Celebrate the Holidays with Magical Cabernet Franc

It still comes as a surprise to many people that one of the noblest grapes of all, Cabernet Sauvignon, is parented by Cabernet Franc (a red grape) and Sauvignon Blanc (a white grape).  While Sauvignon Blanc is always in the news, usually in reference to a New Zealand or Sancerre, France wine, its regal partner-in-crime Cabernet Franc is less often talked about.  This is a real shame as Cabernet Franc offers one of the purest forms of wine-drinking when in solid winemaking hands.

Since Cabernet Franc ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, it was historically planted as insurance for a vintner to ensure something ripened before cold weather set in. Typically lighter in body, color, and tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, its vibrant acidity makes it a versatile food pairing wine (particularly with various meat and vegetable dishes as its characteristic herbaceous notes are naturally complementary).

Cabernet Franc is often seen in Bordeaux blends where it adds notes of spice, floral tones, and a certain freshness that lifts up a wine. However, it also shines as a single variety (or dominant variety) wine as the below wines demonstrate. There is a distinctive “inkiness” or pencil lead character in this grape that delights in the best examples as well as making it easily identifiable.  A regal, mysterious, and seductively alluring grape, the following wines are perfect for the magic of the holiday season (with some prices to boot).

2012 Palazzo Cabernet Franc ($95)

This wine made me fall in love with Cabernet Franc. I have had several vintages of this wine and it continues to be astonishing. Always in perfect harmony and balance, this Napa, California wine combines elegance and power in a cascade of crushed violet, purple flowers, cranberry, and dark chocolate aromas. On the plush palate, there is a wonderful iron earthiness highlighted by Cabernet Franc’s trademark pencil lead all framed by juicy acidity, powdery tannins, and a long haunting finish.  Winemaker Scott Palazzo is a master and his wines are truly special.

2014 Salvestrin Cabernet Franc

I discovered this lovely brand several years ago in the Taj Campton hotel in San Francisco where it’s still served. While I’ve had many of their Cabernet Sauvignons, I didn’t know they made a Cabernet Franc until I visited their Napa winery earlier this year.  This particular wine isn’t made every year and, when it is, it’s in short supply (only 50 cases were produced). 

This wine is intensely concentrated with inky iron, black cherry, savory spice, and tarry mineral notes. It’s a bold and robust expression of Cabernet Franc with powerful tannins, tight structure, and a long peppery finish.

If you’re looking for a major splurge on Cabernet Franc, look for the 2013 Vérité Le Désir ($389) from Sonoma, California which is a Cabernet Franc-dominated powerhouse supported by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec.  This is a hedonistic wine with decades of life coiled within it.  A sleek dark beauty with ethereal flavors of exotic spice, supple red currant and plum, violet, warm stone, and just-lit cigar smoke, this wine has a long brooding finish that simply can’t be washed away.

2009 White Cottage Cabernet Franc ($44)

While no longer made, this Howell Mountain, California wine was a showstopper. Densely concentrated with wafting flavors of damp forest leaves, smoke, black earth, lilac, and cigar notes, I tasted this wine through its evolution over the past several years with great fascination. The 2009 is still drinking perfectly and continues to improve (and I’m down to my last bottle).  Thanks to winemaker Michael Andrews for introducing me to this wine years ago.

Switching states, the 2016 Stemilt Creek Ascent Cabernet Franc ($48) from Columbia Valley, Washington is another great one to try.  Richard Hood, the winemaker there, makes this wine in select vintages based on when conditions are right to “showcase varietal expression in its purest form”.  These grapes come from their Wenatchee estate vineyards where they are grown on steep north-facing slopes which promote slow ripening and dense flavor concentration.

This wine has jubilant aromas of dusty cranberry, black cherry, and tobacco with a scintillating herbal-driven palate of mineral, ripe red fruit, and cedar.  Zesty acidity, round ripe tannins, and a spicy lingering finish make this wine a standout. This is a more exuberant expression of Cabernet Franc (led by red fruit versus herbs) compared to the California versions mentioned due to Washington’s greater warmth and planting elevation.

