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Anson on Thursday: The mystery of the disappearing Cabernet Franc

I first got the feeling that all was not right in the world of Left Bank Cabernet Franc while in the cellars of Lafite Rothschild a few years ago.

Long-time winemaker and technical director Charles Chevallier is a self-confessed Cabernet Franc lover. And he is nothing if not loyal. Chevallier fights a good fight for this grape variety; Bordeaux’s oldest, that dates back several centuries earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and seems to have fathered or co-parented pretty much every other variety in the fields here, in one way or another. I’ve heard Chevallier defend the perfume and vibrancy that it can bring to a blend, but the blending process is a carefully controlled democracy at Lafite and it has been several years since he has won the argument include it in the blend for the grand vin. (Until this year, which does include 3% Cabernet Franc).
I understand his point of view. There are moments when I crave the subtle, savoury splendor of Cabernet Franc. Of course from the Loire Valley, but also from Irouleguy down on the Spanish border, or the touches of grace that it provides in Sonoma or Margaret River. Australian viticulturalist Brian Croser recently suggested that its popularity is about to explode, as consumer tastes continue to shift away from big alcohol fruit bombs. So why are more and more Left Bank classified estates either pulling up Cabernet Franc from their vineyards, or just choosing not to include it in the first wine?

At recent count, Leoville Barton has gone from 8% Cabernet Franc a few years ago to 3% now, Chateaux Haut Bailly has gone from 10% to 3% and routinely keeps it out of its first wine, Chateau Olivier in Pessac Leognan pulled up 2 hectares of Cabernet Franc in 2007 and replaced it with Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, making them entirely Cabernet Franc-free, Chateau Talbot pulled up the entirety of its 3% Cabernet Franc… and there are plenty more.  

At the same time, over on the Right Bank of the Garonne, Cabernet Franc is having something of a moment; Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Angelus are all big proponents, Pavie is severely upping its Cabernet Franc contingent, as are Pressac and Grand Corbin. Clearly it has always been a grape that does best on the Right Bank, but are we seeing a definitive shift away from it in the Medoc and Pessac Leognan? And why?
Several winemakers have cited the problem of getting good clones – a similar story with Semillon led a group of 17 producers, including Guiraud and Olivier, to create a private clonal programme in 2008 to propagate quality Semillon that is just now making its way into the wines. The local Chamber of Agriculture has accepted three new clones (with another one the way at the end of the year) that will be commercially available from 2018. These have been selected for their quality potential, most notably the concentration of flavours and tannins that they offer, and will more than double the number of clones currently available to winemakers, but Kees Vanleeuwen of Cheval Blanc is sceptical that clones are the issue. ‘I can’t see objectively why Cabernet Franc shouldn’t work on certain soils on the Left Bank. I think it is more a matter of being happy with Cabernet Sauvignon – it’s a question of habit’.
Overall, Cabernet Franc accounts for 9% of all plantings across the Gironde, compered to 9.8% in 2010, with just 3% of that in the Medoc, compared to 15% of plantings on the Right Bank. And if we believe the old rule for vines that older is better, we should be seeing a quality boom, as 55% of the Cabernet Franc grapes are aged between 20 and 40 years old.
‘That may be the problem’, says Hubert de Bouard, who has increased Cabernet Franc at Angelus, but also works with dozens of properties as a consultant, and confirms the trend of moving away from the variety on the Left Bank. ‘On the Left Bank Cabernet Franc has always been viewed as a difficult grape – it’s sensitive, it doesn’t like soils that are too dry and hot, so the gravel predominance in the Medoc and Pessac can be tough, although too wet can be tough also, so pure clay isn’t ideal. There are rare places where they like it such as Leoville Las Cases, but historically it’s a Right Bank variety – an effect perhaps partly of clone and soils, but also a cultural thing. The Left Bank vineyard is typically high density and high yields. Over on the Right Bank we are are less focused on yields, and density is typically a little lower – useful in this case because cabernet franc loses quality quickly when it heads over a yield of 30 hectolitres per hectare. In smaller estates it is easier to keep an eye on it – something that suits the smaller scale, garden-style viticulture of Saint Emilion and Pomerol’.
‘But there is a bigger issue. Cabernet Franc vines need some age – both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon give better results at a young age. The problem right now is that many of the older Cabernet Franc vines were planted in the 1970s when planting rights on the Right Bank were only granted for the planting of Cabernet Franc or Sauvignon (in an attempt to up these varieties by the local chamber of agriculture after devastating frosts had proved particularly bad for Merlot) but they were often planted on the wrong rootstock, and in the wrong place. This was also true on the Left Bank, and when coupled with dry soils, it has proved really problematic.’
‘All of this has been brought into focus in recent years because Cabernet Franc is so sensitive to temperature,’ says consultant and professor Denis Dubourdieu, who also confirmed that he has recommended many of his Left Bank clients – such as Haut Bailly – pull up their cab franc. ‘There have been a number of hot years recently that saw Cabernet Franc shut down its maturation cycle on the Left Bank but not on the Right Bank where the soils are better adapted. When Cabernet Franc blocks, you get green pyrazine aromas and it makes the entire structure of the wine overly austere. Besides perhaps Chateau du Tertre, I have never seen Cabernet Franc in the Medoc that year in year out goes into the grand vin’.
Global warming is clearly why Cabernet Franc is rising on Right Bank,’ agrees Vanleeuwen. ‘It ripens increasingly well, and even without worrying about alcohol levels in Merlot, Cabernet Franc gives freshness and florality. The Medocains have the easy solution of Cabernet Sauvignon which gives quick results and is less sensitive. So why would they bother trying to tame Cabernet Franc?’.

See more Bordeaux 2014 coverage:

Bordeaux 2014

Written by Jane Anson

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