5 Cali Cab Francs

Cab Franc is one of my favorite red grapes. It has flavors in common with Cabernet Sauvignon, but it has its own distinctive spicy, herbal style. It’s also kind of an underdog, and I love the underdog grapes. It can take some getting to know, but it’s well worth it, IMHO.

First of all, this venerable grape deserves mad respect. Without it, we wouldn’t have Merlot, Carmenère, or Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a parent to them all. In the last case, Cab Franc crossed paths with Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux at some point in the 1600s. The two had a wild love affair, and voilà! Cabernet Sauvignon is the product of that particular tryst.

Cab Franc one of the most ancient of the Bordeaux grapes, where it is commonly thought to have originated, however, Jancis Robinson points to the Basque Region of Spain for its origin or possibly in South West France. (GuildSomm.com similarly puts the origins in the Western Pyrenées of Spain and France) In BDX it’s a key grape to the blends of the region, however, it almost always takes a back seat to its kids, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, each holding dominance over the Left and Right Banks respectively. Once upon a time, Cab Franc was more widely planted, but the fashionable Merlot pulled ahead in the late 20th century. One notable exception is the famous Château Cheval Blanc, which continues to put Cab Franc in the lead in their blends.

In France, this grape’s real home today is in the Loire Valley, where Cab Franc is the star red grape in the sub-regions of Touraine and Anjou. It likes the cooler climate of the Loire and makes beautiful, elegant, herby wines. I’m planning to share a wine from the Loire very soon, so we’ll go into it more deeply then, but I have to admit that these tend to be my favorite expressions of the grape. 

You’ll find it grown in lots of other places and in a range of styles. The flavors and structure can vary A LOT depending on where and how it’s grown/made, however, it’s thinner skinned than Cab Sauv and will tend to show somewhat lighter tannic structure. It will typically have red to dark fruit flavors, and can show notes of graphite, leather, flowers, and cigar box. It does tend to be high in pyrazines, the compound that will give green notes to a wine, which can show up as anything from herbs to full-on green bell pepper. This feature can be off-putting to a lot of people, so admittedly Cab Franc can be divisive and isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s really worth getting to know different styles since they can be so varied. 

In California, I tend to find Cab Francs fall into two big camps, broadly speaking. The California sun leads to rich fruit, so the tendency is for bigger, more extracted styles. Then there’s another group that emulates the lighter Loire style, but with a California spin.

Since I love the Cab Francs from the Loire Valley, my tendency is to prefer wines from the second camp, and happily I’ve been seeing more being made in this vein. However, wines from the more full-bodied camp definitely have their place as well. For one thing, much like certain California Merlots, they can present a really great value alternative to pricey Cab Sauvs. If you like the rich fruit and a full-bodied structure of Napa Cab, then it’s definitely worth exploring Cab Franc. Most of today’s wines were provided as samples and fall into this camp, and we had them with meaty dishes that were perfect for chilly nights.

Dracaena Wines Cabernet Franc Paso Robles 2016 & A Burger

Price: $34  (Sample)

This wine is made by Mike and Lori Budd in Paso Robles. Lori runs their blog, and we’re in several blogging groups together (see below). She’s also invited me to be on her podcast several times. Lori is essentially president of the Cab Franc fan club, so much so that she started Cab Franc Day, now celebrated on December 4th every year. This past December, she invited me to participate in an online discussion in celebration of the day and arranged for samples to be sent for participation. Essentially, this gave me a steady stream Cab Francs to enjoy throughout the winter. Thanks Lori!

Included in the mix was one of Dracaena’s own 2016 Cab Franc. It was rich with notes of black cherry, blackberry, white pepper, mocha, tobacco, herbs, and hints of lavender. We had this wine with a burger topped with caramelized onions and it worked really well. There was a little smokiness to the wine,  which worked deliciously with the char on our burgers.

Hearst Ranch Lone Tree Cabernet Franc Paso Robles 2016 & Meatballs

Price: $45 (Sample)

One day, near the beginning of the year, Greg decided to make meatballs . . . a lot of meatballs. We somehow convinced ourselves to buy 8 freaking pounds of meat, and Greg went to work making meatballs, loosely based on a recipe from Kenji Lopez-Alt’s excellent cookbook, The Food Lab. He was making meatballs for hours, and he probably made enough meatballs to last us all year. This first night, we had the meatballs with mushroom gravy on polenta. 

For our wine, we paired it with the Hearst Ranch Lone Tree Cabernet Franc Paso Robles 2016. This winery is headed by Steve Hearst (yes, from that Hearst family) and Jim Saunders. This was potentially the biggest of the Cab Francs we tried here, so if you’re a Cabernet Sauvignon lover, this one is for you. It had quite a bit of spice as well, probably coming from the 24% Petit Verdot in the blend. It was polished with balanced oak (90% neutral, and 10% new split between French and American) notes bringing hints of coffee. There were also notes of black cherry, currants, bramble, herbs, and light green pepper.

It might’ve been a little bigger  than ideal for the meatballs, but it worked generally well with the richness of the dish.

