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Cabernet Franc, the Underdog
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Apr 16, 2019
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Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley – Oakville, Cabernet Franc 2015 ($65):  Are you someone who likes to root for the underdog?  If so, you might want to focus your sights on Cabernet Franc.  In 2015 -- the growing season of this particular, fine Cabernet Franc wine --only 0.5 percent of all the red grapes grown in California were Cabernet Franc, while Cabernet Sauvignon accounted for 22 percent of California’s red grape tonnage.  In Napa Valley specifically, Cabernet Sauvignon owned 59 percent of the red grape action, compared to Cabernet Franc at only 3 percent.  That’s underdog status.

The quality of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is acclaimed worldwide.  But increasingly, Cabernet Franc is also impressive in its quality.  This Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Franc 2015 serves as an example.

This wine hails entirely from Mondavi’s legendary To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville.  It is the second vintage, although the 2014 was not sourced entirely from To Kalon.  Winemaker Genevieve Janssens has always blended a small amount of Cabernet Franc into Robert Mondavi’s prized To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, and the exceptional quality of that fruit over the years inspired her to produce a separate Cabernet Franc bottling.  The wine is a blend of 80 percent Cab Franc with 20 percent Cab Sauvignon. 

Its vintage, 2015, was a warm, sunny, dry year with one of the earliest harvests on record.  The grape crop was small due to cool temperatures during the critical period of fruit set, and the grapes reached maturity before a series of heat waves hit Napa Valley.  As a result, this wine shows admirable concentration of fruit coupled with freshness of flavor, and no hint of over-ripeness.

One of the key descriptors I would use for this wine is “juicy,” a term I would not be inclined to apply to a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  It is juicy because its fresh fruit flavors are mouth-watering and the wine is full of vitality.  Let me hasten to add that this is a serious wine, with a firm structure of tannin that will enable it to evolve over several years.

The aroma of this wine suggests fresh dark berry fruit, with a hint of red boysenberry, a subtle floral note, toasty oak notes and a savory, herbal complexity.  The wine’s flavors echo most of these aromas, and also suggest dark coffee and tar.  The wine is truly dry, and is full-bodied and firm, with tannins that are grippy but not overpowering.  It also boasts fresh acidity that provides depth and contributes to that “juicy” impression.  Dark fruit resonates in the long finish.  Despite the fact that the wine’s fruit is ripe and concentrated, the wine is less dense in texture than a comparable Cabernet Sauvignon; this characteristic seems to suit it to a wider range of foods, including medium-weight dishes.

The 2015 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Franc is a fairly small production wine, at just 715 cases.  It is available in restaurants and also though the winery’s website.

92 Points

Read more by Mary Ewing-Mulligan:   "On My Table"