Last night I hosted a Cabernet Franc tasting for the San Luis Obispo chapter of the American Wine Society. A nice little event that allowed me the pleasure of standing in front of the group and waxing poetic on what ever came to mind.
Whenever I am involved in a tasting that is going to be varietal based, I like to find an example that is "typical" of the varietal. Well, what's supposed to mean? Basically, when people stopped just drinking wine and decided they needed to write about it as well, where was that varietal grown and produced most commonly. Then general description of the varietal will be based on how it expresses itself from that region. Be it Pinot Noir from Burgundy or Viognier from the Rhone. In this case, I walked into our local wine shop, 15˚C, and asked for a Loire Valley red in the $15-$20 range. They supplied me with exactly what I was looking for, a 2009 from Bourgeil. It had the light body, high acid, clean drying tannins and herbaceous flavors that one would expect from a Cab Franc. The interesting part was that all 9 wines we would go on to blind taste were examples from the California Central Coast, and they would only have a passing resemblance to the Bourgueil.
It is quite vogue these days for people to talk about terroir and its importance to wine. There is no doubting that the place where the wine is produced has a massive impact on the final product. And tasting these 10 wines, I began to believe that terroir perhaps has the most important impact. Is Cab Franc known for high acid, light body, herbal aromas and bright red fruit character because of DNA, or because that is how it expresses itself in the Loire? The California wines were all of darker color, heavier aroma and more filling body. These were no California Cab Sauv fruit pies have you. The color had more reds than purples (even young), and there was still herbal flowery aromas, strong acid back bones, and firm tannins on the better examples. What really impressed me was the sensation that the better California wines achieved balance.
I'm now convinced that veteran wine critics haze the rookies by telling them their first big assignment is to go taste all the Loires. Much respect to anyone who's mouth is still functioning after tasting about 10 of this acid machines. When tasting the Bourgueil, the acid and drying tannins really stood out. They were much stronger features than the aroma, the mid-palate fruit or the finish. This to me is the basic concept of out of balance, where one feature of the wine really sticks out and carries the whole tasting experience. Think of a Chardonnay where all you can taste is oak. The wines I most appreciated during the blind tasting had a full rich nose, a wonderful bright acid fore-palate that moved into red fruits and clean firm tannins. The full nose prepared you for the the brightness of the acid, which was then balanced by the fruit and tannins, thus creating a wine with a harmonious drinking experience.
I would say that these California wines were a perfect example of what Cab Franc tastes like. Sure, some critics would balk at this. But here in Paso Robles, it is not only impossible, but pointless to produce a Bourgueil or Chinon style Cab Franc. The soil, the weather, the philosophy, and goals of the vineyard are drastically different. Thus the wines have to be different as well. To attempt copying a style not your own is pure folly. Is one wine a truer expression of Cab Franc? A silly question, for all we can do is present the wine as it expresses itself from where it was grown.