the blends that have come to typify the wider region. For example, in Saint-Emilion, it has long been accepted that Cabernet Franc has more freshness and complexity than Merlot, making it a welcome addition to the Merlot-dominant blends of the appellation.
Approaches vary between the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. The generally moderate climate of the Touraine region leads to red wines with moderate alcohol, tannin, and extract, requiring a gentle approach in the winery. Yet these fragrant wines demonstrate that lightness of body does not necessarily equate to a lack of flavor or intensity. Nevertheless, few winemakers in the Loire wish to produce heavy or extracted red wines from such fine raw materials. Typically after the grapes are crushed and destemmed, a relatively warm fermentation and short maceration are carried out, as Loire vignerons do not seek a deep color and an abundance of structure. The best wines are aged in used oak vats or barrels for three years. New barrique is rarely used, although a small percentage of the best cuvees may be matured in a percentage of new wood.
However, Bordeaux winemakers are not so reticent about producing middle-weight, powerful wines (in the sense of aroma and flavor intensity) from Cabernet Franc. They aim to strike a balance between getting the most out of the grape without extracting too much potentially harsh tannin. After sorting and destemming, crushed grapes are increasingly subject to a ‘cold soak’ or pre-fermentation maceration. This technique delays the onset of fermentation by chilling the must to a very low temperature, thereby slowly extracting color and tannin. Precise, temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel is standard practice in many leading estates. However, winemakers are also rediscovering the value of using wooden vats to diminish reduced aromas and flavors in the wine.
The Burgundian fermentation method of pigeage is becoming more fashionable in Bordeaux, as it extracts deeper color than the traditional pump-over method. Yet Cabernet Franc can benefit from increased exposure to air; as the fermenting juice is sprayed over the cap, it is exposed to oxygen, helping to lower the risk of reduction. In a similar vein, micro-oxygenation is used to soften the occasionally astringent tannins that can be a feature of Cabernet Franc produced in cooler vintages. It involves inserting controlled amounts of oxygen into the fermenting must at specific times during the process.
After a relatively short maceration (generally under ten days), the wine will be pressed and allowed to settle before being matured in wood. Once again, the percentage of new wood varies from chateau to chateau, albeit the tide is turning against 100% new barrique.
Cabernet Franc’s past, present, and future in Bordeaux
Cabernet Franc is a far more important variety for many growers in Saint-Emilion than Cabernet Sauvignon. Today it accounts for some 25 percent of total plantings – it was the dominant variety before phylloxera destroyed Bordeaux’s vineyards in the 19th century. Merlot gained ground when the vineyards were replanted and grafted onto American rootstock, simply because it is easier to cultivate. Cabernet Franc needs conditions to be perfect – just the right amount of heat, water, and clay in the soil. The vines must be of a certain age, and yields must be kept low. Fortunately, Saint-Emilion is very much marked by its clay/limestone and loamy terroir, which suits Cabernet Franc down to the ground. Cabernet Sauvignon generally struggles to ripen in the Right Bank, which is why Cabernet Franc tends to assume a role of far greater importance in the Dordogne.
Vineyards outside Saint Emillion
The magnificent wines of Cheval Blanc demonstrate that a Cabernet Franc-dominant blend can equal the First Growths of the Medoc in depth, complexity, and refinement. The old parcels of Cabernet Franc, for which Cheval Blanc is so noted, give the Grand Vin its unrivaled structure, finesse, and intoxicating perfume. Accounting for almost 60% of the final blend in certain vintages, the 1998 Cheval Blanc we sampled last year stole the show at a blind tasting. It was spellbinding, a heady concoction of ripeness, depth, elegance, and length. A sumptuous bouquet of damson, graphite, chocolate, and tobacco gave way to a rich palate defined by red and black fruit, backed up by textbook freshness and acidity. There was a nervous ‘tension ‘to the wine, the acid line holding together many constituent elements in perfect harmony. If Cheval Blanc can achieve such heights with Cabernet Franc playing the central role, then surely other chateaux can follow its example. The grape is often blended into the wines of Pomerol, albeit it generally assumes a lesser role, with 80-90% Merlot wines being far from uncommon. It is also widely used in the blends of Fronsac and Canon Fronsac.
Unfortunately, its position in the Medoc remains precarious. Cabernet Franc seems to boast more critics than supporters, the former represented by Chateau Lagrange’s Matthieu Bordes. It now accounts for less than 4% of total plantings in the Medoc, compared to over 15% in the Right Bank. Moreover, several high profile Left Bank chateaux have reduced their volume of Cabernet Franc in the vineyards, including Leoville Barton, Haut Bailly, Chateau Olivier, and Chateau Talbot. The central and persuasive argument is that the vast majority of the terroir in the Left Bank is not ideally suited to growing this mercurial variety. The late consultant and professor Denis Dubourdieu recommended that some of his clients, such as Haut Bailly, rip up their Cabernet Franc.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that ripe Cabernet Franc can enhance the blends of the Medoc and Pessac-Leognan, adding perfume and finesse. But it is equally true that the variety is probably more suited to the terroir of the Right Bank. A notable exception is Chateau du Tertre in Margaux, which boasts an exceptional plot of old Cabernet Franc vines that yield magnificent quality fruit.
Meanwhile, many predict a bright future for Cabernet Franc in the vineyards that flank the Dordogne. A growing firmament of estates are planting more of the variety, mindful of the rising alcohol levels that come so naturally to Merlot grown in hotter temperatures. This is not something they generally desire, as Stephanie Barousse, deputy CEO Chateau de la Dauphine, explained in 2021. “Over the past few vintages, we’ve been seeing Merlot wines with 15 percent alcohol,” said Barousse.
If temperatures continue to rise and winegrowers are forced to adapt. In that case, it is not inconceivable that Cabernet Franc may supplant Merlot in the future, becoming the key variety of the Right Bank. Naturally, some would celebrate this paradigm shift, while others would lament. But the naysayers should remember that Cabernet Franc can produce exquisite and ethereal red wines if handled correctly.