When it comes to famous Bordeaux varieties—whether they’re grown in their native Bordeaux or in other parts of the wine world—Cabernet Sauvignon tends to suck all of the oxygen out of the room. It’s tough for any of the others to wave their arms hard enough to distract from a wine called “the King of Reds.” What it took, it turns out, was for one of them to take a different tack in the competition, to offer a contrast in subtlety and elegance to Cab Sauv’s raw power.
I’m talking about Cabernet Franc. The grape—a major player on Bordeaux’s Right Bank (taking up a full two-thirds of Château Cheval Blanc’s vineyard), as well as in the Loire Valley’s Chinon—has a secret edge on its more celebrated cohort: It has been established by DNA analysis that Cabernet Franc is actually one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Sauvignon Blanc (yes, a white variety). And yet, possibly because it offers a lighter touch, finer-tuned tannins next to the more famous Cab’s muscular show, the wine has mostly disappeared into blends or, in the past, garnered a little less respect on its own.
Now, though, it would seem that public opinion and winemaker preference have evolved. Reds that offer nuance and brightness versus inky color and weight are taking a turn in the spotlight—Cabernet Franc among them. And in Napa Valley, winemakers are turning out incredibly appealing versions.
John Skupny, who with his wife, Tracey, founded Lang & Reed Napa Valley in large part because of their love of the variety. “My favorite part of Cabernet Franc is that it has an incredible aptitude to match with a very wide swath of foods,” he says. “The lower tannin structure, the fresh fruit and slight herb/pepper lend themselves to being part of the food, not an adjunct that overpowers or underwhelms.”
These 13 bottles would all be lively choices with what’s for dinner on your table tonight.
Ashes & Diamonds 2015, 2016 & 2017 Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
Under acclaimed winemaker Steve Matthiasson, Ashes & Diamonds has been making some notable Cabernet Francs, and you can taste the first three vintages side by side with this terrific vertical. The bright 2015 launches with focused fruit—black raspberry—layered with earth and florals at once, pepper and graphite. The 2016 weighs in with a little more tannin structure; exotic spice and sour cherry are underlined by a vein of minerality, ending with compelling textures and length. And the spice in the vibrant 2017 runs warm and earthy under juicy black cherry punctuated by cedar and resiny herbs, wrapped in a generous structure.
Caladan 2018 Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
From Cardinale’s Chris Carpenter (who is also behind Lokoya, La Jota and more) comes Caladan, a project rooted in Cabernet Franc. This 2018, with 25 percent Merlot added to its 75 percent Franc, gives up an incredibly high-toned nose full of spicy rose petals, fresh mint and red berries over a layer of wet-stone minerality and pencil shavings. The palate is juicy and delicate even in its generosity. Raspberry and strawberry compote join a vein of cherry (the Merlot talking), with hints of exotic spice and bright but gentle acidity joining with extra-fine tannins to create an elegant structure.
Chappellet Vineyard 2019 Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
The latest iteration of Chappellet’s bar-setting, mountain-grown Franc opens with beautiful aromatics: violets wrapped in fresh herbs; minerally notes as close to expressing rocky volcanic soil as a wine is capable of; dark berries layered with mocha, cedar and exotic spice (cardamom makes a play). Deep, dense and richly textured, the palate brims with red berry, more herbs and toasted spice. This one is complex, long and bordering on opulent.
Gamble Family Vineyards 2016 Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
This bright, elegant red comes from Tom Gamble (and winemaker Jim Close), who launched the family winery as a third-generation farmer. Fresh mint, red earth and resiny pine aromas open, with dark berries, purple flowers and warm, toasted spice notes underlined by a little mocha and gravelly minerality. The palate, with pleasant density balanced by juiciness, gives up a range of pretty fruit—plum, cherry, red berry—while fine tannins offer texture, structure and richness.
Howell Mountain Vineyards 2017 Cabernet Franc Howell Mountain, Napa Valley
A whiff of slightly briny sea air opens on the nose of this Howell Mountain Vineyards Cab Franc, carrying exotic floral and spice notes along with espresso and dark plum and berries. Intense, mouth-watering spiced berry and cherry flavors follow, with elegant density and fine tannins lingering into a very long finish with an appealing savory edge at the end.
