Virginia Cabernet Francs vs The World

If you ask Virginia winemakers their favorite grape to work with, most of them would pick Cabernet Franc. At 645 acres it’s by far the most planted grape in the state. Versatile and hardy, it’s fair to say that Cab Franc is the King of Grapes in Virginia.

This is very different than how Cab Franc is used in France, where except for parts of the Loire Valley it’s usually a supporting player in red blends. Just under 10% of Bordeaux’s red grapes are Cabernet Franc, and only rarely does it dominate a wine.

But in Virginia, Cabernet Franc is often the main star. It’s not just Virginia winegrowers that love it; all along the East Coast Cab Franc is found as a single varietal wine, and large plantings are found around the world.

Cabernet Franc’s popularity along the East Coast comes down to two main factors: dependability and versatility.

In the vineyard Cabernet Franc is cold-hardy but possesses looser clusters, allowing them to also perform well in humid conditions. The grape’s shorter growing season makes it a good choice in cooler climates.

Cab Franc is also especially expressive of terroir. A bottle produced from a warmer region will showcase brighter fruit-flavors, while cooler climate ones retain good acidity. Picked young it tends to exhibit strong bell pepper qualities (often seen as a fault), but certain vegetal characteristics are often present regardless.

This grape also has range in the cellar. Cab Franc can be made into everything from light, easy drinking wines to bolder reds, as well as take the lead in many local red blends.

I gathered a group of friends to do a comparative tasting of wines from three regions; the New York Finger Lakes, France’s Loire Valley, and Virginia. Each of these regional flights was sampled at random; we didn’t know what region we were tasting at any particular time. The favorites of each round went to a second ‘finalist’ round.

The main purpose of this event was to do a side-by-side comparison for our own wine education. While we picked some favorites, I don’t pretend the results proves anything; we could easily have selected a different ‘favorite’ on a different day or with different food pairings.

That said, I’m not the least surprised at the ‘winner’ of the event.

New York (all made near Keuka Lake, Finger Lakes Wine Region)

If “Riesling” is the first grape that comes to mind when thinking of the Finger Lakes – you’re right! But you might not realize Cabernet Franc is not only the most-planted red grape, it’s the 3rd most popular variety overall in this area.

By coincidence, all of these particular bottles came from Keuka Lake wineries, although that’s not necessarily where 100% of the fruit came from.

1. 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery: “Dr Frank” is the granddaddy of Finger Lakes wine, and one of the most famous on the east coast. 100% Cab Franc, 18 months aging in French Oak (20% new).

2. 2018 Domaine LeSeurre Winery Barrel Select. I’m not familiar with this one, other than its tasting room is right next to Weis and they have a French winemaker. 100% CF from several Finger Lakes vineyards, 22 months in French Oak.

3. 2018 Heron Hill Winery: Herron Hill has one of the larger tasting rooms on Keuka Lake. Jordan Harris is the current winemaker but came after this one was made. 16 months French Oak.

France (all from Touraine, Loire Valley)

While Cabernet Franc is planted along both banks of the Bordeaux, most singe-varietal bottles of Cab Franc are found in the Touraine appellation of the Loire Valley, specifically its sub-appellations of Bourgueil, Chinon and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil.

Loire wines are made in a variety of styles and has been described as one of French wine’s ‘best value’ wine regions. I’m not familiar with any of these producers so few details are listed, although I did recently learn most of the Cab Francs from here are made in stainless steel.

4. 2020 Charles Joguet (Chinon). 100% Cabernet Franc, made in stainless steel.

5. 2020 Cuvee des Mailloches, Domaine des Mailloches (Bourgueil): 100% Cabernet Franc, made in stainless steel.

6. 2018 Agnes Sorel (St. Nicolas de Bourgueil). 100% Cabernet Franc. Fun fact – ‘Sorel’ was one the official mistress of King Charles VII.

Virginia (Central VA, Loudoun County, and Shenandoah Valley)

Not sure what more I can add to Virginia Cab Francs than I haven’t already mentioned. I will say these particular wineries are some of my favorite producers of any varietal in the state, and all came from the especially good 2019 vintage.

