Santa’s Little Helper
For those of you who thought Santa’s Littler Helper is a young lass dressed in a flared red skirt and a snowball-tufted hat, think again. Apparently Santa’s Littler Helper is Homer Simpson’s dog, a greyhound he inherited due its remarkable losing streak in the races. Or, Santa’s littler helper could be the Cabernet Franc grape, assisting Cabernet Sauvignon in bringing joy to the wine world.
Cabernet Franc is mainly known by wine buffs because it one of the five legally permitted grape varieties grown in the famed Bordeaux region. On its own, Cabernet Franc produces wines that are less tannic and less saturated in color than the more famous Cabernet Sauvignon, but these wines rarely get the same attention as Santa Sauvignon.
Too often, Cabernet Franc’s sleigh is laden with disparaging descriptors such as green pepper, vegetal or stemmy, which at times is fair judgment. However, green characteristics emerge in many red grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, whenever grown in excessively cool climates, under indifferent conditions or when over-cropped. Good quality Cabernet Franc does emanate a slight herbal note, but definitely not an off-putting green pepper or green asparagus aroma.
The best Cabernet Franc wines – and there are many instances of Cabernet Franc leading Santa’s sleigh – are distinctive and complex. Cabernet Franc is grown throughout Bordeaux and in the Medoc section, home to famous properties such as Chateaus Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild, it comprises about 15 per cent of a typical vineyard. On the opposite side of the river, on the so-called Bordeaux right-bank, which is further inland, Cabernet Franc thrives in St. Emilion’s cooler, moister soils. The most famous cabernet franc based wine in the world is St. Emilion’s Cheval Blanc, where Santa’s littler helper is 65 per cent of the final blend.
Cabernet thrives in northern France’s Loire Valley, where the chilly air accentuates the variety’s desirable lead pencil and herbal aromas, the finest examples grown on the slopes of the Chinon village. These wines, though of modest color, are well-structured and have excellent aging potential. Loire cabernet franc is rarely oak-aged and is lighter weight than jolly ole Santa, which means it pairs better with holiday poultry, fish and charcuterie.
Cabernet franc thrives better than Cabernet Sauvignon in cool vineyards because it buds and forms grapes earlier. By budding earlier, it is able to take advantage of a long, cool growing season, becoming far riper and therefore less harshly tannic before the winter chill sets in.
If you fancy a quick kiss from Santa’s littler helper – the charming lass, not Homer’s dog – seek out Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, St. Emillion or Pomerol districts in the Bordeaux region, chilly upstate New York, Italy’s Veneto region or Shaanxi, China.