While Cabernet Franc makes up less than 1 percent of the country’s vines, this red variety punches above its weight in Argentina, yielding some of the most exciting wine releases in recent years. Plantings have doubled over the last decade, reaching more than 1,050 hectares today, according to Argentina’s National Institute of Viticulture (INV), making Cabernet Franc one of Argentina’s fastest-growing categories.
“I feel it coming,” says the Denver-based importer Scott Thomasen, who recently traveled to Mendoza on behalf of his company, Vino del Sol. “As we went around visiting wineries, they all had a Cab Franc to share.”
Not only popular with winemakers, this red Bordeaux variety is a favorite among Argentine sommeliers and commonly appears on wine lists in the country’s top restaurants and bars. The domestic market consumes just over half of Argentina’s annual production, but export figures on Cabernet Franc and blends made with the grape have also increased, from 921 hectoliters in 2006 to 7,567 hectoliters in 2016, with an export FOB value of US$5.6 million, according to the INV.
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The numbers still pale in significance compared with the 40,000 hectares of plantings of Argentina’s heavyweight, Malbec. But what’s most telling about the Cabernet Franc trend is that the wines are almost exclusively high end. Of single-variety Cabernet Franc exports, 49 percent go to the U.S. at an average FOB value of US$9.85 per liter—almost triple the average FOB value of Argentina’s other varietal wines, according to the INV.
In addition to commanding a high price, Cabernet Franc offers an exciting new dimension to Argentine wine. “Unquestionably, Argentina needed to diversify beyond Malbec to continue its climb in the international marketplace,” says Doug Frost, MS, MW, a wine and spirits consultant for United Airlines, who just added an Argentine Cabernet Franc to the United Airlines Business Class wine list. “Cabernet Franc offers a distinctly different face,” he says, “[and] an element of surprise and a happy customer after they taste it.”
The element of surprise is what Damian Ambroa, the beverage director of Cordúa Restaurants, a group based in Houston, also enjoys about having this wine on his list. “Guests are amazed that this great red wine from Argentina is not Malbec,” he says. “They love it. It has the potential to become the second most popular Argentine red wine after Malbec.”
Although the boom in Cabernet Franc is relatively new, the variety arrived in Argentina in the mid-1800s. Alejandro Vigil, the winemaker at Catena Zapata in Mendoza, discovered centenarian vineyards of Cabernet Franc while doing a viticulture census when he worked for the National Agriculture Institute in the 1990s. When he joined Catena in 2002, he began experimenting with Cabernet Franc in several of Mendoza’s wine regions. “Even with the same genetic material,” he says, “the wines were totally different depending on where they came from.” The pliancy intrigued him, and today, alongside Catena’s wines, Vigil produces four highly sought after single-vineyard Cabernet Francs under his own label, El Enemigo. “I love the plasticity and purity of the variety,” he says. “It’s very terroir transparent.”
Other acclaimed producers of terroir-driven Cabernet Francs include Alejandro Sejanovich and Jeff Mausbach, co-owners and co-winemakers at Zaha and Tinto Negro. They’ve discovered an affinity between Cabernet Franc and limestone. “We noticed how well Cabernet Franc does in the high-elevation vineyards at the foot of the Andes, where there’s a limestone component on poor soils,” says Mausbach, adding that on heavier soils Cabernet Franc tends to be vigorous and produces vegetal aromas. Currently they’re planting more Cabernet Franc in the Uco Valley, Luján de Cuyo, Uspallata, and Salta. Some vines will become single varietals, and others will be blended with Malbec—a combination Mausbach adores. “Cabernet Franc is much more savory,” he says, “and it frames the mid-palate fruit of Malbec, adding herbal and floral aromas and longer, finer tannins.”
Other long-standing proponents of Cabernet Franc and its blends in Argentina include producers like Pulenta Estate, Lamadrid, Zorzal, Benegas, and Marcelo Pelleriti, the winemaker for Monteviejo (who also happens to makes Cabernet Franc in Pomerol, Bordeaux). There are more than a hundred labels on offer today, featuring an assortment of styles and regions; however, the new wave of Cabernet Franc reflects Argentina’s growing tendency toward leaner, less oak-influenced, and fresher wines.
The wine buyer Phil Crozier, who serves a dozen Argentine Cabernet Francs at the Gaucho restaurant chain based in the U.K., has a deep appreciation for the Argentinean expression of the variety. “It’s very versatile,” he says, “and blends beautifully with Malbec, providing a great backbone and wonderful acidity, [while] toning down some of the sweetness that ripe Malbec can have. It has a very wild quality when unoaked, which Argentina increasingly does so well.”
In the U.S., demand is also building as Cabernet Franc grows as a category in itself. Jon Chaplin of Brazos Wine Imports, which has offices in New York City and Denver, has five Cabernet Franc wines in his portfolio. “With the Cab Franc–Loire craze going on,” he says, “I see a lot of buyers who are very open to tasting Argentine Cab Franc and placing it on lists. People are excited to have a red [from Argentina] other than Malbec that can diversify and enrich their list.”
Harley Carbery, the director of wine at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, has also found that Cabernet Franc adds a different dimension to the perception of Argentinean wines. “Argentine Malbec and Cabernet Franc are as different as night and day,” he says. “Argentine Malbec is generally much richer, even spicy, with notes of blue and black fruit. Argentine Cabernet Franc has bright, red fruit and is slightly herbal, with some zesty tartness. While they’re both delicious, they’re very different.”
Argentine Cabernet Francs can be a slightly more palatable option compared with those of the Loire, suggests Zach Jones, the wine director of El Che, an Argentine-inspired bar and restaurant in Chicago. “Cab Franc from Argentina is not nearly as funky and earthy as Cab Franc from France,” he says. “But it still has that peppery spice that many American drinkers love. The ripe fruit and the spice are two aspects that I think appeal greatly to American palates.”
While Cabernet Franc may never be Argentina’s “next Malbec,” the increasing attention being paid to this variety in the vineyard and the cellar, and on both domestic and international wine lists, definitely makes Argentine Cabernet Franc a variety to watch.
Amanda Barnes is a British wine writer who since 2009 has been based in South America, where she specializes in the wines and regions of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay. Ever footloose, she is currently on a mission to travel Around the World in 80 Harvests.