20 Years of Cabernet Franc

Tuesday, 16 June, 2020
Malu Lambert
Coming into its own - Some of South Africa’s most exciting red wines are single-varietal cabernet francs; the cultivar is finally getting the attention it deserves

The year 2000. When Y2K, the millennium bug was expected to cause global chaos. It didn’t. And now 20 years later, a bug of another kind has tipped the world into a state of entropy. I got to thinking about the last two decades when I opened a bottle of Warwick Cabernet Franc 2000—as the world has teetered from one mad event to the next, this bottle has been lying silently on its side, gathering a fine layer of dust on the outside, and gaining complexity within. When I pulled that cork I unleashed a trapped summer from 20 years ago into my glass, into a world that has largely stopped turning. 

What a wine. First of all, single cultivar cab francs in South Africa are fairly unusual now, 20 years ago they were mostly unheard of. The wine is still inky in colour, radiating garnet towards the rim, layers of dense fruit come spiralling out of the glass: sticky mulberry, red currant, smoky black cherry and umeboshi, that particular salty, fermented Asian plum. Black shoelace liquorice and white pepper spice come after the fruit, with notes of seaweed, dried mushroom and tilled earth. The palate is dense and silky with flavours of chocolate and spice; the tannins are fine and the finish, long.

Louis Nel was its winemaker. I reached out to him for some insight into its genesis.

“The 2000 vintage was one of the best,” states Louis. “The cabernet franc was grown on clay-rich soils and always seemed to do well. We were fortunate that there was a drive from the top to make a single cultivar wine."

At other farms in the country cab franc was grown solely to be put into Bordeaux-style blends, and never really received the recognition it could have if it was bottled on its own.

“Because cab franc also had a tendency to be ‘green’ people would plant very little of it, and that is probably also why there were so few single cultivar wines at that time.”

Warwick was the first farm in South Africa to produce a single vineyard cabernet franc in 1988. Then it was Norma Ratcliffe, one of the Cape’s first female winemakers who made the wine. The wine estate has always been a champion of the cultivar and continues to this day to produce outstanding examples. And many others have followed.

According to SAWIS in 2005, the total volume by litre of cab franc was 72,594; in 2019 - 323,330 litres were recorded. That’s a significant jump, though of course nowhere near King Cab’s status, which amounts to almost a quarter of all red grape plantings.

Modern-day champion Bruwer Raats of Raats Family Wines has since the year 2000 focused on two varieties: chenin and cab franc.

“With only 0.6 % of our total plantings being cab franc,I can’t see that it will become mainstream. We also need to take into consideration the additional effort in the vineyard and cellar to produce a premium wine.  It will remain a niche, but there is definitely growth in the sector,” shares Bruwer.

Bruwer’s first vintage was at Blaauwklippen. “The cab franc was by far the best wine in the cellar, yet it was not bottled on its own. I decided that one day I would start my own winery and specialise in cabernet franc as it has the structure of Bordeaux; the elegance of Burgundy and the spice from Rhône all in one. What more do you want from a red wine?”

I ask Bruwer what has changed in the last 20 years.“The planting material we had 20 years ago was selected for volume production.  The newer clones are much more quality production orientated. The biggest mistake winemakers made back then was that they treated cab franc as cab sauv, in terms of vinification and where it was planted. 

“Cabernet franc is not a Bordeaux variety; it originated from the Loire Valley where some of the best single varietals come from in the world. The producers that have understood this and have changed their mindsets in producing single variety cabernet franc wines are the ones leading the way today.”

One such producer is Lukas van Loggerenberg. He’s making waves with his Breton (a Loire synonym for cab franc). He has a light touch with the grape, preferring whole bunch fermentation and old oak maturation, resulting in a fresher, more elegant style (lower alcohols), though still with plenty of concentration.

He must have felt justly proud when his wine hero Steven Spurrier once said to him of the Breton, this reminds me of the wines coming out of the Loire in the ‘70s.

“Some of the greatest wines I’ve had have been the old reds from the Loire Valley,” shares Lukas. “Just the way they age, and that balance between herbaceousness, which a lot of people think is greenness, fruit and spiciness.When you visit the Loire and see these humble vignerons and taste the wines… they just want to produce honest wines that reflect their area, to make wine for people and not for points.”

Though sometimes points help direct the spotlight onto a category for consumers to discover. I judged earlier this year in the 2020 Cab Franc Challenge (the fifth), and was largely impressed with the quality demonstrated from the 57 entrants. The wines that showed best had perfume and layers of fruit, and were poised and balanced on the palate.

The top six winners were: Anthology Cabernet Franc 2017, David Finlayson Camino Africana Cabernet Franc 2017, High Constantia Cabernet Franc 2012, Rainbow’s End Limited Release Cabernet Franc 2018, Rietvallei JMB Cabernet Franc 2016 and Whalehaven Cabernet Franc 2015.

And long may we drive this category forward—who knows what the next 20 years hold?

Comments Lukas: “I hope that in the future winemakers will broaden their minds when it comes to making this wonderful variety: not to bully it in the cellar, and that it is okay not to do large amounts of new wood on it.”

With these stand out producers leading the way, my guess is the next two decades will show cab franc firmly coming into its own in its adopted Southern Hemisphere home.