Cabernet Franc and Johnny Depp

Tuesday, 28 May, 2013
Dave March, CWM
Members of the Institute of Cape Wine Masters were treated to a very special tasting of Cabernet Franc recently, and discovered the split personality of the grape.
The event was organised and presented by Lizette Tolken CWM, who is passionate about the variety and who was keen to show what it could do in the right hands. Enter the host of the evening, winemaker Bruwer Raats, perhaps SA’s leading producer of Cabernet Sauvignon’s misunderstood daddy (DNA has shown Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc to be the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon).

The mention of Cabernet Sauvignon is pertinent. Lizette opened the evening with her belief that, ‘Cabernet Sauvignon is Cabernet Franc’s biggest drawback’.  The world enjoys Cabernet Sauvignon and is growing accustomed to its styles and flavour profiles. It is undoubtedly a majestic grape and Cabernet Franc might appear close enough to prepare the average drinker for more of the same.  Perhaps they are disappointed, then, having probably paid more for the Cabernet Franc, that it has a different flavour profile and that it might well seem lighter bodied, leaner, ‘greener’ or just less of a blackcurrant lozenge, certainly less brazen than its offspring. Not as well known for sure; Bruwer remembers how he was pulled aside on a visit to a restaurant stocking his wines and told that on his delivery he had spelt Cabernet Sauvignon wrongly!

‘The key to Cabernet Franc’, says Bruwer, is ‘perfume and Asian spice’. It does not have to be deeply coloured or full bodied or with massive alcohol.  What it does have is clean, precise fruit. Bruwer says, ‘if Cabernet Sauvignon is a Broadsword of flavours, then Cabernet Franc is the Scalpel’. Lizette and Bruwer took this further, and explained Cabernet Franc’s duality consists of being both rich, textured and with strong flavours whilst being refined, often subtle and a touch effeminate – especially in the vineyard.  Jancis Robinson MW says that it is, ‘the feminine side of Cabernet Sauvignon’, and she enjoys its precociousness and flirtatiousness. Lizette believes it is definitely‘in touch with its feminine side’ and showed why this makes the wines so exciting. It was suggested that Cabernet Franc is the Johnny Depp of the wine world.

Certainly, there was perfume on samples from Chinon and Bourgueil from the Loire in France, Cabernet Franc’s ancestral home.  They also showed classic Old World structure and firmish tannins. In the Loire, Malbec (known as Cot) is often added in ‘more challenging’ years to beef the wine up a bit.The final wine of the second flight stood out, and though some were mixed about its qualities, its depth of flavour, complexity and length showed why Château Cheval Blanc 2005 was so highly rated (and priced).

Examples from Hillcrest in Durbanville, Raats, Buitenverwachting, Oldenburg and Hermanuspietersfontein stood up very well against the foreign opposition and were preferred by some tasters.

Excellent SA examples, but not cheap and this is just one of many problems Cabernet Franc poses. It is a nightmare in the vineyard, says Bruwer.  It is light sensitive and buds unevenly and early and vulnerable to nearly every disease going. It is very vigorous and needs a huge amount of vineyard work to contain the canopy. And it will overcrop and produce big berries (not conducive to quality) if allowed.  Not only does green growth need to be contained, but Bruwer stresses the importance of green harvesting; removing young berry bunches in order to concentrate the remaining development. Sometimes you need to drop half the crop to achieve any real quality, Bruwer believes, sometimes giving as little as seven tons per hectare maximum. He explains why this means expensive wine; ‘if it takes 100 hours in the vineyard to make a quality Merlot, it takes 300 hours for the same with Cabernet Franc’.
It is not a variety for everyone, says Bruwer; ‘the people who say that Pinot Noir is difficult only say that because they have never tried to grow Cabernet Franc’.

The pursuit of producing ten years of top quality Cabernet Franc drives Bruwer and he believes he has the vineyard land to do it. His trips to producers around the world has taught him that the structure and content of the soil is crucial. ‘All the best soils showed three things; they had good drainage, they were of low to medium potential and they all had some white in them, whether it was chalk, lime, calcium or granite’. Bruwer’s farm sits on decomposed dolomite granite and similar pockets of like-minded soils can be found around the Cape.

After sampling more luscious, blueberry American oaked versions from Duckhorn in California, which were well received, Bruwer generously offered a ten year vertical of his Raats Family Wines Cabernet Francs. Despite noticeable vintage variations, the wines displayed freshness and structure. Even the 2001 from a cooler vintage was youthful and the fact that only 5 or 6 barrels were made in the wetter 2002 vintage shows Bruwer’s commitment to reducing quantity to achieve quality. My favourite was the 2004, though most preferred the fabulous 2003; sensual and rich. A second block was added to the harvest from 2006 and the mid palate stands out in this wine – unusual for Cabernet Franc – it was layered and textured, silky and elegant. Recent vintages are consistent, firm, with ripe tannins, structure and clean, rich fruit; I loved the intensity of the 2009. This flight proved Cabernet Franc’s aging ability and left everyone convinced that SA’s version is as good as any from elsewhere and that it is time for this Cinderella to go to the Ball. It seems consumers are beginning to realise her beauty; the Raats 2011 Dolomite Cabernet Franc sold out within two months of release.

Price is an issue, though. Paying around R200 or more is a push for a wine that isn’t Cabernet Sauvignon, and interestingly Hermanuspietersfontein is sold as ‘Swartskaap’ rather than the varietal. Bruwer understands this and the Dolomite is priced around the critical R100 mark. Cape Wine Masters were convinced that with this sort of price/quality ratio, the variety has much to offer.
Rich, textured and with strong flavours
Rich, textured and with strong flavours

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