Cabernet franc


I love trying wines from appellations and designations that I haven’t come across before, some obscure, barely-populated little valley in Lombardy, say, or a hidden enclave nestled in a backwater of the Loire. And then there’s the Outer Coastal Plain, an American Viticultural Area (AVA) completely new to me. In fact, to be grossly parochial, it had never occurred to me that anyone might grow grapes and make wine, especially not real wine, in New Jersey. Hope springs eternal, of course, so I received a polite communication from the good people at Bellview Winery asking if they could send some samples for me to taste and review. Having never tried a wine from The Garden State, I agreed, on the usual stipulation that there was no guarantee that I would like or ultimately write about these products. Soon there arrived at my front door two bottles from Bellview’s roster of wines: the Syrah 2008 and the Cabernet Franc 2008. Syrah in New Jersey? I’m happy to report that both are more than decent or merely creditable, though the Cabernet Franc 2008 is the better of the pair. The wines are available only in New Jersey, but I think it’s important in a country where California dominates hearts, minds, wine lists and wallets, to understand that legitimate matters do occur in the rest of the country.

Bellview Winery is owned by Jim and Nancy Quarelle. He is a fourth-generation farmer; the winery and 30 acres of vines occupy part of the original farm established by Jim Quarelle’s great-grandfather after he immigrated from Italy in 1914. Jim and Nancy planted their first three acres in 2000; now they farm 20 grape varieties, mainly European wine grapes, but also some French-American hybrids. As many producers in secondary (or tertiary) winemaking states must do to keep the doors open, Bellview also makes a range of fruit wines.

The Outer Coastal Plain AVA, which takes in most of the lower half of New Jersey, was approved by the federal government in 2006. The terrain is mainly flat or slightly rolling, and the soil is sandy or sand and loam. It’s not surprising that the primary influence is maritime, from the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay. Summers are hot, winters fairly mild. The Outer Coastal Plain Vintners Association lists 18 wineries and 11 commercial vineyards.
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The Bellview Winery Syrah 2008, Outer Coastal Plain, with a dollop of viognier, presents an attractive ruby-purple color; the bouquet is ripe and spicy and permeated by scents of black currants, blackberries and plums touched with notes of leather and wet fur. The wine is nicely framed by modest oak and slightly more prominent tannins, chewy yet fine-grained. Bellview Syrah 2008 is quite dry, brushy with elements of briers and brambles, and its tasty but spare black and blue fruit flavors open to highlights of licorice and mint, smoke and ash. While this is a good effort, what’s lacking is the punch of a more powerfully sustained structure and texture, though marked acidity keeps the wine vibrant. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $14.
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A couple of sniffs of the Bellview Cabernet Franc 2008, Outer Coastal Plain, and I thought, “Ah ha, this is the real deal.” The color is dark ruby-purple; the bouquet is a smoldering cauldron of cedar and thyme, bell pepper and black olive, smoke and iodine and black tea, black currants and blueberries. The wine is boldly structured, boldly spicy, very dry, and you feel the austerity of burnished oak and finely milled tannins that would like to (but don’t quite manage to) sequester the earthy, loamy black currant, blackberry and plum flavors. Fortunately, a few minutes in the glass free up the wine considerably and allow those flavors more play and even the accompaniment of potpourri and bitter chocolate. Make no mistake, though; the Bellview Cabernet Franc 2008 ain’t for sissies. 12.8 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $19.
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Wine writers all over the country are receiving samples in a new format called TASTE, which stands for “Total Anaerobic Sample Transfer Environment.” Simply stated, this means that tiny samples of wine are drawn from full, 750-milliliter bottles and transferred into cute little 50-milliliter bottles in a “sealed, zero-oxygen chamber.” The idea is that this “mini-sample,” as it were, provides an utterly fresh, clean, uncontaminated version of the wine submitted for review. The mini-bottles are closed with itsy-bitsy screw-caps, and the samples are accompanied by a recommended “taste-by” date.

I received a “Flock Box” sampler of six wines from Blackbird Vineyards, a high-class outfit in the Oak Knoll District of the Napa Valley. Blackbird is owned by Michael Polenske, an investment manager-philanthropist-gallery and restaurant owning-”life aesthetic” sort of person who, fortunately, happens to turn out very impressive wine, though a great deal of credit must be given to actual winemaker Aaron Potts. The Flock Box is aimed at people who want to purchase wines from Blackbird without committing to buying full bottles untasted or perhaps only read about. This device is a boon, because the Blackbird wines are limited in quantity and they’re not cheap. On the other hand, there’s a distinct scent of exclusivity about the whole enterprise; as the winery’s website states:

Blackbird wines are available in limited quantities to private clients and the finer restaurants and resorts throughout the world. If you are not on our private client list and desire to receive an allocation, we invite you to Join the List, to receive a unique Username and password, which will enable you to immediately purchase an allocation from our portfolio of wines.

