California is a place full of dreamers dreaming cabernet dreams. Usually that means cabernet sauvignon, because so much of these dreamers’ inspiration filters back to Bordeaux—but that also means a desire to have the full range of appropriate grapes at their disposal.
Which brings us to the other cabernet: cabernet franc. While cabernet sauvignon and California are so closely associated that they can feel linguistically fused—californiacabernet—franc has a different and more complex tale to tell.
It starts, of course, with those dreams of Bordeaux, where franc is beloved but usually assigned to a supporting role—a case of the child outshining the parent, since cabernet sauvignon is literally franc’s genetic offspring. It’s these Bordeaux roots that gave it a start, if not an especially glamorous one, on these shores.
As early as the 1880s, California viticultural records showed great hope for it—E.W. Hilgard dubbing it a variety to be considered “with special favor.” That enthusiasm quickly faded, mostly because the vine material wasn’t so good and no one was quite sure how to grow it. By the time California’s great post-Prohibition pioneers got to work, franc had descended into obscurity.
Its next shot arrived in the 1990s, as better clones of the grape arrived; it prompted at least a mild interest from Bordeaux loyalists like Niebaum-Coppola and Chappellet, and a handful of others.
At about this point, anyone who loves the wines of the Loire—like me—is bristling, because I’ve danced around an alternate path in this adventure. Franc, of course, has a second and perhaps greater home several hours north of Bordeaux, in the Loire Valley, where the famous wines of Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur have been beloved for centuries. Amid all those Bordeaux dreams, California has for more than 20 years harbored a loyal band of Loireists—pioneering winemakers like Tracey and John Skupny of Lang & Reed, and later Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John. They made wines faithful to that other great franc tradition.
This has remained the tale of California franc for the past decade or so: right-bank Bordeaux fans and a handful of Loire freaks, plus the partisans of overripe cabernet who alternately liked franc’s fragrant lift, even if they hated its unrepentant streak of herbaceousness. But an entirely new chapter for franc in California is unfolding.
The state’s latest interpretations of the grape acknowledge the innate drinkability of Loire wines, but often invoke a different mix of fashionable red-wine trends today: soft edges, light extraction of fruit, sometimes carbonic maceration of the sort found in Beaujolais. In some cases, the inspiration is northern Italy (another home for franc), as with the subtle, fragrant wines from popular producers like Matthiasson and Ryme.
But some of the most compelling examples, from producers like Broc Cellars and Lo-Fi (who are both arguably at the root of this current trend), don’t obviously reference any Old World tradition, although they embody minimalist winemaking tenets found throughout France. The only obvious Loire comparison might be Sebastien David’s Hurluburlu, which itself diverges from the hard edges of traditional Bourgueil. There’s some similarity to the franc gaining toeholds today in places like Oregon and New York. But California has some distinct advantages, which is why you can find about 3,500 acres across the state. (That might sound like a lot until you realize it’s just over 4 percent of the cabernet sauvignon planted.)
In other words, it’s not quite accurate to talk about the new California francs as Loire knockoffs. They have a degree of ripe fruit and sunny flavors that are innately California, without the firmness and often biting tannins indicative of great Loire cabernet franc. “I love Chinon and Bourgueil,” Lo-Fi’s Mike Roth told me. “But a lot of them lack the fruit we get in California.”
And so, what better time to revisit California franc for one of our PUNCH tastings? Enough new examples are appearing that this new wave has leaped beyond novelty. And of course these wines, with their smoky accents and bright fruit, are also an excellent idea as we all slog toward the annual Thanksgiving wine buy. Plus, with a few exceptions, this lineup of wines was an utter joy. These are confident, charming wines—utterly drinkable and indicative of how California’s new spirit persists, even with the structural challenges that lie ahead.
We had one more reason to circle back to California: the recent wildfires, which left parts of wine country desperate for support to rebuild. Not all these wines come from the North Coast, of course, and there are many more direct ways to help, but it’s particularly worth keeping California in mind this holiday season, which is why we’ll be talking about the state’s wines at least once more before the holidays.
Now is also a time, perhaps more than ever, to celebrate the good things that can be found in America, to support those who see beauty and bounty on these shores. In a modest way, these wines—from a grape that took a long time to fit in here—do just that.
THE NEW GUARD | Tie
Lo-Fi Coquelicot Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley Cabernet Franc
Mike Roth is the talent behind some of the most interesting wines in Santa Barbara. He founded Lo-Fi with his friend Craig Winchester to provide a take on what’s possible in an often misunderstood region, including what he calls “a conscious decision” to make all their reds using whole grape clusters. This franc remains the star for good reason: Roth gets fruit from organically farmed Coquelicot (where he’s also winemaker) outside Los Olivos, in that Goldilocks band of climate that ripens a lot of interesting grapes—from trousseau to gamay—in the Santa Ynez Valley. He ferments it using indigenous yeast and a Beaujolais-like semi-carbonic method. The result is irresistible: slightly sweet but subtle raspberry fruit, with aromas of lilac, paprika, dark stones and plenty of backbone. Lo-Fi makes several francs, including a blended 2016 that combines fruit from Coquelicot with Roth’s own Los Alamos estate plot, dubbed Clos Mullet. They’re all exceptional.
- Price: $26
- Vintage: 2015
Broc Cellars Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Cabernet Franc
Berkeley’s Chris Brockway takes a similar approach using fruit grown not far away in a low-vigor parcel—and he, too, prefers indigenous yeast and whole clusters, although the fruit is lightly crushed. Broc was one of the first adopters of this lighter, floral style, and if the wines occasionally can have a rustic edge, the 2015 is gorgeously refined: flavored like a ripe cherry lozenge, with pleasing accents of lilies and tangerine peel.
See also: Matthiasson, Ryme Alegria Vineyard, Camp Wines, Inconnu, Mossik, Halcyon, Gamling & McDuck
- Price: $28
- Vintage: 2015
Methode Sauvage Bates Ranch Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Franc
Chad Hinds, a Bay Area wine salesman and former line cook, is behind Methode Sauvage, a label dedicated to his deep love of franc and chenin blanc. The Loire fealty isn’t a throwaway, then. This bottling comes from Bates Ranch, a little known vineyard in the hills west of Gilroy, at the southern tip of the Santa Cruz Mountains, farmed by Prudy Foxx, one of California’s most talented vineyardists. Like the Alegria vineyard in Russian River Valley, it’s the source for a number of standout francs (see below). As for the Sauvage, it’s got just a hint of that Loire leafiness, but also a great tang to the fruit and a dark earthiness—somber and tannic enough that you might think of Chinon, but with juicy California fruit.
See also: Lieu Dit, Lang & Reed, Aha Wines Abrame
- Price: $30
- Vintage: 2016
I. Brand & Family Bates Ranch Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Franc
Note we didn’t say “classic,” because what would classic California franc even be? Winemaker Ian Brand, who works with many unsung and obscure parcels in the Central Coast, produces this more forceful and Bordeaux-like example of franc from Bates Ranch—a very different interpretation from Sauvage. There’s finesse to the tannins, but it’s more clearly Bordeaux on the brain, with black tea and roasted Anaheim pepper, violets, some deft new oak sweetness and a lot more weight than most Loire-ish versions.
See also: Detert Family, Robert Sinskey Vineyards Vandal Vineyard, Lexington
- Price: $48
- Vintage: 2015