7. 2019 Madison County Early Mountain: EMV produces several Cabernet Francs; I believe Madison County is their largest planting of Cab Franc. I believe this had a dash of Petit Manseng.

8. 2019 Dutchman’s Creek Vineyard Walsh Family Wine: 80% Cab Franc, 20% Petit Verdot. Made 100% in oak.

9. 2019 Bluestone Vineyards: Part of winemaker Lee Hartman’s ‘Vineyard Site Series’. 100% Cab Franc made with free run juice and whole-clustered pressed from a combination of Cabernet Franc and Petit Manseng skins. Aged 2 years in French oak, 40% of which was new.

This was also our only Shenandoah Valley wine. The Shenandoah Valley has a strong claim as Virginia’s premium wine growing region, as it has higher elevation (which helps its fruit retain acidity), limestone soils, and the lowest rainfall in the state.

Round 1 / Flight 1

  • Bottle #1: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery; 19 points (Round Winner)
  • Bottle #2: 2018 Domaine LeSeurre Winery; 14 points
  • Bottle #3: 2018 Heron Hill Winery; 9 points

As the flights were selected randomly, my group had no idea we were sampling the Finger Lakes wines. Our initial guess was this was actually the French flight; only at the end did we learn otherwise.

When we voted, our #1 pick received 3 points, #2 pick received 2 points, and last pick got 1 point.

First off, we noticed the character of the wines changed quickly in the glass. We didn’t aerate these bottles especially long but I was truly shocked by how many stages these wines went through.

On the nose I was really taken by the ‘funkiness’ we had on the nose for most of them (to different degrees). It was a quality I usually associate with French wines, which is why I was confused. Fortunately, that funky nose usually dissipated.

Perhaps more surprisingly was how the fruit characteristics on the palate also changed. If we spent an hour with a single glass, it would have changed several times. Whatever fruitiness we found at the start of the tasting tended to be quickly gone.

Bottle #1: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery: This was probably the most varietally-correct (to our palates) Cab Franc of the flight, which garnered it a lot of votes. The nose was initially herbal but very pleasant. Softer fruit cherry notes.

Bottle #2: 2018 Domaine LeSeurre Winery. This seemed to have a bit of Brett on it, although not to the point it was faulted. The strong ‘barnyard’ quality got better but never completely left it. Earthy palate.

The nose was a killer here; few of us really enjoyed the nose although several enjoyed the flavor; we just wished the nose was as good as the palate.

Bottle #3: 2018 Heron Hill Winery. Lots of fruit on the palate; someone mentioned it had a ‘jolly rancher’ quality. Beautiful ruby color. But the fruit notes on the palate quickly dissipated and the wine became more herbaceous.

Someone noted that of this trio, this was the wine that most needed a food pairing the most.

In assessing the flight I noticed my guests were divided between two camps; the ‘approachable/balanced’ camp, and the ‘Old World’ earthy/funky camp.

There is no right or wrong answer here. People gravitate towards certain styles, and it so happened the first camp outnumbered the second camp in this group. But I did notice this trend continued over the event.

  • Participant #1: Voted # 1 / #3 / #2. The nose was a real turn-off for #2. Thought #1 was ‘classy’
  • Participant #2: Voted #1 / #2 / #3. Thought #1 was easy drinking & balanced.
  • Participant #3: Voted #1 / #3 / #2. Thought #1 was a ‘classic Cab Franc’. Loved the color of #3 but thought it was bland by comparison.
  • Participant #4: Voted #1 / #2 / #3. Went for the balance and overall approachability #1
  • Participant #5: Voted #2 / #1 / #3. Loved the flavors of #2; lots of cherry and earthy. She kept insisting #2 was the best wine of the night based on her ‘Old World’ preferences (which made the reveal quite surprising).
  • Participant #6: Voted #1 / #2 / #3. Thought #1 was well balanced; didn’t like the nose of #2 but liked the flavor.
  • Participant #7: Voted #2 / #1 / #3. Enjoyed the funky/earthy qualities of this wine and long finish. Thought #1 was approachable. Also thought #2 was the best wine of the night.

