Friday, January 15, 2010

The Strange Case of Dr. Franc and Mr. Vegetal

Robert Louis Stevenson penned the classic novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which he examined the duality of man, the two faces of each person, one good and one evil. I have engaged in a similar examination of duality, though with a different subject, the Cabernet Franc grape. In my case, I would title my investigation as The Strange Case of Dr. Franc and Mr. Vegetal.

For a time, it seemed that all of the Cabernet Franc wines I drank had a vegetal aroma and flavor which turned me off. I derisively referred to such wines as "salad" wines, which had far too much green flavor for me. Cabernet Franc was not alone though as I encountered similar flavors in many Carmeneres too. Yet there were other wine lovers who enjoyed the vegetal nature of these wines, so it was clearly a matter of preference.

But I perservered, continuing to taste Cabernet Franc wines, hoping that I might find one I could enjoy, one without those vegetal tastes. I was eventually rewarded for all of my effort spent on that quest, and began finding numerous examples lacking that greenness. I had found the other face of Cabernet Franc, a more appealing one for my palate. One of the primary places where I found Cabernet Francs which I could enjoy was in New York.

Thus, I was excited for the recent Taste Live event, a tasting of four Cabernet Francs from the Finger Lakes region. Lenn of Lenndevours: The New York Cork Report led the tasting with co-hosting by the people from Finger Lakes Wine Country. Dale of Drinks Are on Me joined me at my house for the tasting.

I had some slight concerns that maybe the Cabernet Francs would show some vegetal flavors, but was willing to give them a try and hope for the best. My worries were needless as none of them expressed any such greenness. I was a very happy man. They were all Dr. Franc without any Mr. Vegetal.

I should first note that I opened and decanted the wines for about five hours prior to the event, and I do think that affected the smell and taste of the wines. For example, some of the other tasters found some barnyard aromas in a couple of the wines but I did not detect any in mine. Such aromas may have dissipated with time which is why I could not detect them. We were recommended to decant a couple of the wines and that appeared to be good advice.

We began the tasting with the 2007 Fox Run Vineyards Cabernet Franc/Lemberger ($14.99) which was an excellent start. This wine is a blend of 47% Cabernet Franc and 53% Lemberger (also known as Blaufrankisch) and has an alcohol content of 12.5%. Only 825 cases of this wine were produced. Like all four of the wines in the tasting, this was from the 2007 vintage which is considered to be an excellent vintage.

This was a juicy, delicious and easy-drinking wine, making an excellent introductory Cabernet Franc. There were nice blueberry notes with red fruit accents and hints of underlying spice. Its lighter red color reminded me of some Pinot Noirs, though the taste was definitely influenced by the Lemberger. This is a wine I could easily enjoy with pizza or a burger, or simply on its own. It is a wine to drink and enjoy, rather than something to sip and ponder over. It earns my recommendation, and placed me into a pleasant mood at the start of the tasting.

The 2007 Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards Cabernet Franc ($22) only has an alcohol content of 12.3%. As an aside, I really do enjoy the lower alcohol contents of many of the New York wines. Red wines seems to average 12-14%, and it is rare to see wines over that. Unfortunately, the Hazlitt wine did not really please me. It seemed to be overly spiced to me, the fruit flavors buried beneath that spice. Others at the tasting enjoyed this wine but it just did not satisfy me.

The 2007 Rooster Hill Vineyards Cabernet Franc ($19.99) was very different from the Fox Run. The Rooster Hill seemed more of a serious wine, with stronger tannins, more subdued dark fruit flavors and some Christmas spice notes. This is the type of wine where you really start thinking about what you are drinking. It has more complexity, more depth of flavor. It probably also should be drank with food, as the tannins might be too much on their own. Another good example of the Dr. Franc aspect of Cabernet Franc, the non-vegetal side, which showcases such good fruit and spice. I recommend this wine too.

My favorite wine of the evening was clearly the 2007 Red Newt Wine Cellars “Sawmill Creek” Cabernet Franc ($38.99). This is a blend of about 90% Cabernet Franc with the other 10% being Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. It has an alcohol content of 13.7% and only 120 cases were produced. This wine will be released in February 2010.

When I tasted this wine, it brought back memories of the 2007 Shinn Estates Cabernet Franc, a wine which thoroughly impressed me last year. The Red Newt was not quite as good as the Shinn, but it was impressive nonetheless. It was a big wine, but did not overwhelm, possessing an excellent balance. There was plenty of complexity, such as an intriguing melange of lush flavors, including ripe plum, black cherry, blackberry, vanilla and more. The silky tannins made this a very smooth wine, and something I could easily enjoy on its own or with food. The finish was lengthy and pleasing, a feeling you did not wish to end.

This was a "wow" wine and gets my highest recommendation. Now, admittedly this is a more expensive wine. But I do think the price is justified for the quality of this wine, though the Shinn, which is similarly priced, remains the better value.

This tasting was good on two fronts. First, it showcased some delicious, nonvegetal Cabernet Francs. Second, it showcased some quality red wines coming out of the Finger Lakes region. I suggest you check out both fronts, and try one of these Cabernet Francs from the Finger Lakes.

Do you prefer Dr. Franc or Mr. Vegetal?


Dale Cruse said...

Gimme veggies every time!

ryan said...

I have to say I know of your aversion to the vegetal flavors of CF, but you seem to fail to mention that many of us find this to be the strength of Cab Franc. There are grapes many people don't like, just for who they are, which is fine. I have a problem though with wineries who try to make wine from a grape that does not contain it's god given flavors. Cab Franc is vegetal! Without that vegetal I might as well go looking for another wine/grape.

It seems that you are trying to cram a round peg into a square whole, and asking something of Mr.Franc which many would argue should not be asked!

Might there be a chance that your aversion to "green" means that Cab Franc is better left for others?

I had a wine teacher who once told me that you know your starting to understand wine when you can say: "That is a perfect example of x, y or z, a truly great wine...and I personally hate it"

He hated Gewurztraminer, but could tell you when one was well made and varietally correct. He did not try to make it something it was not, by seeking out false examples of it.

Just want to stir the pot some! Cheers from Spain!

Donia Conn said...

Thank you for sharing one of the best grapes coming out of the Finger Lakes. Having lived there, I miss the easy access to the grape and the wonderful variety that can be found from each of the vineyards, good and bad.

Love the blog and hope to meet your the 30th in N. Andover.

Anonymous said...

Well done! Personally, depending on my mood, sometimes I prefer Dr. Franc and sometimes Mr. Veg. Either way, New York's Finger Lakes is THE place to find them. Thank you for helping to spread the word!

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Ryan:
Thanks, you raise some very interesting points, and more questions. I did mention there are people who enjoy the vegetal flavors in CF. Though I claimed that it is all a matter of preference.

Now onto the questions and issues you raised.

Now, what does it mean to be varietally correct (VC)? And why should anyone care about a wine being VC? Who determines when a wine is VC? Who determined that CF must have a vegetal component? Are you saying that a non-vegetal CF has been manipulated to eliminate that flavor?

Does VC vary by terroir? And if so, could there be terroirs where CF lacks a vegetal characteristic?

I certainly don't have all the answers to these questions. But I think that VC does vary by terroir, and thus there are non-vegetal which are VC.

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Dale:
I'll save Mr. Vegetal for you.

Hi Donia:
Thanks very much, and hope to see you at the sake tasting.

Thanks to you as well Anon.