The varietal is in wide use but has not claimed a following outside these borders, perhaps simply due to the small amounts produced.
I STILL REMEMBER the first time I drank a bottle of California cabernet franc and realized that here was an important, if (at that time) obscure, red grape. It was in the late 1980s, at a long-gone restaurant named Henry’s Off Broadway. I was deep into exploring the wine list when I came across the cab franc. If memory serves (and it is getting a bit porous these days, so don’t hold me to it), this was from Freemark Abbey. But the amazing thing is, the wine was so good and made such a strong impression, that I remember its flavors clearly to this day.
In most of the world, cabernet franc is used as a blending grape, added to cabernet sauvignon and merlot to beef up the color, fortify the tannins and introduce darker flavor notes of roasted coffee and truffle to Bordeaux blends. In the Right Bank of Bordeaux itself, the grape can be the dominant component, and in the central Loire Valley, around the town of Chinon, it is the principal (and solo) red.
But as a stand-alone varietal wine in Washington state, it remains a bit under the radar. Introduced roughly 20 years ago as an addition to the standard cabernet-merlot blends, it remains in wide use but has not claimed a following outside these borders, perhaps simply due to the small amounts produced. In the most recent account from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, cabernet franc ranked a distant fourth among all red grapes, and ninth among both red and white grapes grown in this state. However, in terms of the price per ton it commands, it was near the top — a measure of vintners’ high regard for it.
In order to be labeled as cabernet franc, a blended wine must by law contain at least 75 percent of that grape. With this grape, as with its grander cousin, cabernet sauvignon, the closer you get to 100 percent pure varietal the more focused and precise the flavors become.
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Looking back over a year’s worth of my reviews of Washington cab francs, I see the accolades very evenly distributed. Recent releases from Tranche, Walla Walla Vintners, Barrister, Camaraderie, Spring Valley Vineyard, Va Piano, Kestrel, O• S, Arbor Crest, Tamarack Cellars and Dumas Station have all scored 90 points or higher. Close behind are cab francs from Stevens, Fielding Hills, Chateau Ste. Michelle (Cold Creek Vineyard), Palouse, Covington Cellars, Two Mountain, Three Rivers, Januik, Woodinville Wine Cellars, DiStefano and Maryhill.
Quite honestly, until I looked them up in the database, I had not realized that the diversity and quality were so widespread. Not only that, but the appellations from which the grapes are sourced include Lake Chelan, Walla Walla Valley, Yakima Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope and, of course, the more generic Columbia Valley. It’s pretty clear that cabernet franc is every bit as good as cabernet sauvignon here in Washington.