Brecon Estate Cabernet Franc Paso Robles 2016 & Ribs

Price: N/A (Sample)

One more wine from Paso, and also on the bigger, bolder end. It’s warm in Paso, which tends to lead to riper fruit flavors. Brecon Estate is owned by the Grindley and Hacket families and they make small-batch wines that they sell through their tasting room. I couldn’t find the production notes on this wine, but those for the 2015 bottling say that they have the oldest Cab Franc vineyard in Paso. This wine had notes of chocolate, black pepper, blackberries, plums, black cherry, light herbs, and a little green pepper.

We enjoyed this with Sticky Tamarind Baby Back Ribs based on the recipe in Melissa Clark’s Dinner in an Instant. This was actually the inaugural run of our Instant Pot! This wine also had a bit of smoky character and worked well with our meaty meal.

Thumbprint Cellars Ramazotti Vineyard Cabernet Franc Alexander Valley 2014 & More Ribs

Price: $50 (Sample)

By total coincidence, we also had the Thumbprint Ramazotti Vineyard Cabernet Franc Alexander Valley 2014 with ribs.  Our friends Toni and Loren had us over for a dinner with Southern cooking theme. They made ribs and cornbread, and we made collard greens based on this recipe on Serious Eats, and we brought this bottle to go with dinner. 

This was the most savory of the bottles we tried. It had smoky charred notes, black cherries, currants, dark plums, green pepper, cedar, and kind of an old woodsy note. For me, this wine was lacking a bit on the midpalate, however, that smoky quality once again worked well with the char on the ribs. 

Tessier Alegria Vineyard Cabernet Franc Russian River Valley 2016 & Steak

My friend Toni–the same we enjoyed the ribs and collard greens mentioned above– helped me with the beautiful succulents arrangement on these pics. Check out her beautiful work at Succulents for Hire.

Price: $38, for the 2017 Vintage (Sample)

We’ve explored a lot of big expressions of Cab Franc today, so I wanted to share at least one in that more medium-bodied, Loire-inspired style that I tend to be partial to. This one just happens to be made by a friend of mine, Kristie Tacey, in Berkeley, California. Kristie was a scientist once upon a time until she decided to turn her talents to winemaking. 

She lent me a bottle of her Tessier Alegria Vineyard Cabernet Franc Russian River Valley 2016  to use for a photoshoot of bottles I did in advance of Bâtonnage Forum last year. She let me keep the bottle and I took it with me on one of our trips up to the Culinary Cabin. We paired it with a coffee-spiced, sous vide steak with grilled veggies and potato-cauliflower mash made by our friends Selin and David.  

This wine comes from a sustainably and organically farmed vineyard. It has notes of brambly blackberries, violets and lavender, and herbs. It made a beautiful pairing with the steak dinner, matching both the meat and the herby veggies and mash. 

More recently, I had it with the leftovers of an 8 & 20 (soon to be shared) of sausages and lentils, and it was also a solid match. Kristie is a great music lover and often shares music pairings for her wines on her website. She pairs her 2016 Cab Franc with  “I Wanna Be Adored” by the Stone Roses, The Stone Roses 1989.

I’ll leave you with a few more options to consider.

Ashes & Diamonds makes a beautiful, bold, but balanced Cab Franc.

Leo Steen makes a lovely version in the leaner camp. I have bottles from both of these wineries to be enjoyed at a later date in “the cellar.”

And for something completely different, try Leah Jørgensen’s Blanc de Cab Franc, out of Oregon. It’s a still, white wine made from Cab Franc and truly unique. 

The rest of the Wine Pairing Weekend Bogging group is sharing their Cab Franc explorations as well (including one on the wine above by Lauren of The Swirling Dervish.) Be sure to check out the rest of the group’s posts:

Additional Sources:

The Oxford Companion via Jancis Robinson.



  1. What an absolutely amazing line up of food and wine pairings. I think I'll go have breakfast now.

  2. Learn a lot from this post today. While I think I would love the Cab Franc from Loire Vallley, I would also like to try the “first-camp” Cab Franc from California. On a separate note, saw Tom Mathews in Vinexpo New York on Tuesday, he said hi to you!

    1. Thanks Pinny! And that's so nice to re Tom. Thanks so much for telling me. :-)

  3. What a spectacular food and Cab Franc line-up! I'm not familiar with most of the bottles you featured, but I plan to change that soon. Your pairings look so good I'm now starving!

    1. Thanks so much Lauren! Also, again, love again that you featured the Leah Jorgensen.

  4. What a feast! You need a fair amount of Cabernet Franc to get through 8 pounds of meatballs! Also, we can relate to the excitement of an Instant Pot first run, welcome to the Cult :-)

    1. Yes, indeed! Luckily the majority of the meatballs were frozen to spread the love over time. And yes, the Instant Pot experiments have been very fun! Thanks for your comment!

  5. 8 pounds of meatballs! holy cow!!!! Although I go the vegetarian route, burger topped with caramelized onions is an exceptional pairing for our Cab Franc! Here's to more #CabFrancDays!

  6. What great choices! My daughter works at Hearst Ranch Winery and I'm happy that you included their Cab Franc:) Also, Damian and Amanda are amazing-I love their entire portfolio - glad you included them, too. Cheers, Nicole! Well done!

    1. Very cool! Hope she's having a great time working there! Also, always nice to know that the people behind a bottle are good people.


Thanks so much for leaving your comments and questions. I always love to hear from you!