If I can’t get you to drink more wines made of cabernet franc over the next couple of months, then I never will. There are few red wines better at simultaneously expressing serious intent and a playful disposition. There are few red wines better at taking a moderate chill as the thermometer climbs. There are few red wines better with grilled food.

These are only the most obvious of the many reasons that there is no better red wine for summer than a good one made from cab franc.

Cab franc is cool, in many senses of the word. For single-varietal wines, it thrives in cool climates, such as the Loire’s Touraine communes of Saumur-Champigny, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil and Chinon, but also the Friuli region of northern Italy. It is a crucial blending grape in Bordeaux as well, especially the right-bank appellations of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, adding inimitable luster and peppery bite. (Château Cheval Blanc, perhaps the most lauded wine in the world, is mostly cabernet franc with some merlot.)

It ripens on the early side, retaining refreshing acidity in the grape and a light-touch, open-knit texture in the wine. Since the grapes are not packed with natural sugar, they rarely complete fermentation above 13 percent alcohol. Floral, shrubby and mineral touches, rather than engorged fruit, are the primary taste and aroma sensations.

Note how all of the above are in contradistinction to cab franc’s descendant, cabernet sauvignon. (Yes, descendant: Most ampelographers – people who study grapes – agree that the more famous cabernet is in fact the genetic offspring of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc.) Cab sauv is known for high sugar content that converts to lots of alcohol; big, luscious loads of fruit on the palate; strong tannins; an all-or-nothing sensory takeover.

Whoops, I’ve telegraphed my bias already. I just plain do not like cabernet sauvignon. Cabernet sauvignon says: My way or the highway. First comes a blast of dark fruit, then a blast of harsh tannin, then a blast of alcohol – then, eventually, relief. Cab sauv has an excess of everything it has, and doesn’t seem to recognize that there’s a difference between a wine having a finish and having its way with you.


Cabernet franc is sort of like cabernet sauvignon’s back story, the interstitial details that are left out of the mainstream narrative. Cab franc wines usually don’t feel as primary and forthright, but they are satisfying and complex in the same way as a David Mitchell novel or Chris Marker film, moving you in and out of various temporal planes until you can piece the puzzle together on your own.

As such, cab franc requires a little more patience to “get.” It’s slightly intellectual, but only slightly. It’s real-world sexy, instead of cab sauv’s porn fantasy. And just because cab franc is softer and more deft than cab sauv does not mean it’s a lightweight.

The actual flavor profile is formidable. This is, in all honesty, the reason the grape’s fan base has never exploded: Some of what’s in the wines is gorgeous when restricted, but jumps into unpleasant if left to its own devices. These are a certain leafiness, overly pungent green notes and a sharpened-pencil acridity.

But wait, don’t leave yet! The bell-pepper, tomato-leaf, carbon-scorched cab francs that give the grape a bad name are caused by avoidable farming shortcuts. The varietal is both sun-loving and high-yielding, so the vintner must prune both the leaves to let in light and the grapes to concentrate flavor compounds. These actions increase fruit sensation, which is necessary to balance the herbaceous aspects.

Also, stems take longer to ripen than fruit, and so an early-ripening varietal such as cab franc will bring underripe stems. Therefore, careful and thorough de-stemming after harvest is almost always beneficial, though not practiced widely enough.

Sleek, dry, beautifully perfumed, simultaneously gulpable and interesting, with a purity of expression rarely matched by other red wines, cab franc makes abnormally multifaceted wines for normal people. Cheval Blanc and a few other strivers aside, the wines’ luxury is rough-hewn and lightly worn. Light your grill, prep your steaks, toss vegetables with olive oil and salt. Place one of the following bottles (or Bourgueils I’ve written about in the past) in the fridge. A half-hour later, you’ll be as cool as your wine.


The first, most approachable entry might as well be the Eurl de Pallus Messanges Rouge Chinon 2013 ($14.99). It’s so direct and charming, and I just smile every time I drink it, the way I do with excellent light-touch Beaujolais. Red flowers, red fruits, a dab of cinnamon. For food served on skewers.

Chinons from Couly-Dutheil are my go-to for special and delicate. The unoaked La Coulée Automnale 2011 ($22) is like a full day of sunshine: the charm of the rise, then shimmering lilacs in midday, then a faintly darkening sky and a cup of tea as evening comes. The Baronnie Madeleine 2011 ($28), only produced in vintages ripe enough to support a more concentrated expression, is luscious, savory, black, the herbs all toasty.

If you prefer more firmly structured mineral profiles, drink the Luisa Cabernet Franc 2012 ($19) from Friuli. Think of a “modern rustic” piece of furniture, built out of both iron and hardwood. Fresh and curranty, with bursts of pepper. It’s a strong, exciting wine now, but has the guts to age and mellow over the next half-decade.

And now for something completely different, California’s warm Russian River Valley is an unlikely spot for distinctive cab franc. But Acorn Winery is unlikely in several ways. Their Cabernet Franc 2010 ($32), like all Acorn wines a field blend, though the CF makes up 88 percent, is denser and spicier than the others, with warm vanilla and cocoa tones.

It’s so different from the Loire and Italy wines, bearing evidence of American oak aging, that you’ll do a double-take and wonder whether the wine was mislabeled.

Somewhere along the way, though, cab franc’s distinctive fingerprint shows, stylish and bold. It’s a neutral midpoint, a veritable Yalta in the cab wars, between a lover of California cabernet sauvignon willing to compare and contrast and the hater like me, who in the end wants to learn what he’s been missing.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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