When it comes to popular wine varieties, cabernet franc is the bridesmaid of the bordeaux family. Essential in that everyone expects it to be there, but it never seems to be singled out for much attention.
I absolutely love the stuff and if I see a bottle of 100 per cent cabernet franc on the shelf or on the wine list, I'm sold. Its aroma wows me every time; dark berries, cherries, violets, herbs and all manner of exotic spices often combine with tobacco, cocoa and fruit-wood smoke. But even with all that talent it's not a showy wine, which is why it tends to be overshadowed by its offspring, cabernet sauvignon.
That's right, thanks to the science of DNA fingerprinting scientists have established that long ago, in a forest far, far away, cabernet franc and the white grape sauvignon blanc had some sexy time and produced the grape we now know as cabernet sauvignon.
One thing you may not know, however, is that our friend franc is the dominant ingredient in Chateau Cheval Blanc from St Emilion (one of the most famous wines on the planet, and considered the world's greatest example of its type) and is paired 50:50 with merlot in two other ultra-famous Bordeaux wines, Chateau Ausone and Chateau Lafleur.
But it's not just the French who favour the franc: locally we're quite loved up, too. I decided to open four Hawke's Bay wines that feature cabernet franc, solo and blended, then quizzed the winemakers responsible about their franc fascination.
Dave McKee, Winemaker Black Barn Vineyards"2002 was the first vintage for Black Barn and since then we've made an 05 an 09. There's definitely a 2013 because the fruit is absolutely stunning from this year.
Cabernet franc is one of those really underrated varieties but when you get it ripe and you get it right, it's just magic. Its also an important component in our merlot cab franc malbec blend because texturally it has really fine, chalky tannins.
In cool years the expression of the fruit has a green pepper and tobacco note, so even though you can have fine-grained tannins, there's an element of herbaceousness, which people often see as being an under-ripe character.
I quite like the term [winemaker] Stephen Henschke uses - he refers to cabernet franc as having a dried sage-like character. I feel that dried herbal note is a positive.
But my pivotal cabernet franc moment was when I met a guy having lunch at Clearview Winery who had a bottle of Cheval Blanc and he invited me to share a glass of it with him. It was a wow moment. It became a beacon for me in terms of the elegance, tannin, texture and the seamlessness that can be achieved with cabernet franc."
Hayden Penny, Manager/Winemaker William Murdoch Wines"Our cabernet franc planting is a small but crucial part of William Murdoch. It brings a finesse and spice to our blends while being highly aromatic, with beautiful perfume and floral notes.
It's quite versatile, depending on the season. In 2010 it blended beautifully with our cabernet sauvignon, yet in 2011 it combined with our Old Merlot Block to make our first merlot predominant wine in our top tier - the 2011 PAX.
All of our wines are fermented with wild yeast and cabernet franc tends to be quite a difficult ferment to get right. It also has a high tannin extraction during the first half of its ferment, and it's always tempting to pull back on working the ferment. But during the second half, the extracting can be quite low, so you're always rewarded for continuing to work the tank, although gently is the key.
My favourite experience with cabernet franc was in Italy, where the winery I was working at was making a 100 per cent carbonically macerated cabernet franc. Weird, bizarre and intriguing were all words that came to mind, but the results were quite spectacular."
Adam Hazeldine, Senior Winemaker Babich Wines"Aromatic and finely structured, cabernet franc seems to enhance the positive attributes of merlot in a Bordeaux blend while contributing its own floral spicy lift, class and elegance. It can also contribute an elusive scent of dried herbs - tarragon and thyme.
The trick is getting it ripe; it's not a late variety, yet uniform ripeness can be a problem given its sensitivity to cold at flowering. When it's good it can be up to a third of the blend, but even 5 per cent makes a difference. The vines are also susceptible to downy and powdery mildew but on the plus side, the little berries and loose bunches make it less prone to rots like botrytis.
So given its difficulties - particularly low yield and often requiring a lot of green thinning - it's not a variety we'd pursue for lower price, more commercial wines, but for Irongate, and sometimes The Patriarch, we are more than happy to persevere.
My favourite cabernet franc memory is probably the 2004 vintage - the wine was so outstanding it was the dominant component of the Patriarch, and the cabernet sauvignon, malbec and merlot were no slouches either."
Davide Ramonteu, Winemaker Alluviale Wines"Franc is a difficult variety to work with because it tends towards having poor colour, vegetal characters and big structure if it's not in equilibrium.
In balanced conditions, you can produce beautifully balanced fruit which exhibits fresh red fruit characters, floral and spice notes and bold structure that can be worked to give natural fruit sweetness, melted tannins and excellent colour. I believe the Gimblett Gravels fruit, under the right conditions, is one the most impressive expressions of cabernet franc in the world. Unfortunately that isn't guaranteed every year, so we tend to alter the blend depending on the vintage.
What we're doing is akin to what they are doing at Cheval Blanc - if only we could command such respect and high prices! I think they have about 60 per cent of surface planted in cab franc with two main soil types. One is heavy clay, which produces bold, structured cabernet franc on a regular basis, and the second is free-draining gravel sand, which is very vintage sensitive. If there's too much water it will be dilute, too little it'll be stressed, remembering that they can't irrigate.
Unfortunately I haven't had much Cheval Blanc in my life, but I remember a 1947 that I shared with my dad (his birth year) and also have memories of tasting franc at the St Emilion winery in barrel and tank as a student and being wowed by it.
My funniest franc moment was expounding the virtues of a bottle of Mellot La Moussiere and saying I would one day make a franc like this - deep, pure, elegant, vibrant - when Kate, his wife and fellow winemaker, pointed out it was in fact a sancerre and therefore pinot noir."
WINES OF THE WEEK
Black Barn Hawke's Bay Cabernet Franc 2009, $35
Crafted from a tiny patch of vines grown on the north-facing Te Mata Heritage zone on the slopes of the Havelock North Hills, this wine exudes black liquorice, dark berryfruit, smoke, cocoa and leathery loveliness. Richly complex and boasting supple, sandy tannins and enduring length of flavour.
This review is really just a big tease, because they've sold out at the winery - however there might still be some out there in the shops. If you do actually have any of this in your cellar already, then lucky you. It's drinking beautifully and will be for years to come. www.blackbarn.com
William Murdoch Hawke's Bay Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc 2010, $32
Sourced from Brett Murdoch's 13.15ha organically managed vineyard in Gimblett Rd, which was planted in 1999. This rumpty, ribsticking red has intense berryfruit, florals, peppercorn and dark cocoa aromatics. Aged for 19 months in 50 per cent new French oak, it has a spicy, meaty, mouthfeel and long tannins. I'd love to try this wine again in another three or four years. www.murdochwines.co.nz
Alluviale Hawke's Bay Merlot Cabernet Franc 2010, $33
Kate Galloway and David Ramonteu have created a wine that really allows the franc to shine. Loaded with bright, juicy, spicy red berry and floral aromas and layered with smoky vanilla, cocoa and ripe plum characters on the finish. It's an elegant, complex and very interesting wine, which will only improve with time. www.alluviale.com
Babich Irongate Hawke's Bay Cabernet Merlot Franc 2010, $35
Cabernet franc makes up one third of the blend in this now iconic Kiwi red. Babich have been producing this wine since way back in 1986 and all the fruit is sourced from the famous "Irongate Vineyard" in the Gimblett Gravels. It is inky-black and oozes dark plum, blackberry and lifted, exotic spices and has delicious, savoury layers of flavour and a smooth, warming finish. Just superb. www.babichwines.co.nz