A supporting player among red-wine stars

VINTAGE POINT

Wines: Cabernet franc isn't as prized in the United States as some other reds, but a recent tasting uncorked samplings with fine structure and rich flavors.

March 01, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Wine Critic

Cabernet sauvignon and merlot are the international red-wine stars from Bordeaux -- so well-known that millions of Americans can mispronounce them fluently.

Transported to the New World, the two grape varieties have flourished. Go into any decent-sized American wine store, and your choice of merlots and cabernets could number in the hundreds.

But cabernet sauvignon (pronounced cab-air-NAY SOH-vihn-yohn) and merlot (mer-LOH) are not the only grapes that play an important role in the blends that make up Bordeaux reds. Cabernet franc, if it isn't a star, is at least the equivalent of a well-known supporting actor.

Cabernet franc has hardly made a splash on the American wine scene. Where it has been planted, it has usually been used as part of a Bordeaux-style blend.

That might be starting to change. More and more, American wineries are bottling cabernet franc as a varietal wine or as the dominant player in proprietary blends.

Cabernet franc has long existed in the shadow of the other cabernet, the leading grape variety of Bordeaux's Medoc region. But on the other bank of the Gironde River in St. Emilion, it plays a more important role.

In Bordeaux, cabernet-franc grapes tend to produce wine that is leaner than merlot and more herbaceous than cabernet sauvignon. It is prized for its enticing aromas of cherries and raspberries, but not for its body, color or complete flavor profile.

That could change in the United States. Several of the cabernet francs in a recent tasting showed fine structure and rich flavors. The tannins might have been too light to wow collectors, but the typical drink-it-now wine buyer will hardly be offended.

What might surprise many wine enthusiasts is the high quality of the cabernet francs being grown in the mid-Atlantic states, especially Maryland.

(A special mention should be given to the cabernet franc made by Maryland's Boordy Vineyards from old vines grown at its Burkittsville vineyard. This vineyard, on the site of a Civil War battlefield near the "home" of the Blair Witch, is yielding cabernet franc of world-class quality and distinctive character. Surely there must be the makings of a marketing campaign there that could raise the profile of all Maryland wine.)

These are some of the American cabernet francs I have tasted in recent months. Quantities are usually small, and in some cases, the vintages might have changed.

* 1996 Babcock Fathom, Santa Barbara County ($33). Cabernet franc makes up 72 percent of this proprietary blend, which shows excellent grip, length and texture. It's a big-bodied wine with hints of chocolate, coffee, black cherry and black raspberry. This complex, structured wine should improve over five years and last for 10.

* 1997 Boordy Vineyards Cabernet Franc, Maryland ($11). This is one fabulous red wine, with a winning combination of elegance and intense flavor. It displays pure, vibrant flavors of black cherry and black raspberry, with hints of herbs, chocolate and smoked meat. It's hard to say how long it will keep. It's fully ready to drink now, but there's a structure behind the charm that could let it improve for decades. I'm tempted to cellar a bottle just out of curiosity. It's no longer available from the winery, which has released its 1998, but may be in some stores.

* 1995 Bedford Thompson Cabernet Franc, Santa Barbara County ($25). This full-bodied, gripping wine is a little rough-edged now, but it is packed with flavors of black cherry, smoked meat, herbs, chocolate and coffee. It should age well for 5-10 years.

* 1997 Elk Run Cabernet Franc, Maryland ($20). In time, this Maryland cabernet franc could surpass the Boordy, but for now, it's a bit closed and tannic. There's ample fruit here, though, and the black cherry, herb and smoked-meat flavors are delicious. With three to five years' cellaring, it could be exceptional. With some breathing, it's no slouch right now.

* 1996 Chaddsford Cabernet Franc, Pennsylvania ($14). This medium-bodied wine offers lively fruit and refreshing acidity. It's an elegant red wine that would be best served with poultry or grilled tuna.

* 1995 Edgewood Estate Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley ($17). It might not have the body of other California cabernet francs, but the Edgewood does have pure fruit flavors and an appealing spiciness. At 5 years old, it is mature but well-balanced enough to last another three. It does require decanting, because there is some sediment.

* 1997 Pepperwood Grove Cabernet Franc ($6). This attractively priced wine offers medium body, ample upfront fruit and a slightly herbal edge. It's not as rounded as a good cabernet sauvignon or merlot, but it's hard to beat at the price.

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