These brief reviews, therefore, are for those who possess the fiduciary prowess and the inclination to participate in such exclusionary rigmarol or who happen to find themselves looking at a wine list in a finer restaurant or resort throughout the world. The problem with the small-format bottles is that they preclude saving some wine to try the next day or tasting with a meal. After all, 50 mls equals 1.69 fluid ounces, providing, indeed, a few sips.

While all six of these wines contain some portion of cabernet sauvignon grapes, the emphasis in most of them is on merlot and cabernet franc, so the ideal, the model, would be Pomerol or St.-Emilion, those Right Bank communes of Bordeaux where merlot and cabernet franc grown so well. All of these wines carry a Napa Valley designation, though they differ in marked degree from over-ripe, super-oaky, high alcohol cabernets turned out by too many produces. The Blackbird red wines display, instead, admirable restraint and balance.
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Blackbird Arriviste Rosé 2009. 58 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon 12 percent cabernet franc. Color is light copper-salmon with peach undertones; peach and strawberry in the nose, a rosé of stones and bones, classically lean but slightly plump and creamy at the center, thirst-quenching acidity for backbone, lovely texture. 610 cases. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24.
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Blackbird Arise 2008. Merlot 42 percent, cabernet sauvignon 38 percent, cabernet franc 20 percent. Great character and presence; smooth, sapid, savory; black and red currants, black cherry, thyme, cedar, briers and brambles, dusty plums, lavender and violets: irresistible bouquet; dense and chewy, lively and vital, grainy, granite-laced tannins, fully integrated oak; a few minutes bring hints of mint and iodine; powerful and earthy but refreshing. The most accessible for Blackbird’s red wines. 1,570 cases. 14.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $50.
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Blackbird Paramour 2007. Merlot 50 percent, cabernet franc 45 percent, cabernet sauvignon 5 percent. A burst of bitter chocolate, lavender, cloves, thyme and cedar, mocha, deeply spicy and macerated black currants, black raspberry and the richness of cassis; furry, velvety tannins, you could wear them; the rigor of walnut shell and dried porcini, smoke, ask, penetrating granite-like minerality. Great detail and dimension. 534 cases. Didn’t get the alcohol, sorry. Drink 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $90.
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Blackbird Contrarian 2007. Cabernet franc 46 percent, merlot 34 percent, cabernet sauvignon 20 percent. Structure right up front; dried porcini, dusty graphite and granite, wheatmeal, cedar, thyme, tobacco; dried spices and flowers, some earthy funk but clean and vigorous; red and black currants; briers, brambles, moss; definitely the foundation and frame to age from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’24. 538 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $90.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Blackbird Illustration 2007. Merlot 70 percent, cabernet franc 20 percent, malbec 5 percent. Sleek, polished, elegant, honed; basalt and granite; dense, intense, concentrated; leather, smoke; ripe, spiced and macerated black currants and plums; great definition, as in slim, lithe, supple and muscled, the weight and substance subdued to a sense of generosity, refinement and mobility. This is, frankly, a wonderful wine, though it could use some age, say from 2014 or ’15 through 2021 to ’24. Production was 1,324 cases. Excellent. About $90.
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Blackbird Illustration 2006. 86 percent merlot, 11 percent cabernet franc, 3 pecent cabernet sauvignon. Immediately seductive, with potpourri, lavender and licorice, cloves, dried red and black fruit with ripe black currants and cherries carrying an infusion of dusty granite and slate; this smolders in the glass; smooth and mellow, balanced and integrated, dense and chewy with some plush, show-offy tannins, yet so elegant, so sophisticated that it’s completely entrancing. Drink now through 2016 or ’18. Production was 1,195 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $90.
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It’s nice to know that after writing about wine for 26 years I can still be surprised. Readers, I had never heard of Crémant de Bordeaux, or I passed right over it in my reading, so I jumped at the chance to try three examples when they were offered to me as samples.