Round 1 / Flight 2

  • Bottle #4: 2020 Charles Joguet; 8 points
  • Bottle #5: 2020 Bourgueil Cuvee des Mailloches, Domaine des Mailloches; 14 points
  • Bottle #6: 2018 Agnes Sorel St. Nicolas de Bourgueil; 20 points (Round Winner)

This round continued the trend of our wines changing a lot in the glass. #6/Agnes Sorel especially benefited from this change.

Bottle #4: 2020 Charles Joguet (Chinon). Had a ‘grape jelly’ quality on the palate, with a hint of sweetness. Some mentioned a ‘Concord’ type nose. Peppery, cherry notes with a medium finish. Notes of eucalyptus were also mentioned.

Bottle #5: 2020 Cuvee des Mailloches, Domaine des Mailloches (Bourgueil). Lightest color of the flight (and maybe the event). Dark cherry notes and maybe plum on the palate, notes of plum on the nose.

Bottle #6: 2018 Agnes Sorel (St. Nicolas de Bourgueil). Musty/funky nose. Lots of mushroom on the palate. This changed a lot in the glass, all for the better. It was ‘funky’, but it was a ‘good funk’.

Wine #6/Agnes Sorel wasn’t popular initially but over 20 minutes almost the entire table came around to not just enjoying it but declaring it the favorite of the round.

  • Participant #1: #6 / #4 / #5
  • Participant #2: #6 / #5 / #4. Enjoyed #6 in all of its phases.
  • Participant #3: #6 / #5 / #4. Thought #6 was her favorite by far; opened up beautifully.
  • Participant #4: Voted #5 / #6 / #4
  • Participant #5: Voted #6 / #5 / #4. “Appalled’ by this at first but it blossomed over time.
  • Participant #6: #6 / #5 / #4. Liked the funkiness of #6 but didn’t think it was overpowering.
  • Participant #7: #6 / #5 / #4. Was a fan of the #6’s earthy funky notes and color. Thought #5 was herbaceous. Thought #4 needed food while #6 was good immediately.

Round 1 / Flight 3

  • Bottle #7: 2019 Madison County Early Mountain; 8 points
  • Bottle #8: 2019 Dutchman’s Creek Vineyard Walsh Family; 16 points
  • Bottle #9: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards; 18 points (Round Winner)

This round was obviously Virginia; all the wines were more tannic than anything we’d had so far. I was also surprised how none of them especially changed in the glass, at least anywhere close to the changes we saw earlier.

This was (perhaps not surprisingly) our favorite round, and soon became a close contest between #8 (Walsh) and #9 (Bluestone).

Bottle #7: 2019 Madison County Early Mountain. Notes of dates & prunes on the nose and palate. We felt this was made in a lighter style.

Bottle #8: 2019 Dutchman’s Creek Vineyard Walsh Family Wine. Coco powder on the nose; dark fruit on the palate.

Bottle #9: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards. The nose was initially funky but that blew off fast. Notes of sour plum and/or sour cherry on the palate. Had ‘bite’.

This wine was the most ‘different’ of anything we’d had in the entire event. I suspect this caused us to gravitate towards it, although not all of us necessarily selected it as our top choice solely because of its uniqueness.

  • Participant #1: Voted #9 / #8 / #7. Liked all of them, but thought #9 was the most unique.
  • Participant #2: Voted #8 / #7 / #9. Thought #8 had the best nose; thought #9 was too overpowering.
  • Participant #3: Voted #9 / #8 / #7. Liked #9 because it was like a ‘slap in the face’ (but a good way!). But #8 was lovely.
  • Participant #4: Voted #8 / #9 / #7. Gravitated towards the fruit qualities of #8 but appreciated how different #9 was.
  • Participant #5: Voted #9 / #8 / #7. Thought #9 started fresh, with strawberry notes at first then oak. Detected some dried fruit in #8.
  • Participant #6: Voted #9 / #8 / #7.
  • Participant #7: Voted #9 / #8 / #7. Thought #9 was ‘the most interesting.’

