Franc-ly, My Dear, There IS Another Cabernet

By | October 01, 2016
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Photo by Marques Vickers,

Cabernet Sauvignon is known as the king of red grapes. It makes big, bold and robust wines and is the world’s most-planted red varietal. This popular grape is a cross, or child, of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, both of which also make wonderful wines.

While less renowned than its superstar offspring, Cabernet Franc is delectable on its own or as a component of a beautiful blend of red grapes.


Cabernet Franc is lighter in aromas, flavors and texture than Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s spicier, “greener,” with refreshing acidity and fewer tannins. Typical aromas are pepper, fresh herbs, rosemary, blackberry, plum, cassis and even cigar box. There’s a lot going on in your glass! Elegant, spicy and structured are descriptions that immediately come to mind when describing this under- rated grape.

It’s not as soft and round as Merlot and frankly, it’s more mysterious, elegant and can be rather refined. The color ranges from ruby red to deep crimson, depending on the terroir, growing season and winemaker.

Fruit flavors of cherry, pomegranate and raspberry are typical for Cabernet Franc. Pepper (both black and white), black licorice and olives are also characteristic of this ancient grape. Wines range from refreshing rosés to light-bodied quaffable versions to complex, pow- erful age-worthy wines of depth and power.

One of the world’s finest wines, Château Cheval Blanc—a first growth from Saint Emilion on the Right Bank of Bordeaux in France—is a blend of approximately half Cabernet Franc and half Merlot. In the 2004 movie Sideways, a film that glorified the Pinot Noir grape, Château Cheval Blanc was a key element in the plot. The main character, Miles, consumes his most prized possession, a bottle of 1961 Château Cheval Blanc from a disposable cup in fast-food restaurant. It’s a poignant tribute to a wonderful wine.


Cabernet Franc is the parent of both the Merlot grape and the Carménère grape! So, this grape has serious credentials in the wine world. Originally from the Basque area, where Southwestern France and Northern Spain meet, Cabernet Franc was carried to the Loire Valley by a monk named Breton and was planted there in about 1534. In that area the grape is still known as Breton. The Chinon and Bourgeuil areas of the Loire Valley are known for complex, age-worthy wines of power and grace as well a crisp, refreshing rosés, all crafted from Cabernet Franc.

Bordeaux has played a starring role in promoting this “character actor” of a grape. As one of only five red grapes permitted by French law to be used in the classic Bordeaux red blend (along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec (yes, that Malbec) and Petite Verdot), it is frequently used to add spice to the blend. This world-renowned style has produced some of the most long-lived red wines.


While both the Loire Valley and Bordeaux in France are the most famous regions for Cabernet Franc, tasty versions of this ancient varietal also are produced in Tuscany, California and the Finger Lakes and Long Island in New York. In Northern Michigan, with
our cool climate and variety of soils, this dark-skinned charmer reflects our terroir.

In the Loire Valley the wines are very mineral driven, according to Lee Lutes, winemaker for Black Star Farms. Lee knows well the challenges of making wine in Northern Michigan. His 2012 Arcturos, a blend of grapes from Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties, combines his best vineyards to produce a wine enjoyable now but likely to improve with age. 2012 was a great growing season and the ripeness of the grapes is evidenced in the “bright yet deep fruit that comes from a spectacular vintage,” says Lutes.

Terroir’s importance in grape growing and winemaking can’t be overstated. All the factors of terroir—the soil, the proximity to water, the amount of sunlight, the range of temperature throughout the days and nights (known as the diurnal range), the slope of the land and the velocity of the wind—are crucial ingredients for the wine recipe. In 2012 all the ingredients came together to provide a bountiful harvest producing wonderful wines.

Our weather in 2013 wasn’t so kind. The polar vortexes of the winters of 2013 and 2014 created huge challenges for viticulturalists and oenologists. But, here in Michigan we’re up for the challenge! 2013 was the “coldest and wettest season ever,” says Cornel Oliver, a native of South Africa and one of the two lads of 2 Lads Winery on the Old Mission Peninsula.

“One of the biggest challenges we face in Michigan is getting the grapes to fully ripen. We aged our 2013 Cabernet Franc for ten months in previously used French oak barrels after cold berry fermentation to achieve the depth of flavor we coaxed from this vintage.”

2004 was a typical Northern Michigan year for wine. “We had a cool vintage and the reds were lighter than 2005,” according to Bryan Ulbrich, current owner and winemaker of Left Foot Charley Urban Winery. Ulbrich was the winemaker at Peninsula Cellars Winery in 2004 and 2005. His reserve wine from 2005 is a power- house of a Michigan Cabernet Franc. That year was “a heck of a vintage, with really ripe fruit from a great growing season. The wine was aged in used American oak barrels and it has aged well,” says Ulbrich.


Cabernet Franc is a versatile wine, easy to pair with a variety of foods. These wines are relatively high in acidity, making them extremely food-friendly! One of the keys is following the food and wine pairing principle of “mirroring.” Mirroring is simply pairing light wines with light foods and richer foods with more robust wines.

