The case for cabernet franc: Uncork the Forks

Workers harvest cabernet franc grapes at Macari Vineyards in Mattituck this past fall. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Workers harvest cabernet franc grapes at Macari Vineyards in Mattituck this past fall. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

When I first moved to Long Island 15 or so years ago, I had never heard of cabernet franc. And I, like many, didn’t know what to think at first.

Now, I wasn’t nearly as into wine then as I am now. Back then it was mostly cheap, fruity Aussie wines that would fill my glass – and I think that’s part of why Long Island cabernet franc ended up being such a revelation. There were blackberry and raspberry fruit flavors, sure, but there were also these unexpected mushroomy earthy notes in some, spicy-tobacco notes in others and often a vegetative or herbal vein through all of them.

I loved it. I’ve considered myself a cab franc fanatic ever since.

But I also know that cabernet franc isn’t for everyone. That green edge can manifest as bell pepper or tomato leaf or be more subtle and distinctly herbal in a sage or even bay leaf kind of way. Those are the flavors that some people just don’t like in their wine and some winemaker try to bludgeon them out of the grape with over-ripening in the vineyard or excessive use of new oak in the cellar. Those wines can still be good – but they lose their cabernet franc-ness, which is a pity.

Cabernet franc seems an ideal choice to grow in North Fork vineyards. It’s a French black grape and is actually that country’s 6th most-planted grape – mostly in areas like  the Loire Valley, Bordeaux  and even southern Franc. It, along with the white grape sauvignon blanc, is a parent of the better-known cabernet sauvignon grape and it shares some characteristics, but – importantly for east coast viticulture – it buds and ripens earlier in the season than its offspring, meaning that it matures more consistently and is less susceptible to the unpredictable weather we have here during harvest season.

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It’s also incredibly versatile. If your merlot-based rosé is a bit simple, adding some cabernet franc to the mix can bring some complexity and structure – which is why cab franc-included rosés are almost always more interesting than straight merlot ones and why cabernet franc can be found in almost every red blend on the Island.

Even among Long Island’s regular cabernet francs, there is a dizzying array of styles. From lighter bodied, almost pinot noir-esque bottlings like those from Bedell Cellars, to the rustically charming, northern-Italian styled Bordo from Anthony Nappa Wines, to the intensely concentrated but pure Southold Farm + Cellar or Onabay Vineyards bottles to the richer, spicy renditions from Macari Vineyards, Shinn Estate or Roanoke Vineyards.

Cabernet franc is obviously not new to me now. When I’m not drinking local wine, you’ll often find cab franc from every corner of the world in my glass – whether it’s from the Loire Valley, from Italy, Southern France or even Maryland or Virginia. What I like best is how great it is with food, where all of those savory, herbal and spice notes often support and complement the flavor of my food even better than merlot can.

Lenn Thompson