The Basissts of the Forgotten Grapes Band
“It's like fire and ice, basically. I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that, Kind of like lukewarm water.”
This quote comes from one of the greatest fictional bassists of all time, Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap, and it nicely sums up the role that both bassists play in most rock bands and that Cabernet Franc plays in traditional Bordeaux blends. Most bassists are included in the band simply to hold the line, to keep the song going and provide a constant rhythm and beat while the lead singer wails, prances, and entertains the crowd, the lead guitarist shreds and breaks off on his own riffs, and the drummer bangs away in his own little world, partially obscured to the rest of the audience (and if you don’t think there’s a correlation between drummers being partially obscured on the stage, being in their own world, and several of the most famous drummers of the 1960’s and 1970’s dying prematurely from drug overdoses, then you just don’t know rock n’ roll, my friend...but that’s a conversation for another time). Bassists are the benchmark, the constant, the metronome that keeps things ticking while melodic chaos ensues all around.
Likewise, Cab Franc is blended into clarets and Bordeaux blends for precisely the same reasons: because it provides a stiff, dry backbone that keeps these famous wines upright and prevents them from getting too fruity (from the Merlot and Malbec) or too tannic (from the Cabernet Sauvignon) or too dry (from the Petit Verdot). In this case, Cab Franc is like the traffic cop or the disciplinarian – keeping order and everything else in line to ensure that the wine remains in its drinkable sweet spot. It’s what makes the wine wine.
But, while most bassists enjoy a state of relative anonymity for most of their careers (honestly, show of hands out there from those of you who could tell me what band Ross Valory played bass for, or who knew who Michael Anthony was before he broke out the Jack Daniels bass for the first time), there are those bassists that stand out, those that get noticed and actually lead the band either through their charm, their charisma, or their singing or songwriting prowess. You can see some of those men on the front page and up above – punk/indie god Mike Watt, Sting, Gene Simmons, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Geddy Lee of Rush, Primus’ Les Claypool, Bootsy Collins...these are the bassists who redefine the instrument and role of the bass player itself, men who can keep the beat but lead at the same time. They are unafraid to step out from the darkest trenches of the stage and introduce themselves to the audience. They are the bassists not afraid to go solo.
And so there exists Cabernet Francs that can do the same, Cab Francs that can stand on their own in 100% varietal wines and be enjoyed and enjoyable all on their own. These wines can be dry, sharp, and short, and may be an acquired taste for some – much like Primus’ music, Gene Simmons’ theatrics, or the two-string lead slide bass of Morphine’s dearly departed Mark Sandman (we miss you, Mark!) – but even if you don’t appreciate what they have to offer, you have to appreciate that they do clearly make a statement and cater to a specific set of individuals out there. There’s no doubt that Cab Franc belongs in that solo realm, even if you don’t want to drink it. And, as it were, no other realm is more synonymous with 100% varietal Cabernet Franc than France’s Loire valley.
Along the western-flowing portion of the Loire, from the town of Orleans to the seaside city of Nantes, Cabernet Franc is the dominant red varietal of the region, used in 100% varietal wines that bear the appellation names of Anjou, Chinon, Vouvray, and Bourgueil. Despite the preponderance of Cab Franc in the Bordeaux region, the Loire is where Cab Franc was born, and recent DNA tests of Cab Franc grapes have proven that it is in fact the genetic parent (along with Sauvignon Blanc) to Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet another case where the son has exceeded the father in talent, fame, and success.
All this being said, Cab Franc is an incredibly ubiquitous grape, grown on almost every continent around the world. And more and more, you will find it stepping out from its dutiful assigned role in blends and grasping the spotlight to itself. It still doesn’t have the same cache or level of fame among the general public as lead singers and guitarists like Cab Sauv or Merlot (and even the drummers Carmenere and Malbec are catching up fast – like the Dave Grohls of wine that they are), but for real connoisseurs and those that appreciate how numerous disparate parts can come together to form one solid, melodic, harmonious song or wine, Cab Franc is a cult classic. Isn’t it about time you
tried it out for yourself or gave it another chance?
How do I pronounce Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Franc Looks Like:
Typically a Cab Franc will have a deep garnet color and some translucence to it, where you can kind of see some light through it and it’s not as inky dark as Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons, Malbecs, or other noble grapes from Bordeaux. However, with some of the more new-world versions of Cab Franc, the winemakers will macerate the grapes a bit longer and allow for more of those tannins to seep into the juice, creating a deeper, darker, black cherry or plum colored wine closer to its Bordeaux brethren. It’s going to be up to you to decide which wine you are drinking, but you should be able to tell by the color. And the label. Duh.
Cabernet Franc Smells Like:
Now here is where we get into the love it/hate it division of Cab Franc, as well as carry on the old world/new world division. Old world Cab Francs (from France and Italy) will have strong, pungent, almost vegetal aromas on the wine – scents of green olives, leather, tobacco, bell pepper, and grape stems. New world Cab Francs, though, tend to bring more fruit and floral scents to their bouquets – raspberries, strawberries, cherries, and violets. Two contrasting styles, and again, two very different acquired tastes, each with its own proponents and opponents.
Cabernet Franc Tastes Like:
Again, there is a distinct difference between the old world Cab Francs of the Loire, France, and Italy and the new world styles of the U.S., Australia, and abroad. Typically, old world Cab Francs will be very dry and very short wines. You may get an initial burst of some fruit right on the tip of the tongue – cherry, strawberry, or raspberry – but that will fade quickly into a mellow, almost salty dryness, akin to an olive brine (note: this is not a bad thing, just an acquired taste, like how some people prefer martinis to Manhattans). New world wines may also possess some dryness as well, but will typically be more redolent of bigger fruit flavors, although those flavors are often heavier and darker than in the old world vintages. These wines also might have more length on their back ends.
● California, especially Napa Valley, Sonoma, and the Central Coast
● France's Loire Valley
● Washington state
● New York’s Long Island and Finger Lakes regions
● Canada, especially the Niagara Peninsula and in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley
● Primarily used in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Chile as a blending grape.
Cindy’s “Did Juneau?”:
Despite its birthplace in the Loire and that region’s history of producing 100% varietal Cab Franc wines, Bordeaux is still the one region in France that grows more Cabernet Franc than any other. Nearly half of all of France’s nearly 90,000 acres of Cabernet Franc is grown in Bordeaux (primarily in the right bank appellation of Pomerol, St.-Emilion, and Fronsac) and through the late 1960’s, roughly equal amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were grown in the region. However, even with the explosion of Cabernet Sauvignon over the last 30 years, Bordeaux winemakers are not giving up on Cab Franc in favor of the more popular grape. Cab Franc acreage has continued to rise over that period, from around 25,000 acres in the late 1960’s to 35,000 acres by the turn of the century.
Cabernet Franc cries out for chicken, because it’s not too big as to overpower the wine, but not so salty as it’s going to take away from the wine either. One great dish to pair with a Cabernet Franc is a variation on a traditional Chicken Marseillaise dish. First fry up some bacon or lardons, then brown a whole batch of chicken thighs in the bacon fat. Move the chicken and bacon to a big earthenware pot, then add in some tomatoes, onions, garlic, oranges, and olives. Slow-cook that for 3 or 4 hours, letting all the flavors meld and getting those chicken thighs super, super tender, and then serve. Terrific with a Cab Franc and French.
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