Another marvelous expression of Cabernet Franc is found in the 2012 Gran Enemigo Single Vineyard Gualtallary ($125) from Mendoza, Argentina.  I had this wine for the first time a few months ago and was bowled over by it.  Although I’m not big points person, Robert Parker apparently was too as he gave this wine 95 points. Made from 85% Cabernet Franc and 15% Malbec, this wine showcases decadent notes of black cherry, blackberry, sweet spice, and thyme with powdery fine tannins, lively acidity, and a spicy long finish. While not cheap, compared to other wines in its category, it’s a wine worthy of its price.

If you like Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s a good chance you’ll be intrigued by Cabernet Franc.  Many of the flavors are similar but they may just be a bit more intense and concentrated in Cabernet Franc.  It’s a gamble well worth tasting and it might open up a whole new drinking world for you like it did for me. Happy holidays!



Taste Washington

Suzi Pratt Photography

Suzi Pratt Photography

It’s always exciting to find a tasting festival with dynamic new wines and the Taste Washington (held in Seattle in late March) was a fantastic discovery.  Wonderfully spacious aisles, decadent food interspersed among the vibrant wines, and the warmest of hospitality greeted us both days at the Grand Tasting.

The Taste Washington (the largest single-region wine and food event in the U.S.) presented wines from over 230 wineries and food from 65 restaurants/vendors ranging from a wonderful chocolate smorgasbord, to smoked meats, diverse cheeses, and fresh seafood. The festival ran over 4 days including daily “explore Seattle” events and nightly tastings along with weekend educational seminars all culminating in two days of Grand Tastings.  This was a perfect way to taste some great Washington wines all in one place as the state is notoriously large and spread out when it comes to visiting wineries.

Suzi Pratt Photography

Suzi Pratt Photography

As background, Washington has 14 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) that are spread out from the cool maritime west end of the state to the dry, arid, and very warm east end.  The Cascade Mountains play a key role in protecting the eastern end of the state from the Pacific Ocean rains. These diverse climates produce world-class Riesling, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon among many other varieties which combine the pure fruit flavors of New World wines with the acidity and tannins of Old World styles.

From a wine tasting perspective, there were too many festival highlights to count but here are a brief few.  The most interesting grape we tried was the Siegerrebe from Whidbey Island Winery.  Whidbey Island is a cool growing site located an hour from Seattle. Siegerrebe is a white German grape and the 2015 Estate Siegerrebe ($18) had tingling acidity backed by cascading citrus flavors –  a unique alternative for Sauvignon Blanc lovers. Whidbey Island Winery also made a terrific 2016 Sangiovese ($22) with grapes sourced from Columbia Valley in eastern Washington as the island is too cool for red grapes.

Long Shadows Vintners was one of our favorites from the festival featuring Michel Rolland’s 2014 Pedestal Merlot ($65), John Duval’s 2015 Sequel Syrah ($60), and Gilles Nicault’s 2014 Saggi Red Blend ($55) all from the Columbia Valley AVA.  Long Shadows Vintners employs a unique concept of pairing a handful of the world’s best winemakers with some of Washington State’s best grapes to produce several ultra-premium wines. These were all wines of great depth, robust in nature, yet elegant in style.

Long Shadows The Benches Vineyard

Long Shadows The Benches Vineyard

Three Rivers Winery ($14) had one of the most interesting rosés in their 2017 Columbia Valley Rosé.  Made from 70% Syrah, 27% Sangiovese, and 3% Riesling, this wine ran the entire fruit gamut intermingling grapefruit, strawberry, and guava flavors with its clean vibrant finish and firm structure.

Cadence Winery was another great find.  Their owners, Benjamin Smith and Gaye McNutt, named the winery and all of their wines after musical terms. Their two Bordeaux Blends from the Cara Mia Vineyard in Red Mountain AVA were exceptional.  The 2014 Camerata ($60) was Cabernet Sauvigon-dominant and tasted of concentrated black fruit, spice, and earthy notes.  The 2014 Bel Canto was Cabernet Franc-dominant with white pepper, violet, and cherry flavors. Both wines were smooth, regal, and possessed subtle exuberance and power.

