By Laurie Jervis, Noozhawk Columnist
As in May, when I focused an entire column on merlot, I’d like to spotlight another single grape varietal: Today, cabernet franc.
Cab franc is similar to merlot in that it’s also a Bordeaux varietal, and is not extensively planted in Santa Barbara County since it thrives with heat, and our region isn’t big on heat.
But cab franc does exist, primarily in some of the region’s long-established, warmer sites, among them the Brander, Buttonwood, Curtis, Foxen (Tinaquaic), Lucas & Lewellen and Happy Canyon vineyards
Karen Steinwachs, winemaker at Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard, has long hosted an annual Franc Fest highlighting Buttonwood’s single varietal cab franc and the blends that contain it.
This year, for the first time, Steinwachs expanded the October event to include at least 10 other producers of cab franc. The event took place adjacent to Buttonwood’s tranquil pond, which is surrounded on three sides by rolling hillsides covered in rows of vines.
While cabernet franc comprises slightly less than 3.5 acres at Buttonwood, the grape varietal is a driving force in Steinwachs’ repertoire there.
Following merlot, it’s the second-most predominant grape in “Trevin,” Buttonwood’s long-standing Bordeaux-based red blend — and is one of my first introductions to the cab franc grape, light-years ago, in 2000.
Last spring, Steinwachs led me through the Buttonwood vineyard block dedicated to cab franc, noting how the grape is one of the last varietals to bud out in spring and fully mature each fall, making it one that needs some coddling.
On Oct. 9, those pouring were winemakers or representatives from Longoria, Carhartt, Lucas & Lewellen, Longoria, Turiya, Brander, Carlson, Roark Wines, Brander and a handful of others.
I spoke to winemaker Chuck Carlson that evening, and in the ensuing weeks tracked down two other winemakers whose lineups also include cabernet franc: Ryan Carr of Carr Vineyards & Winery, and Angela Soleno of Turiya Wines.
Carlson, who for many years worked for Firestone and Curtis wineries and remains familiar with the Curtis estate vineyard — now farmed by Andrew Murray Vineyards — sourced his 2012 Carlson Cabernet Franc from Curtis, as did a handful of other producers pouring wines that evening.
In his tasting notes, Carlson calls the particular Curtis Vineyard block from which he got his 2012 Carlson Cabernet Franc grapes “one of the best” in the Santa Ynez Valley.
“The layout of the (mesa) vineyards, the soil type and the rootsock/clonal selection combine to yield a wine rich in complexity and concentration,” he wrote.
During Franc Fest, Carlson emphasized the prevalence of cabernet franc in greater Santa Barbara County, even though its total planted acreage is substantially less than that devoted to pinot noir and chardonnay.
“If Rhone grapes are our region’s underdogs, then so is cabernet franc,” he told me.
Soleno sources the grapes for her cabernet franc from the small Amivida Vineyard in Santa Margarita, which she describes as close enough to the coast to have a marine influence.
“I like to make what I like to drink, and I love me a good cabernet franc,” she said.
Since Soleno only makes red wines and primarily works with Bordeaux varietals, she calls her use of cab franc “a natural choice.” The grape is one of her single-varietal bottlings, and she also utilizes it to add a feminine quality to her red blends.
Furthermore: “If cabernet sauvignon is known as the ‘king’ of grapes, then I would say cabernet franc is the ‘queen.’ The grape tends to have a beautifully soft mouth feel, not as gripping as that of cab sauv. It’s elegant, fruit driven and somewhat ethereal, carrying a beautiful gracefulness,” she said.
Like Carlson and Soleno, Carr said he loves working with cabernet franc, both in the cellar, for his label, and in the field, as the manager of several vineyard properties.
I asked him why.
“It was one of the first wines I made, so it is a little sentimental for me. The wine produced is such a complex but enjoyable wine.”
Like grenache, cabernet franc grows like a weed, and the shoots and clusters need to be thinned to order to produce an optimal crop.
“Cabernet franc is a strong varietal that likes to produce a big crop. As long as it is farmed properly, and you control the crop size, it will produce complex and delicious wines,” Carr said.
The flavor of the cabernet franc grape is typically described as vegetative or herbaceous, especially when it is not fully ripened.
“We grow it in the east end of the Santa Ynez Valley, where the summer days are hot and we can ripen the fruit to the balanced levels we like to see,” Carr noted.
The bell pepper tone inherent in cabernet franc grapes isn’t totally a bad thing, he said.
“The influence of this (herbaceous) characteristic is the key to good cabernet franc. When it’s done right, there’s only the hint of bell pepper, followed by rich flavors of blueberries, cocoa and coffee. But when cabernet franc is poorly done, bell pepper is all you can taste.”
Carr said that Santa Barbara County includes about 250 acres of cabernet franc.
I’ve touched upon just a handful of producers who bottle cabernet franc. Visit the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association website for information about others who also do.
Open a bottle with friends, and pair with hard cheeses, dark chocolate and main dishes of enchiladas or pork with sautéed mushrooms.