Cabernet Franc is the often forgotten member of the cabernet family, despite being a key element in international superstars such as Château Cheval Blanc. And along with sauvignon blanc, it’s the genetic parent of the popular cabernet sauvignon, helping to explain the latter’s combination of leafy and cassis fruits.
Cabernet franc is found in Bordeaux and the cooler Loire Valley, as it is an earlier ripening variety than cabernet sauvignon. In Bordeaux, it is often a key component of the local blend, adding fragrance and fruit complexity. This is notable in the wines of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, and is a key element in the generally silkier Right Bank style compared with wines from the Left Bank.
Further north in the Loire Valley, cabernet franc is best known in the single varietal reds from appellations such as Chinon, Saumur-Champigny and Bourgueil. These are wonderful food wines with their bright acidity, mid-weight and mixture of juicy fruits. Their savoury complexity is a perfect match for a range of dishes, from charcuterie and cheese through to gamey meats. But cabernet franc is also flexible, and is found in the regional rosé, traditional method sparkling and the red wines of Anjou.
Cabernet franc is the prettier cousin of cabernet sauvignon. While cab sav is big, bold, muscular and tannic, cabernet franc is svelte and fragrant. It’s fruits are not as dark as cabernet sauvignon, often with a cranberry or raspberry accent to its cassis aromas. It also is often blessed with layers of subtle, secondary characters: leaf, gravel and graphite adding attractive complexity. It’s more mid- than full-bodied and while it can be tannic, it seldom has the structure of a cab sav, making for a more supple drink that can cellar well over the medium term. Cabernet franc is also well known for its juicy acidity, contributing to its bright, food-friendly style.
The grape has a bit of a chequered history in Australia, generally being used for blending by the likes of Mount Mary and Holm Oak in Tasmania’s Tamar Valley, whose plantings are more than 30 years old. While mostly blended with cabernet sauvignon at Holm Oak, increasing interest in the variety saw the winery bottling cabernet franc as a single varietal.
In fact, there are many patches of cabernet franc around the country that were also originally planted for blending but are now increasingly used as single variety wines, as demand has increased for alternative varieties. From Jacques Lurton in the Kangaroo Valley to Wynns of Coonawarra and Woodlands in Margaret River, there is plenty of exceptional cabernet franc to be had.
While it is planted widely, the jury is still well and truly out on where the best home for cabernet franc in Australia might be found. There are a handful of contenders.
The south-east of South Australia, in Coonawarra and Wrattonbully, shows plenty of potential, with the cooler climate well suited to retaining the savoury complexity of cabernet franc but also providing plenty of structure for ageing. Margaret River creates more fragrant wines with redcurrant fruits and supple tannins. And a handful of modern, acid-driven wines that are light-weight, pretty, early drinking styles are increasingly coming out of southern Victoria.
It is still early days but it will be fascinating to see how the local cabernet franc style evolves over time.
2016 Terre à Terre Crayères Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Wrattonbully, A$40
Powerful baked earth, dried herbs, graphite and blackcurrant wrapped in a blanket of vanilla bean, thanks to 28 months' maturation in French oak. Full-bodied and primed for
time in the cellar.
2018 Leconfield Cabernet Franc, Coonawarra, A$30
This is a ripe yet elegant style, bursting with ripe cassis, violets and mulberry fruit lifted by dried herb complexity. It is fleshy and juicy on the palate with generous fruit concentration. Finishes with a touch of tannic grip providing some ageing potential.
2019 The Other Wine Co Cabernet Franc, Kangaroo Island, A$35
A more elegant style of wine that shows its cool-climate sea influence. It is a supple,
early drinking style, with layers of leafy, blackcurrant and cedar fruits. The fruit is bright and supple with subtle oak providing a spicy finish to this mid-weight wine.
2019 Woodlands Emily Cabernet Franc blend, Margaret River, A$39
The Watson family have long looked to Bordeaux and it shows in spades here. A blend of 45% cabernet franc and 44% merlot, with touches of malbec, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, it boasts savoury aromas of graphite, gravel and cedar with a touch of violet. It is followed by a densely structured palate with significant oak. Needs at least a decade to show its best.