A Cabernet Franc Face-off

When it comes to scenery, Long Island is no match for the Loire Valley. The flat former potato fields of the North Fork bear no resemblance to the steep vineyards and castellated towns that punctuate the shores of the Loire and its tributaries. Moreover, the soils of Long Island’s vineyards differ greatly from those of the middle Loire, home territory of Chenin blanc and Cabernet franc: If anything, the North Fork soils come closest to the low-lying, sandy gravels and clays of Bordeaux, where Cabernet sauvignon is king..

.

Loire Vineyard

.

Paumanok Vineyard

.
But despite all those differences, Loire grapes do very well on the North Fork. White varieties particularly thrive: Almost every grower on Long Island cultivates Sauvignon blanc, the star of the upper Loire, and Paumanok Vineyards particularly has had startling success with Chenin blanc, the prized white grape of the middle Loire.

Given that, I wondered how well Cabernet franc, the chief red grape of the middle Loire, which makes such charming dinner wines as Chinon and Bourgueil, would fare on the North Fork. To find out, I decided to taste a representative Loire Cab franc from a classic appellation against Paumanok’s Cab franc – Paumanok because of its achievement with the middle Loire’s Chenin – and check out the similarities and differences. Easy and fun: my ideal combination for all chores. And made all the more fun when Beloved Spouse opted to make a classic Loire dish for us to taste the wines with: the perfect way to spend a rainy Sunday, eating and drinking our own personal sunshine.

For this experiment I had on hand a 2016 Domaine de la Haute Olive Chinon and a 2014 Paumanok. It turned out to be just as interesting and enjoyable as I had hoped. Both wines smelled and tasted authentically of the variety – light fruit aromas, perhaps a little raspberry, with earthy, herbaceous notes and even a hint of smoke, soft on the palate, with moderate acidity and subdued black fruit: not powerhouses but charmers. Those are classic Cabernet franc characteristics.

.
Tasted by themselves, in the sort of isolation that so often marks professional tastings and judgings, they seemed unexciting, but sound and well made. A hint of what they were capable of as dinner wines showed in the way both got the digestive juices flowing. They wanted food, and made the tasters want it too.

As a textbook illustration of everything that’s wrong with formal wine tastings and their resulting scores, these wines changed dramatically when dinner appeared: Both just blossomed, opening complex, soft flavors that interplayed differently and beautifully with each dish. Their differences from each other, almost invisible in the formal tasting, showed more clearly with food, the Chinon slightly lighter bodied and more elegant, the Paumanok fuller, earthier – but both interacted splendidly with the dinner. (You can read about our dinner dishes on Diane’s blog, here.) It’s no wonder Rabelais loved the wines of Chinon: They played his game.
.

.
It was abundantly clear from this little experiment that Paumanok Vineyards has gotten Cabernet franc right, verifying in my mind that it has a vocation for Loire grapes. The question it raises for me is, how much of the North Fork shares that vocation? The predominant red grapes planted there are, unsurprisingly, Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot, just as in California. The prestige of Bordeaux wines has largely straightjacketed American winemaking since the 1960s, and the small amount of Cabernet franc grown here is almost always used only in Meritage wines and other replications of the orthodox Médoc blend – so Paumanok deserves praise for having the courage to bottle a monovarietal Cab franc, and even more praise for getting it so right.

The Cabernet franc red wines of the middle Loire make wonderful drinking, without being overly expensive: Sunday dinner wines you could call them, if families still made Sunday dinner a weekly special occasion. They don’t demand long aging, though they can take it, and they don’t require reverence or ceremony in their consumption. Though, come to think of it, they can probably take that too: I am just remembering that humble Cabernet franc constitutes about two-thirds of the blend of the fabled Cheval Blanc, one of Bordeaux’s greatest red wines. I do hope some Long Island grape growers will also remember that.

5 Responses to “A Cabernet Franc Face-off”

  1. Philip H Christensen Says:

    Tom,

    My son Jon is tasting room manager at One-Woman Winery in Southold. Claudia (Purita, the owner) has just introduced a Cabernet franc, which I think is quite good and to be very good over time. One Woman was recognized at the 8th Annual New York International Wine Competition (2018) in three categories: gold (Bordeaux Style Blend), silver (Rosé Dry 2017), and (Individual Awards-U.S,A.) Long Island Winery of the Year. For New Yorkers, these wines are available at Taste NY Grand Central and at the winery in Southold, which only accepts small groups (6 or fewer) and is set in a charming bucolic setting. One caveat: the North Fork is besieged with traffic in the fall!

    Thanks for the education you provide through this blog. Rarely, is someone lucky enough to have you as mentor, in two different disciplines!

    Phil

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thanks, Phil, both for the compliments and for the information: I will definitely look into One-Woman Winery.

  2. dgourmac Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. Have had very good Cab Francs from the North Fork.

  3. kimginsber@aol.com Says:

    Tom and Diane, Thank you for doing and sharing this tasting. I have asked, for decades, don’t the Long Island Wineries LOOK at the land they have ??? I especially enjoy the recipes with pictures and descriptions of the process, not just a list of ingredients and directives. I look forward to making it myself ! Kim Ginsberg SPIRIT ADVISOR

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thanks for the comments, Kim. It would be exciting if LI growers — or California growers, for that matter — could break out of the Bordeaux uniform.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.