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What Will We Do With Franc?

April 11, 2001|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Time flies when you're having fun watching a young wine industry evolve. It seems only yesterday that Napa Valley began asserting its terroir with bold Cabernet Sauvignons that captured the hearts and palates of wine lovers all over the world. In fact, it was more than 20 years ago.

And even then, the next phases were already forming. A few wineries had begun to bottle Merlot. Incredibly, the wine world was largely skeptical. Who knew that it would become one of the hottest-selling varietals ever?

And a very few wineries were also tinkering with another grape that was widely grown in Bordeaux (particularly St. Emilion), as well as in the Anjou and Touraine regions of the lower Loire Valley.

Visiting Napa Valley wineries in the 1980s, one sometimes encountered barrel samples of Cabernet Franc, invariably they were for blending, part of the valley's ineluctable rush to embrace all things Bordelais. I have clear memories of some of those tastes: shining impressions of ruby-red wines that were immediately appealing for their perfume and bright fruit. Those wines provided refreshing breaks from the dense, extracted Cabernet Sauvignons typical of the time-and they also provided glimpses of the future.

At the same time, those early Francs often showed a weedy herbaceousness with green tannin. That was a combination of the grape's inherent sauvage character plus a more overt vegetal quality from vines that were not being grown properly, or in the right places.

As Napa Valley viticulture improved dramatically in the late '80s, so did the quality of those Cabernet Franc blending components. Overtly vegetal Francs were fewer and farther between as growers learned to balance their vines in specific sites. Soon it was clear that beautiful things happen on the palate when the herbaceousness is tempered by ripe red-fruit character and mature tannins.

Varietal Cabernet Franc bottling began to appear in the early '90s. The first wave were curiosities, run up the flagpole to see who saluted. A generally favorable response encouraged more producers to flirt with Franc. When phylloxera presented the golden opportunity to second-guess the varietal mix in the valley's vineyards, Cabernet Franc's roothold expanded, from negligible acreage in the early 1980s to nearly 1,000 acres as of '99.

Blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot remains Franc's primary role in the valley, as in Bordeaux. Yet now there are more than a dozen firmly-established Napa Valley Cabernet Franc bottling, and some of the appellation's most noteworthy red wine blends, such as Viader and Dalla Valle "Maya," include substantial Franc components.

The inexhaustible demand for Merlot will no doubt keep it firmly in second place after Cabernet Sauvignon (Merlot now accounts for 17% of the appellation's 40,000 vineyard acres, Cabernet Sauvignon one-third). But it's clear that Cabernet Franc holds great interest for aficionados and connoisseurs as a brighter, more elegant expression of the Napa Valley terroir than the ever richer, black-fruit-dominated Cabernet Sauvignons.

Franc's image is also getting a boost from the increasing popularity of French regional wines, among which Cabernet Francs from Chinon, Bourgueil, and other Loire Valley enclaves are prominent. All in all, it would appear that "the other cabernet" has secured a firm position on Napa Valley's increasingly narrowing varietal roster.

In the New World, Cabernet Franc is a viticultural Chimera: Every producer who looks at it sees something different. In fact, there are as many different styles of Napa Valley Cabernet Franc as there are winemakers willing to grapple with it. This is a timely moment to taste through the current range of Francs, because the quality level is consistently high while the individual expressions of location and winemaking style are still all over the board.

Lang & Reed offers the least typical and, to me, most interesting Napa Valley Cabernet Franc. It reminds me of Jouguet's "Chne Vert" bottling, about as big as Chinon reds get but still much juicier and more lip-smackin' good than the sterner Merlot-Franc blends of St. Emilion and its satellite appellations.

Lang & Reed was founded in 1996 by Napa Valley marketing consultant John Skupny and his wife, Tracey. They produce two 100% Cabernet Franc bottling under the Lang & Reed label (named after their sons), one slightly more substantial than the other but both firmly in the Chinon style.

Skupny encountered his first Cabernet Francs in the Loire during the late 1970s, while eating and drinking his way through France with Tracey after graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute. He went into the wine business on his return, starting in retail and progressing through a series of marketing roles at Caymus, Clos du Val and Niebaum-Coppola. Skupny makes the Lang & Reed wines at Kent Rasmussen's winery, doing all the work himself. "That's what happens when you go to art school," he notes wryly.

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