Clive Coates, in his valuable An Encyclopedia of the Wines and Domaines of France (University of California Press, 2000), mentions Crémant de Bordeaux briefly, saying, “There is only a small quantity … and it is rarely seen.” In his comprehensive World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, revised and updated edition, 2003), Tom Stevenson dismisses Crémant de Bordeaux thus: ” … there is nothing special about Bordeaux bubbly. For a region that is supposed to have the best climate in the world for winemaking, Bordeaux performs very poorly when it comes to sparkling wines.” One problem, he says, is the belief that “the Crémant appellation makes a useful dumping ground for unripe or poor quality grapes.” All in all, the stuff “is a modest and inoffensive fizz at best.”

Well, take that, Crémant de Bordeaux! This wine was once called Bordeaux Mousseaux (“moo-so”), as Steven Spurrier notes in The Concise Guide to French Country Wines (Perigree Books, 1983) — one of the first books about wine that I studied assiduously — but that designation was replaced by Crémant de Bordeaux in 1990, with Bordeaux Mousseaux being phased out by 1995.

Perhaps matters have improved. The trio of wines I tried were not, I’ll admit, terrifically compelling (well, one was), but they were certainly better than mere curiosities, ranging in quality from more than O.K. to (I suppose improbably) excellent. The prices are quite reasonable.

First, the Jaillance Brut Rosé, Crémant de Bordeaux, is a blend of 80 percent cabernet franc and 20 percent merlot. The color is rosy-strawberry-copper; whiffs of orange rind, dried currants and raspberries with a hint of ripe strawberry lead to a lively sparkling wine that delivers notes of ginger, pomander and spiced and macerated red currants in a dense, almost viscous package that starts a bit off-dry but firms up to clean, fresh dryness on the finish, aided by heaps of limestone minerality. Quite charming. Jaillance also produces other basic Bordeaux wines and a nifty Crémant de Bourgogne. Very Good. About $17.

Chateau de Lisennes Brut, Crémant de Bordeaux, is a blend of 50 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 20 percent cabernet franc. The property, in the Entre-Deux-Mers, between the rivers Garonne and Dordogne, dates back to the 18th Century. This is another charming, indeed almost elegant, Crémant de Bordeaux, that sports a pale gold color, a plethora of tiny bubbles, and a distinctive smoky, steely aura with a slight floral cast. The wine is crisp and vivacious, with spicy roasted lemon and lemon balm flavors heightened by orange zest and limestone supported by a pleasingly dense, almost chewy texture. Very Good+. About $17.

Third in this line-up is the Favory Brut, Crémant de Bordeaux, produced by Elizabeth and Armand Schuster Ballwil’s Chateau Montlau, on an estate where grapes were first cultivated in 1473. The blend is 65 percent semillon, 35 percent muscadelle. This is elegance personified, a steely, stony sparkler, bright, dry, crisp, clean, with traces of roasted lemon and lemon balm, a whiff of sea-salt and salt-marsh earthiness, and a seemingly vast field of limestone. It’s bracingly effervescent, high-toned and rather amazingly good. Excellent. About $16.50.

These wines are limited in production, limited in importation and, sadly, limited in availability, which seems to be mainly in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Keep an eye out for these or any other Crémant de Bordeaux sparkling wines; the Favory Brut is especially Worth a Search.

Fans of super-ripe, velvety, alcoholic cabernet- and merlot-based wines from California might have a difficult time understanding Chateau Bahans Haut-Brion 2001, a classically spare, lean, highly structured yet sensually appealing red wine that we drank with our usual Christmas Eve dinner of standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts in brown butter, followed by a selection of cheeses and Dow’s Trademark Reserve Porto. Yes, very English in the Old Sense.

Bahans Haut-Brion is the “second” wine of the celebrated Chateau Haut-Brion, the only red wine from Bordeaux’s Graves region admitted to the pantheon of the almost sacred 1855 Classification. Many chateaux in Bordeaux use the second wine concept to divert grapes that might not be of the highest quality into a wine that will be much less expensive (and less great) than the primary product but still reflect the character of the estate. Second wines have been around for a long time; Bahans Haut-Brion has been produced since 1907.

Chateau Haut-Brion is an old property, dating back to the mid 16th Century. English diarist Samuel Pepys was a fan, as was American President Thomas Jefferson. It has been owned since 1935 by the Dillon family, the only Bordeaux First Growth in American hands. The part of Graves where Chateau Haut-Brion stands, now encompassed by the busy suburbs of the city of Bordeaux, was designated Pessac-Leognan in 1987. The vineyards yield about 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 37 percent merlot and 18 percent cabernet franc. With the 2007 vintage, Bahans Haut-Brion was renamed Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, after the American banker who bought the estate. For some period, Bahans Haut-Brions was sold as a non-vintage wine, a marvelous example of which I tasted in the late 1980s.

