Culinary Arts

Learn About Cabernet Franc: Grapes, Wine, Region, and Tasting Notes

Written by MasterClass

May 28, 2019 • 4 min read

One of the oldest cultivated grape varieties, cabernet franc has been an underappreciated supporting player to its bolder relative, cabernet sauvignon, for centuries. But this grape, which had personality to spare, is finally getting attention on its own for its easy-drinking structure and intriguing combination of fruity, vegetal, and earthy flavors.

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What Is Cabernet Franc?

Cabernet franc (often shortened to “cab franc”) is a French red wine grape that is planted in all major wine-producing regions of the world. It is usually blended with other grapes in Bordeaux-style red wines, but cabernet franc is also made as a single-varietal wine in some regions.

History of Cabernet Franc

Cabernet franc’s history begins many hundreds of years ago in the Basque country, where southwest France meets Spain. The origin of such an old grape’s name is unclear, but it may come from the Latin for “black vine of France.” The grape is called bouchet in Bordeaux, where it has grown since at least the seventeenth century. In the Loire Valley, where it also thrives, cabernet franc is called breton.

Cabernet franc’s claim to fame is as one of the parent grapes of cabernet sauvignon, the result of a crossing with sauvignon blanc in the 1700s. In the early twentieth century, cabernet franc was widely planted in Bordeaux, but over the last few decades many growers have replaced cabernet franc vines with the more popular cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes.

What Are the Characteristics of the Cabernet Franc Grape?

Cabernet franc grapes are:

  • Hardy. The vine can adapt to many climates, including cold ones. It grows well in many types of soil.
  • Thin skinned. This yields a wine that is more moderate in tannin and lighter in color and body than cabernet sauvignon.
  • Pyrazinic. This means they contain the same compound that gives bell pepper and jalapeño their grassy, herbaceous aroma.
vineyard with wooden cabernet franc sign

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Where Does Cabernet Franc Grow?

Cabernet franc can withstand cold weather and has little trouble ripening, so it grows well in all winemaking regions of the world. There are still some notable cabernet franc-growing regions, which include:

  • Bordeaux’s Right Bank, where cabernet franc thrives in the region’s limestone, clay, and sandy gravel. The most famous wine with a high proportion of cabernet franc from the region is Château Cheval Blanc, which combines around two thirds cabernet franc with one third merlot. Cabernet franc plays a smaller role in blends of the Left Bank of Bordeaux.
  • Loire Valley cabernet francs are usually simple wines that showcase the grape’s raspberry and graphite aspects. Cabernet franc from this region is rarely aged in oak and should be drunk young.
  • Italy boasts many acres dedicated to cabernet franc in Friuli, in the northeast of the country. In Bolgheri, the central Italian appellation known for its “Super Tuscan” red blends, cabernet franc is blended with cabernet sauvignon.
  • The United States grows cabernet franc on both the east and west coasts. The cool climate of New York’s Finger Lakes and Long Island are perfect for Loire-esque cabernet franc, which has become the signature red grape of the state. Fuller-bodied, fruitier cabernet francs come from warmer regions in Washington State and from the Sonoma and Napa Valley regions in California.
  • Southern hemisphere. Small quantities of cabernet franc are made in Chile, Argentina, and South Africa. New Zealand also grows cabernet franc, where the grape is more elegant and delicate in flavor, a result of the cool southerly climate.

What Wines Are Made With the Cabernet Franc Grape?

Cabernet franc is used primarily in blended wines, bringing aromatic complexity to blends with more powerful grapes.

  • Single varietal. Cabernet franc is produced as a single-varietal red wine in the Loire Valley and in the United States.
  • Bordeaux. Along with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, it is one of the three main grapes that make up French Bordeaux wines and Bordeaux-style red blends (sometimes labeled Meritage).
  • Rosé. The Anjou region of the Loire Valley produces rosé wines with cabernet franc as a component, which is usually blended with cabernet sauvignon.

How Does Cabernet Franc Taste?

Cabernet franc is a classic medium-bodied red with moderate tannins. The flavor of cabernet franc wines are defined by a balance between red fruits, herbs, and peppery earthiness. Cabernet franc has medium-to-high acidity that makes it refreshingly easy-to-drink.

Wines made from 100% cabernet franc are delicate and aromatic, with red fruit aromas of:

  • Cherry
  • Strawberry
  • Raspberry
  • Tomato

Cabernet franc has a savory character behind the fruit, with tasting notes of:

  • Dried herbs
  • Fresh bell pepper
  • Roasted red pepper
  • Fresh mint
  • Pencil shavings

What Is the Difference Between Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon?

Cabernet franc is, with sauvignon blanc, one of the parent grapes of cabernet sauvignon. The cabernet franc grape has a thinner skin than cabernet sauvignon, so the wines made from cabernet franc tend to be lighter in color and lower in tannin. Cabernet franc ripens about one week before cabernet sauvignon. Cabernet franc can also ripen fully in slightly cooler climates than cabernet sauvignon. Cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon wines share red fruit aromas and herbaceous notes reminiscent of green bell pepper.

How Do you Pair Cabernet Franc Wine?

Cabernet franc’s mellow tannins and refreshing acidity make it a versatile partner to a wide variety of difficult-to-pair dishes, especially those prepared with fresh herbs:

  • Roast game bird with rosemary
  • Grilled vegetables like peppers, eggplant, or asparagus
  • Italian tomato-based dishes including pizza

Cabernet sauvignon blends have higher tannins that can stand up to red meats like steak or lamb. Rosé versions of cabernet franc are excellent with tart flavors, like goat cheese or chicken cooked with lemon.

Learn more about wine tasting and pairings in James Suckling’s MasterClass.