Cabernet Franc Blind Tasting Showdown

You might say that Cabernet Franc is a grape that ‘gets around’ in more ways than one.

First off, it’s the most planted wine grape in Virginia. Just over 1,000 acres of Cabernet Franc is grown in the state – slightly more than Chardonnay and leaps and bounds more acreage than any other red varietal.

Second, Cabernet Franc is one of the parents Cabernet Sauvignon. Back in the 17th century, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc got feisty in a French vineyard and produced an offspring which took parts of both parents’ names. Now, Cabernet Sauvignon is the world’s most popular grape varietal.

Internationally, Cabernet Franc is better known as a supporting player in red blends; often paired with any combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot or sometimes Malbec (aka; the five Noble Grapes of Bordeaux). Bordeaux particularly relies on it during cool weather vintages when Cabernet Sauvignon fails to fully ripen. Added to a blend, Cabernet Franc adds pepper notes, color, and complexity.

But on the eastern coast and particularly in Virginia, Cabernet Franc is increasingly viewed less as a blending grape and more the main event. Since 2016 Cabernet Franc has earned over 10% of the gold medals awarded at the Virginia Governors Cup – more than any other single varietal shown at the competition.

The rational is understandable – Cabernet Franc possesses a lot of great qualities yet shows them in moderation, including good but not high tannin and acidity, medium body and alcohol, and a floral aroma. This makes it a versatile wine able to be paired with a variety of food options or enjoyed on its own. It’s also a hardy grape in the vineyard, able to ripen in cooler weather and offer good disease resistance.

As a Virginia wine aficionado I’ve tried Cab Francs from basically every winery in the state (that’s not an exaggeration – I’ve visited every tasting room in Virginia and nearly all of them have Cab Franc as a varietal or in a blend). During this time I found many were beset with overly-strong bell pepper notes – a problem caused by poor ripening. I admittedly almost gave up on this varietal, resigned my future tastings would routinely include a wine that I would deem “OK” but never truly love.

Well, recent vintages caused me to revisit my less than stellar opinion of this grape. So in an effort to narrow down the qualities enjoyed the most, I embarked upon an experiment.

The Contestants:

I picked out 6 x wines from different years and geographic regions from some of my favorite Virginia producers. Cab Franc strongly reflects the local terroir, so this cross-section would allow me to experience a variety of expressions.

2016 Chateau O’Brien: Located in Markham, just off of I-66 on the way to Front Royale. Owner and vigneron Howard O’Brien isn’t the winemaker but he’s closely involved in the winemaking process, including choosing the final blends (I keep offering to help but he hasn’t accepted so far). O’Brien is best known for his Tannat, but his reds in general are outstanding. I got hooked on his 2014 Cabernet Franc, so on blind trust I bought his 2016 and included it in the contest.

2017 DuCard Vineyards: DuCard is not far from Old Rag Mountain, on the slopes of Shenandoah National Park. DuCard has unique microclimate and an excellent winemaker in Julien Durantie, who makes some of my favorite Petit Verdots. I tried his Cabernet Franc on a whim and found it to have an exceptional amount of depth and tannin – qualities I rarely find in Virginia Cabernet Francs.

2017 Hark Vineyard: Hark is a newer winery but winemaker Jake Busching has worked all over the state until (proverbially) setting down here. Hark is on the slopes of the Blue Ridge, in the woods west of Charlottesville. He told me he was particularly proud of his 2017 vintage; so much that I bought a pair of bottles at his suggestion. He was right – I finished one on election night and it made the evening go…much smoother….

2018 Rock Roadhouse: This was an odd selection that I threw in for variety, from all the way west in Bath County (past the Shenandoah). 2018 was an exceptionally wet year and truthfully I didn’t find many reds I loved from that year. But Rock Roadhouse does things differently. They make ‘natural wines’; that is, wines with minimal intervention and little to no sulfites, which is made possible by an exceptionally long fermentation process. I visited them in October 2020 and was surprised how much I enjoyed this style, so I purchased a bottle on trust alone.

