“The scent of wine, oh how much more agreeable, laughing, praying, celestial and delicious it is than that of oil!” - Francois Rabelais
There’s no denying the importance of Merlot and Chardonnay in the success of Long Island wine. But in the last few years, no grape has garnered more interest and attention on the North Fork than Cabernet Franc. Merlot may be the most widely planted red grape on Long Island but to me, the most intriguing red variety is Cabernet Franc.
Through years of research it’s been determined that Cabernet Franc is one of the world’s most ancient varieties. It was once assumed that Cabernet Franc was an early offspring of Vitis biturica. Ancient writings from Pliny claimed that Vitis biturica developed from a cross between an imported Roman variety and a vine growing in the wilds of Iberia - what is today Spain and Portugal. However recent genetic and historical analysis points to the Spanish País Vasco – better known as Basque Country - as Cab Franc’s place of origin. As of today, the trail ends there leaving Cabernet Franc an ancient orphan.
Cabernet Franc is not only old, but extremely procreant. Recent DNA analysis shows that a wild cross of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc resulted in Cabernet Sauvignon. Another wild date with an ancient grape called Magdeline Noire des Charentes resulted in Malbec while other flings with unknown suitors produced Carmenere and Petit Verdot. When one drank red wine in the Middle Ages, it’s quite possible that much of it was Cabernet Franc or something very similar. One thing is clear – Cabernet Franc is truly the gran padre of Bordeaux varieties.
Any mention of Cabernet Franc as a distinct variety doesn't appear in the French literature until sometime in the 17th century when it is believed to have been discovered in the region of southwest France by Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu was a French clergyman, noble and statesman who was consecrated as a bishop in 1608. Richelieu was often known by the title of the King's "Chief Minister" and is considered to be the world's first Prime Minister, in the modern sense of the term. As the story goes, the Cardinal was also a wine aficionado and loved drinking Cab Franc. He felt so highly of the grape that he arranged cuttings to be transported to the Abbey of Bourgueil in the Loire Valley in the 17th Century. These vines were planted at the Abbey under the care of an abbot named Breton, whose name became associated with the grape. (This story is disputed somewhat by the writings of Francois Rabelais, the 16th-century writer who was born near Chinon, who wrote of ''the good wine of Breton'' 200 years before the abbot came on the scene).
In any case, the Loire became famous by making extraordinary wines from this distinctive variety which remains the primary red grape in the region. By the 18th century, plantings of Cabernet Franc (also known as Bouchet) made their way south and west throughout Bordeaux into Fronsac, Pomerol and St-Emilion, where the grape eventually crossed with Sauvignon Blanc to produce their most famous progeny: Cabernet Sauvignon. By the end of the 19th century, Cab Franc was relegated to a supporting role in the blended wines of Bordeaux.
Cab Franc has the reputation of being a sturdier and hardier variety than the rest of its family – hence it’s great success in the cooler climate of the Loire and the Right Bank. For decades in Bordeaux, plantings of Cabernet Franc were treated as an "insurance policy" against cold weather and frost that can damage plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon. Research done by Cornell University discovered that Cab Franc was not only hardier than most other red vinifera varietals, but had more tolerance for cold than even Riesling. Today it remains one of the hardiest of the noble grapes and a steadfast red wine option for many cool climate wine regions.
The first Cabernet Franc on the Island was planted in the early 1980’s, with vines going in at Bridgehampton, Bedell, Hargrave and others. Cabernet Franc seems to feel very much at home on the North Fork of Long Island and grows easily in our maritime terroir. With 275 acres on the ground, it’s a mere drop in bucket when compared to Bordeaux (36,000 acres) and the Loire (5000 acres) but the resultant wines are truly elegant and intensely reflect our terroir. Direct fruit aromas and flavors of cherries, strawberries and raspberries can jump out of the glass while a tender mouth feel is wrapped around soft velvety tannins. There’s often just a hint of leafy, savory herbs which is an inherent quality in this grape even at the peak of ripeness. As it ages, the wine can have aromas of a coastal forest floor after a rainstorm. These qualities - along with sturdy natural acidity and refreshing mouth feel - allow it to be served with just about any cuisine.
In many respects, Cabernet Franc is the quintessential Long Island red as it epitomizes our east coast style. It’s moderate in alcohol with a lightness and delicacy that’s surrounded by loads of red fruit. It doesn’t require much oak and when it does, it’s best to keep it in older, neutral barrels to allow the graceful fruit to shine through. The result is a red wine that is unlike any other. It can be a little shy at first but as the great New York Times wine writer Frank Prial once told me: “Cabernet Franc is like any truly interesting friend, it takes time to get to know.”
I think everyone should take his advice to heart.