Kenzo Estate 2018 asuka Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
Under the winemaking hand of Heidi Barrett and the viticulture work of David Abreu, Kenzo produced an elegant Cab Franc in 2018. Dark and earthy notes open on the nose, with graphite, black pepper and minerality layered under blackberry, toasted spice and high-toned floral aromas emerging as the wine opens up. A beautiful dense texture underlines generous ripe blueberry, blackberry and black raspberry and plum flavors laced with hints of star anise, clove and mocha. Supple tannins wrap the whole package.
La Jota Vineyard Co. 2018 Cabernet Franc Howell Mountain
This concentrated La Jota red—from Chris Carpenter, like the earlier-mentioned Caladan—comes from some of the oldest Cab Franc vines in Napa Valley. Aromas of pungent mountain herbs announce its Howell Mountain provenance, swirling with violets, red fruit and touches of cocoa and smoke box. The palate follows with beautifully intense raspberry and red cherry laced with sweet spices, while a significant tannin structure (Howell Mountain!) creates visceral tension through a vivid finish.
Lang & Reed 2017 Two-Fourteen Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
This perfumed sipper from the Skupnys at Lang & Reed might be slightly more medium-bodied than some other muscular Napa Valley Cab Francs, but it’s serious in its elegance and expressiveness. Sweet, high-toned floral aromas mix with crushed herbs, black raspberry, wet stone and cedar notes leading to delightful fruit on the palate—berry, plum, cherry—brightened by a kick of orange peel, with savory minerality looping back on the finish.
Macauley 2018 Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
Few Napa Valley addresses confer wine cachet like Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard. And this fine-tuned Macauley Cab Franc (they’ve been making one off the vineyard since 2010), made by Kirk Venge, who makes more than a few Francs in the valley (including his own, following), has an elegance to match the vineyard reputation. Alluring savory aromatics include the warm underbrush notes the French call garrigue, along with bay and the variety’s signature florals. The palate is bright and juicy but structured, with red fruit—plum and berry—layered with mocha and dried herbs. Interesting textures are foil to beautiful density, both carrying the wine into a long, minerally finish.
Mira 2015 Hyde Vineyard Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
Winemaker Gustavo Gonzalez, Mira cofounder and former head red winemaker for Robert Mondavi, made only 145 cases of this bright beauty. Floral perfume floats opposite a vein of minerality and earth, with layers of cassis, cedar, flint, mocha and crushed herb notes in between. Sweet plum and red berry fruit pops on the palate, carried with a vibrancy reflecting cool-climate Hyde Vineyard in Carneros. Fine tannins combine with plush textures, creating an elegant structure.
Sosie 2016 Stagecoach Vineyard Block K5 Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
From Atlas Peak’s iconic Stagecoach Vineyard, Sosie crafts a Franc that’s juicy and generous at its core, yet completely elegant. On the nose, graphite opens with warm spices (star anise, coriander, cloves), hints of smoke box, mint and pine layered under black cherry edged with bright strawberry. The palate flows with silky textures and more black cherry and raspberry laced with hints of savory herbs.
Venge Vineyards 2019 Sugarloaf Vineyard Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
Under his namesake label, Kirk Venge makes this juicy and generous Franc from Sugarloaf fruit. Red earth is paired with rose petals among the first aromas in the glass, with pencil shavings, resiny pine notes and warm spices punctuating dark berry fruit. On the palate, the dark, ripe fruit takes the form of mulberry and black cherry, layered with mocha, dried herbs and a savory minerality.
Vinoce 2019 Cabernet Franc Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley
Brian Nuss, who developed and managed a large estate vineyard for his Mt. Veeder neighbor, the late comedian and actor Rob Williams, makes this brightly balanced Vinoce Cab Franc from nearby on Mt. Veeder. The nose opens like a forest breeze, with lovely dark berry, savory herb, gravelly earth and some warm baking spices joining the aromatics. A burst of sweet-seeming fruit pops on the palate—slightly exotic berry flavors (in olallieberry territory), along with juicy plum. This one is generous and ripe, but hangs on mountain herbs and structure for great balance.