Stemilt Creek Winery won the award for most charismatic staffers.  Shelly and Karen were hugely entertaining and enthusiastic about pouring their wines. The 2015 Ascent Estate Cabernet Franc ($48) and the 2015 Ascent Estate Syrah ($45) were highlights here. Richard Hood also recently joined Stemilt Creek as their General Manager and Winemaker bringing a wealth of experience to the winery.

We also enjoyed Cloudlift Cellars’ 2014 Halycon Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) and the 2014 Panorama Merlot ($27).  The Halycon was firmly structured with black fruit, spice, and mocha notes while the Panorama was an enticing style of black cherry, blue fruit, and coffee flavors.

Vendor wise, the food was glorious and intelligently placed among the wines within each aisle.  Such a simple change, it made the flow of the tasting smoother and much more enjoyable to be able to easily eat while not missing any wineries in each aisle.

Capital Grille’s steak sandwiches were a huge hit as well as AQUA by El Gaucho’s oyster and fresh seafood bar.  The Groves on 41 (a Templeton, CA olive tree farm) ran a contest to see which new olive oil flavor to keep – jalapeno or chipotle (jalapeno won).  Incidentally, this family-friendly farm offers tours and tastings along with a large, elegant farm house vacation rental on the property if you’re looking for a unique experience.

There was fantastic cheese everywhere and along one side of the room was a large array of desserts and chocolate. jcoco was one of the best, offering 10 different flavored bars including Bali Sea Salt Toffee Milk, Arabica Espresso Dark, Black Fig Pistaccio Dark, and Vanuatu Coconut Pecan Milk among others.  Their women-owned company’s mission is also noteworthy as they donate a fresh meal to someone in need for each chocolate bar purchased; so far 2.6 million servings have been donated.  Look for this chocolate nationally at Williams-Sonoma.

We also stumbled upon a “chocolate of the month” club in Chococurb which partners with various chocolatiers to create monthly chocolate collections delivered right to your door for either $20/month or $35/month depending on your selection.

As you can see, we happily ate and drank our way through our Seattle weekend and had a blast at this incredibly well-run event.  It is definitely one to visit again and to put on your calendar for next year.

If you go, Seattle is a beautiful city with ever-changing weather and incredible sea views.  It has San Francisco’s exotic feel mixed with Boston’s quaint brick buildings and winding streets in the older section of town.  If you’re a foodie, you’ll be in heaven as the list of eclectic restaurants is long and fulfilling combing world-class food with a down-to-earth vibe.  Try The Pink Door, AQUA, and Matt’s in the Market for some excellent options.

Matts in the Market

Matt’s in the Market

There is also much to see and do in Seattle starting with glass blowing which it’s well-known for. The famous Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum is spectacular and the Seattle Glass Blowing Studio lets you watch live demonstrations all day long (and purchase gorgeous items).  Seattle has the advantage of a temperate climate which we were told aids in glass blowing as the ovens used are over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chihuly Glass

Chihuly Glass

The Underground Tour is a fascinating part of Seattle’s history and consists of 25 blocks of subterranean storefronts and sidewalks entombed after the town rebuilt itself following the 1889 Great Fire.

If you want to see great views, consider skipping the Space Needle and heading to the top of the historic Smith Tower which has a beautifully ornate and charismatic bar where you can walk outside and see the city as well as enjoy panoramic views in all directions.

Then there is Pike Place Market which is nothing short of amazing both in its 100+ year old history and vast selections of shops, restaurants, fresh food, and entertainment.  Definitely check out the fish-throwing that occurs right in the middle of the market throughout the day.  There are several levels to the market and over 500 small businesses so you can easily get lost for a good part of the day.

Pike Place Market fish

Pike Place Market fish

There are multiple hotels located strategically along the waterfront with glorious views and easy access to all of the above.  We stayed at the Marriott Waterfront which was steps away from Pike Place Market and perfectly situated.  And if you go, don’t forget a raincoat as we were not disappointed in Seattle’s reputation for rain.  There’s a reason that REI was born in Seattle but it was worth every drop.