Round 2: Finalists

  • Bottle #1: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery; 17 points
  • Bottle #6: 2018 Agnes Sorel St. Nicolas de Bourgueil; 8 points
  • Bottle #9: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards; 17 points (Event Winner based on most 1st place votes as favorite)

The top-scoring wines from the Finger Lakes, Chinon, and Virginia flights were now before us. Many of the previous descriptors still applied, so I didn’t take additional detailed notes.

My tasting group were divided between two camps; those who wanted a wine that was ‘easy drinking & balanced’, and those who wanted something which was ‘interesting.’

Bluestone/#9 absolutely stood out and had done so over the entire evening. Its complexity and uniqueness earned it a lot of love.

Dr. Frank/#1 was the choice of those who might want something easier drinking, especially on its own. I suspect that if we had the two wines with a full dinner, we would have gone with #9.

Although in terms of points it was a tie, I selected the 2019 Bluestone as the overall winner because it had the most 1st place votes.

Bottle #1: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery. Good balance of fruit and earthiness.

Bottle #6: 2018 Agnes Sorel St. Nicolas de Bourgueil. Still too much funk but it had improved.

Bottle #9: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards. By this time, #9 was becoming funkier to me but that wasn’t true for all of the guests.

  • Participant #1: Voted #9 / #1 / #6
  • Participant #2: Voted #1 / #6 / #9
  • Participant #3: Voted #9 / #1 / #6
  • Participant #4: Voted #9 / #1 / #6
  • Participant #5: Voted #1 / #9 / #6 (but cast a protest vote for #2)
  • Participant #6: Voted #1 / #9 / #6
  • Participant #7: Voted #9 / #1 / #6 (but cast a protest vote for #2)

Lessons Learned

This event brought together many lessons-learned from other events. I think the biggest one is when choosing a favorite, my attendees tend to divide into two camps; the “Typicity” camp, or the “It Stands Out” camp.

‘Typicity’ is a wine term used to describe “the degree to which a wine reflects its varietal origins and thus demonstrates the signature characteristics of the grape from which it was produced.”

Don’t get me wrong; many qualities went into the final determination of a favorite. But in a crowded field of good wines, the wine that is perceived as tasting ‘the way this variety is supposed to taste’ tends to be their favorite.

The “It Stands Out” camp tends to vote for wines that are ‘interesting’. For them, wines that are too ‘typical’ are boring (and lower scoring). But a wine that is a different (in a good way) gets their attention.

Fred Reno of the Fine Wine Confidential podcast explained it like this. “I think the industry challenge … is to make interesting wine. And if you make interesting wine over a period of time, you might have a shot at great wine.”

Lindsey Fern, Wine Director at the Inn at Little Washington, mentioned something similar. In a podcast with “The Vine Guy” Lindey explained how she sampled a wine that was ‘too perfect’. “Tannin levels perfect, acid level was perfect, the fruit is nice, it had a nice nose”, but “it had no soul”. I bet this Bluestone would be the kind of wine that would ‘speak to her’.

I’d also go so far as to say that wine drinkers who are avowed ‘Old World’ wine lovers tended to vote for the ‘typicity’ camp, although not always.

It’s not a coincidence that the two finalist of this event; the 2019 Dr Frank and the 2019 Bluestone, were the extreme examples of these two styles of wine.

The Dr. Frank wine was described from the get-go as “What a Cab Franc is supposed to taste like.” If you were a member of Team Typicity, this was your favorite.

Meanwhile, the Bluestone wine was easily the “most different” wine of the night. I’m not saying it was ‘the best’; that term is too subjective in a lineup of excellent wines. But it was very well-made wine that was memorable. If you were a member of Team “It Stands Out”, this was your wine.

This night, camp “It Stands Out” won.

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