The dark knight of Mendoza

bat signal CFFor the last three weeks in Mendoza, I’ve only been drinking one variety. It’s abounding with rich, dark fruit, grows particularly well here and is on the lips of most winemakers. Can you guess what it is yet? No, it’s not Malbec. It is the new dark horse of the eighth wine capital… a sort of Batman wine lurking in the shadows of Malbec, but gradually taking front stage as Gotham – ahem – Mendoza city wakes up to its power. The new, handsome superhero of Mendoza’s wine scene is Cabernet Franc.

Normally tucked away in blends, Cabernet Franc has been the Mendocinean winemaker’s secret weapon for the last decade or so. Enhancing Malbec with a fresh herbaceous aroma, floral elegance and a distinctive spice, Cabernet Franc has become the clandestine amigo of premium Malbec in Mendoza. As you winery hop in Lujan and the Uco Valley in particular, once you get to the top Malbecs* or blends you’ll often find the winemaker’s eyes brighten as he delivers a barrel sample with a little wink confessing ‘we’ve added just a bit of Cabernet Franc’. As a blending partner it can deepen and complexify the expression without masking its Malbec qualities. Cabernet Franc is an international comrade for red blends, but now its time has arrived to shine as the leading man.

Just a decade ago there was only one single variety Cabernet Franc made in all of Argentina, and it was like gold dust to get your hands on. These last couple of years however, have seen a real surge in single variety Cabernet Francs. Nowadays, in top restaurants and wine bars around Mendoza (and increasingly Buenos Aires) you’ll find upwards of 15 Cab Francs competing on the wine list and providing an extraordinary food partner. Production of single variety Cabernet Franc has tripled from 1.2m litres in 2006 to 3.4m litres in 2012. That is quite a jump from one lonely Cabernet Franc in 2001.

The 250% increase in plantings over the last 10 years (and 750% increase since 1990) suggests a boom, so is Cabernet Franc the next Malbec?

In short, the answer is No.

Although plantings have blossomed and word is out, 700 hectares of a variety in Argentina is a pocketful of small change (compared to 70,000 of Malbec). But more to the point, it is not Malbec. There will never be another Malbec because the Malbec boom came when land was cheap in Argentina, the Malbec was good (and cheap), Argentina was relatively undiscovered, and no-one else was producing a Malbec quite like it. Cabernet Franc on the other hand is booming in a period when the price of land in Mendoza increases by around 25% annually (you can even pick up a vineyard in Bordeaux for cheaper), good Cabernet Franc is not cheap to produce, and there are plenty of other Cabernet Francs in the metaphorical wine sea with major productions in France, USA, Italy and Canada to mention a few. Nonetheless, after the wake of Malbec, the world is now looking out for new Argentine wines and there is something undeniably special about Cabernet Franc from Mendoza…

vine heavenIf you’ve ever visited Mendoza, you’ll feel like you’ve walked into wine paradise – the sun dances across the sky every day, the air is pure and fresh, the nights are cool and the plants must be singing at the stunning Andes mountain views. It is the sort of place that vines from around the world would dream of moving to in their retirement. Even tough Tannat softens up here to become a plump and generous variety. So Cabernet Franc – with its equal berry load, tendency to share water kindly around the plant, early ripening, and often-impeccable behaviour – thrives here. Hardy Cabernet Franc is considered an ‘insurance’ variety in other parts of the world, but Mendoza’s climate doesn’t need ‘insurance’ varieties. And it is actually the Cabernet Franc that is made to suffer on poorer soils at higher altitude with more extreme day and night temperatures, that is reaping the rich and concentrated Cabernet Franc with great character and freshness that is driving Mendoza loco. “Cabernet Franc, when managed correctly on certain soils, has lots of personality and is very different to any other variety,” says Manuel Gonzalez, winemaker for Andeluna and previously Pulenta Estate (both renowned for the variety). “The future of Cabernet Franc in Argentina is great in terms of these high quality wines that we can reach.”

Cabernet Franc here is so good in fact that this year has seen a single variety Cabernet Franc top the Parker point charts. Bodega Aleanna’s Gran Enemigo Gualtallary Cabernet Franc was the highest scoring Argentine wine this year with an impressive 97 points in Wine Advocate. That is big news in Malbec country.

CF tastingIt is clear that Cabernet Franc is quickly becoming the darling of Mendoza’s wine scene, but 10 years ago it wasn’t an easy sell…

It took a cheeky – and somewhat stubborn – winemaker to go against his boss’ orders in 2001 for the first commercial single variety Cabernet Franc to be born. When young winemaker Mauricio Lorca started making wine at La Celia in La Consulta, the agronomists didn’t know what to do with this Bordeaux variety that had been planted, like so many European relatives, in the 80s. Lorca decided to change the vineyard management and vinify it to see what the variety could offer. “The wine was amazing!” recounts Lorca. “With a lot of colours, flavours and the minty, pepper characteristics of Cabernet Franc. I decided to buy some bottles and bottle it for one year.” The General Manager of the winery wasn’t as pleased about the winemaker working on this unsellable variety and told him to stop wasting money and dump it. Fortunately for La Celia, Lorca didn’t and instead kept it secretly bottled until the right person came along to taste it. That person was an importer from Switzerland who loved it so much on tasting that she wanted to buy the entire production – all 13,000 bottles. And so La Celia winery became the pioneer of single variety Cabernet Franc in Mendoza…

Soon to join the ranks of single variety Cab Franc-ophiles were key players including Pulenta Estate, Benegas Lynch, Andeluna and Catena Zapata, and the variety’s fame moved beyond Mendoza to plantings in Patagonia and even the Pampas. Pocket-sized plantations are all over the country’s vineyards, although it is Mendoza – in particular the cooler, high altitude plantings of Uco Valley and Alto Agrelo – that has given this underrated French variety a new home.

Cabernet Franc may now be flying solo into wine glasses in Mendoza, but it’s more with its partner in crime, Malbec, that it is taking front stage and showing a fabulous potential. “With these two great varieties of the world we can produce a great future for Argentine wine,” says Marcelo Pelleriti, winemaker for Monteviejo and Chateaux Le Gay in Pomerol, France, who has fallen in love with the charms of blending Cabernet Franc in both continents. “Cabernet Franc has some more floral characteristics like a Malbec, and those floral and mineral characteristics combined with Cabernet Franc’s fresh tannins work with the sweet tannins of Malbec to produce a wine that could explode our minds.” More than a great blending grape, Marcelo (like many here) believes Malbec and Cabernet Franc are kindred spirits in Mendoza – both excelling on certain soils – and he co-ferments them in barrels together for what he views as the future taste of not just Mendocinean Malbec, but Mendoza. Cabernet Franc is indeed becoming part of the taste and terroir of Mendoza.

Despite its recent boom, in my opinion Cabernet Franc will still play Batman to Argentina’s Superman: Malbec. They can however fight wine crime together saving the world from bad wines, and Malbec’s red cape will continue to orbit the globe at greater speed. Every once in a while though, Argentine Cabernet Franc will light up the night sky, and drinkers will see the masked hero once again.

When you next peer down into your glass of Mendoza red, give it a swirl and inhale deeply to see if you can spot the black-caped superhero lingering in the shadows. Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it Superman? No, it’s Cabernet Franc.

 

* Single variety wines can carry up to 15% other varieties according to Argentine legislation.

Next week I’ll be posting the best bottles from my month of Cabernet Franc studies 🙂

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