It’s quite easy to ascertain where your particular wine falls on spectrum of light to robust Cabernet Franc. Simply look at the wine, even while it’s still in the bottle! The lighter the color, the lighter the wine. The darker the color, the more robust the wine. That’s it!

A vegetarian wine lover’s dream, Cabernet Franc complements a wide variety of vegetable dishes. Grilled or roast eggplant, eggplant parmesan, roasted vegetables, dishes with olives and lentil dishes are all enhanced by this spicy wine. Vegetarian lasagna is a stellar dish to pair with a full-bodied Cabernet Franc.

Many meats are enhanced by full-flavored Cabernet Francs. Pork and beef roasts, especially when braised with a bit of the wine you’re enjoying, are delectable matches. Smoked ham’s saltiness is perfectly balanced by the bright acidity of a medium-bodied selection. Grilled lamb with mint sauce bridges the minty quality of your wine to create a mouthwatering match.

Goat cheese, particularly aged goat cheese, is a classic companion to a bottle of Cabernet Franc. The balanced acidity and supple tannins of the wine combine with the creaminess of the cheese for a time-honored pairing.

Mushrooms, especially wild varieties, either in sauces or alone, taste even better when accompanied by a Cabernet Franc. The forest floor flavor of mushrooms brings out the subtle earthiness of the wine.

Middle Eastern cuisines with their use of mint, rosemary and thyme are complemented by those same aromas and flavors in the wine.


The aging potential of Cabernet Franc depends on the style of the wine more than anything else. Lighter wines are less apt to age for long periods than are heavier wines. If your bottle is a reserve wine, odds are that it will improve with a few years cellaring. Be careful, though: The United States has no legal requirements about which wines can be labeled “reserve”! However, the vast majority of wines so-labeled are truly reserve wines, meaning that they are richer, fuller, better wine than non-reserve bottles.

Approximately 90 percent of wines are meant to be enjoyed as soon as bottled. However, for those who have a bit of patience, the other 10 percent can benefit from a few years in your cellar. The easiest way to determine if a wine will be better with age is to ask your wine merchant and read the label. You can always consult an expert or use one of the many applications available on your smart phone.


2004 Peninsula Cellars, Old Mission Peninsula

  • Gracefully showing its age. Faint aromas of black cherry, rasp- berry and rosemary.
  • Dry with light acidity. Light body. Rosemary, dried cherry and thyme. Balanced and enjoyable after 12 years.
  • Enjoy by itself or with a light salad.

2005 Peninsula Cellars Reserve, Old Mission Peninsula

  • Enticing aromas of black cherry, blueberry, vanilla, oak and smoke.
  • Dry with balanced acidity. Full bodied. Blueberry, vanilla, black cherry, dried herbs. Long and lingering finish. Rich and full.
  • Pair with smoked meats, venison, grilled vegetables.

2011 Villa Mari Vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula

  • Lighter style. Scents of cherry, blackberry, nutmeg, clove and smoke.
  • Dry with refreshing acidity. Black cherry, olive, currants and blackberry. A quaffer in the best sense of the term. Easy to enjoy.
  • Pair with pâté, red beans and rice, grilled chicken.

2011 Boathouse Vineyards, Leelanau Peninsula

  • Bold and robust. A nose of black cherry, blackberry, plum, cassis, dried herbs, black pepper and dried mushrooms.
  • Dry with balanced acidity. Full body. Dried cherry, black currant, black licorice, rosemary, clove and smoke. A year or two in the cellar would soften the already silky tannins.
  • Pair with grilled lamb chops, pork roast, vegetable lasagna, pepper steak, roast duck.

2012 Black Star Farms Arcturos, Leelanau & Old Mission Peninsula

  • Earthy and elegant. Aromas of black cherry, blackberry, mushroom, olives and rosemary.
  • Dry with crisp acidity. Medium body. Plum, blackberry, cassis, raspberry, herbes de Provence. At least two years of cellaring would enhance this bottling.
  • Pair with mushroom dishes, Cajun chicken, dishes with olives, grilled vegetables.

2013 2 Lads, Old Mission Peninsula

  • Exotic and fascinating nose of pomegranate, raspberry, black cherry, cinnamon and spices.
  • Dry with medium acidity. Medium body. Soft yet well structured. Pleasing finish. A year in the cellar would add complexity.
  • Pair with pork with fruit sauce, rabbit, tomato sauced pasta, charcuterie, goat cheese.

2013 Leelanau Cellars, Leelanau Peninsula

  • Lighter style. Aromas of Montmorency cherry, strawberry and white pepper.
  • Dry with light acidity. Light body. Very easy to enjoy. Best slightly chilled.
  • Pair with light dishes: mild lentil dishes, grilled salmon, grilled chicken, turkey.
Article from Edible Grande Traverse at
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