2019 Stinson: Stinson Vineyard is in the Crozet area of Charlottesville, and part of one of Virginia’s best wine trails. Winemaker Rachael Stinson Vrooman has been their winemaker since 2010, and I’ve always loved her Tannat, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnays. This was another bottle I picked up on trust alone.

2019 Carriage House: Carriage House Wineworks is Loudon County’s newest winery, not far from Leesburg. Winemaker Mike Fritze was a long-time amateur winemaker before he made the leap with a friend who’s a grape grower to open their own place. When I sat down with a tasting with him I remember enjoying everything on the menu, but his fruity, savory Cab Franc was especially a standout.

Blind Tasting My Favorites:

To keep it honest I tasted these wines blind using my trusty Coravin, poured into a marked glass. After pouring, I randomly moved the glasses around as much as I could without spilling so I couldn’t track which glass was which (PS – be careful when grabbing a Riedel glass!). I did a re-taste of them all to double-check my palate and found my notes were still dead-on.

The results:

Wine #1 (later identified as the 2017 DuCard): Muted nose, medium purple color. Notes of raw strawberries. After sampling it I had to wait a few seconds before the fruit came out, but when it did it hit me. Medium plus acid. Solid overall wine that especially benefited from aeration, although in this case it didn’t reach my top picks.

Wine #2 (later identified as the 2017 Hark): Medium purpose color, some jammy notes on the nose. It tasted lighter and more delicate than I was expecting. On my second try I detected some raspberry notes. I really liked this wine; not my favorite of the night but it was up there.

Wine #3 (later identified as the 2018 Rock Roadhouse): Pale ruby, almost garnet. Strawberry notes on the nose. On the palate it felt fuller and fruitier than the other wines. There was also something less identifiable about it that I couldn’t place (I later realized this quality as likely an after-effect of the ‘natural wine’ winemaking process). Definitely a winner; tied with the Hark.

Wine #4 (later identified as the 2016 Chateau O’Brien): Pale ruby color. I detected a tad bit of mustiness that I often associate with older vintages. Nice fruit notes on the palate, although I couldn’t identify any particular fruit. But more than anything else it had an excellent balance of fruit notes, acid, and body. Outstanding!

Wine #5 (2019 Stinson): A bit of pepper and strawberry on the nose. On the plate it was lighter, more elegant, and a tad less fruit-forward than my other options. It was also notably younger; while 2019 was a great year in Virginia wine I was initially worried this may have the bell pepper or other ‘youthful’ characteristics that I noticed elsewhere. So I was pleasantly surprised when this had none of those. Definitely an easy-drinking wine.

Wine #6 (2019 Carriage House): Pale ruby color, a bit more intense on the nose by comparison but by no means aromatic. Pomegranate maybe? I should have picked this out because I detected the savory elements immediately, but not as fruit-driven as I would have expected a younger vintage. I did get the tiniest hint of bell pepper on the finish, but by no means did it undermine my enjoyment.

I did one last sampling and made my decision. To my delight, the 2016 Chateau O’Brien turned out to be my new favorite Cabernet Franc in Virginia!

What did I learn? For one, bottle age matters. I don’t think of Cabernet Franc as a hugely age-worthy wine, but I did suspect that this was hitting peak at 4 years – while some of the others hasn’t yet reached that potential. Even being a year older works to its advantage.

I also was surprised by how complex Cab Franc can potentially be. I’d grown so accustomed to wines that were either just black or bell pepper, maybe with some fruity notes. But in 2020 I’d found expressions ranging from earth-driven Cabernet Francs from Glen Manor, fruit driven options from Gabriele Rausse, relatively tannic ones from Charlottesville, and light and peppery Cab Francs from basically all over.

So once again, Chateau O’Brien has one of my favorite wines!

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