I decanted our Christmas Eve bottle of Chateau Bahans Haut-Brion 2001 an hour before dinner, not because of the possibility of sediment — there was none — but because a taste I had tried several weeks earlier indicated some hardness that needed a little airing to soften. By the time we sat down to eat, the wine seemed close to drinkable, though it continued to evolve as several hours passed. At first sniff, the wine offers notes of wheatmeal and walnut shell, cedar and tobacco and a tinge of dried spice and dried red and black currants. Gradually, as moments passed and we sipped and partook of perfectly rosy-rare slices of beef, Bahans Haut-Brion 2001 unfurled hints of violets and lavender, mocha and bitter chocolate, the latter seemingly wrapped around ripe black currants, black raspberries and plums. Even as it opened and became more approachable and enjoyable, though, the wine retained a sense of lithe sinewy muscularity and animation, based on an architecture of dry, dusty tannins, polished oak and profound acidity. The wine did not let us forget that while it was, after all, made from grapes, that fruit found its origin in dirt, subsoil and underlying strata, nor did it neglect, finally, the beguiling, vinous appeal that compelled us to return to the glass. 13 percent alcohol. Typical production of Bahans is 7,500 cases; production of Chateau Haut-Brion itself is about 15,000 cases. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. Prices on the Internet range, ludicrously, from about $40 to $70. I was fortunate enough to purchase two bottles at the lower end of that spread.

Imported by Diageo Chateau & Estates, New York.

I know that readers hate posts that begin like “So-and-so winery turns out minuscule amounts of …” because it means I’m writing about wines they will never see. Nonetheless, in the interest of comprehensive coverage, I must occasionally bring such producers and their wines to your attention. The hills and dales and byways of California, Washington and Oregon (yes, and many other states in this Great and Shining Union) are filled with small family-owned wineries that hardly ever receive national coverage, and when one contacts me and offers to send me samples of their wares, I usually say, “O.K., let’s see what’s going on.”

One example is Misty Oaks Vineyard in Orgeon’s Umpqua Valley. This appellation in the southern part of the state is formed by the conjunction of three mountain ranges and the Umpqua River, all of which come together to form many distinct little valleys and microclimates. Grapes have been grown in Umpqua Valley since the 1880s, when German immigrants who had worked for Beringe, came north from California. Umpqua is home to 21 wineries.

Steve and Christy Simmons, owners of Misty Oaks, came to Umpqua — which means “thunder water” or “across the waters” — from Alaska. They have 15 acres of vines that range from 300 to 1,000 feet elevation. The red grapes are pinot noir, cabernet franc and malbac, the whites cool climate pinot blanc, pinot gris and gewurztraminer. I recently tried the Pinot Blanc 2008 and Cabernet Franc 2008.

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The Misty Oaks Constitution Ridge Pinot Blanc 2008, Umqua Valley, is about as pretty as pinot blanc gets. The color is radiant medium straw-gold. Aromas of lemon balm and lemon curd, delicate peach and pear and a hint of petrol entice the nose, while in the mouth, the wine, which ferments and aged half-and-half in stainless steel and wood, is suave and svelte and displays gratifying balance between soft, almost pillowy ripe lushness and clean, spare elegance. Flavors of lemon and pear with a hint of melon and lightly buttered toast turn smokier and spicier in the glass, and the finish brings in a tinge of lime peel and shale-like minerality. The wine could use a slight jolt of acidity to lend more liveliness, but mainly this is a terrifically appealing pinot blanc. Production was 220 cases. 13.8 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $16.
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The Misty Oaks Jones Road Cabernet Franc 2008, Umqua Valley, captures the dark, spicy, tarry side of the grape. This is very intense, very concentrated, and you have to give a glass of the stuff a little patience to elicit what turn out to be pretty damned heavenly strains of black currants, blackberries and blueberries set against a beguiling background of rhubarb and black olive, bacon fat, dried thyme and a touch of bell pepper. I mean, this is spot-on for an Anjou cabernet franc. In the mouth, you run into some dusty truculent tannins and brooding granite-laced earthiness that a year or two should bring to bay, though the wine’s slowly unfurling black and blue fruit flavors, etched with filigrees of bitter chocolate and potpourri, hold immense promise through 2015 to ’18. Production was 75 cases. 13.9 percent alcohol. May I just say that this is one of the purest examples of a 100 percent cabernet franc wine I have tasted from the West Coast. Excellent. About $28, and I’m sorry, I wish more were available.
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