Wine column no. 68: Wine quest yields wins, losses

March 22, 2015: One of my favorite things to do is to wander the aisles of wine shops. Like writers in bookstores or car enthusiasts in dealerships, I can spend hours examining new, changed, or unusual offerings. One grape varietal I always look for is Cabernet Franc.

Most people haven’t heard of this grape. It’s not the biggest or most famous wine out there, it doesn’t tend to turn heads, and if it’s known as anything at all, it’s usually as a support mechanism for bolder, more bountiful wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet it has backbone, books say. It adds finesse. It also happens to be a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon. (Its other parent is Sauvignon blanc, according to Carole P. Meredith, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Davis and an international authority on genetic manipulation and analysis of grapevines.)

On its own, though, Cabernet Franc can be tricky. Washington State can make a solid, smooth, medium-bodied Cabernet Franc. California’s Lake County has produced impressive, mildly fruity Cabernet Franc, too. But in the Loire Valley, France, some 100 percent Cabernet Franc can turn out light, tannic, inelegant, and reeking of green bell peppers. And those from South Africa? Maybe it’s bad luck on my part, but the ones I’ve had have come across as musty. These wines are smooth, but I just can’t get over what I can only describe as cellar qualities.

These inconsistencies are probably why I keep coming back to this grape. If Californian Cabernet Sauvignon is reliably reliable, then come-from-anywhere-Cabernet Franc is reliably unreliable. It’s like the wild card in a poker game; it keeps things interesting. And if there’s anything I’ve learned about the art of studying wine, it’s that you’ve got to lose a hand or two. If you’re always winning at wine, then you haven’t stretched yourself at all. 

One wine region that’s full of worthwhile surprises is the Loire Valley. It contains slightly more than 185,000 acres of vines and is about two-thirds the size of the more-famous Bordeaux region, according to Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible. It also happens to be a major grape-growing region for Cabernet Franc, even if Loire-style Cabernet Franc isn’t, typically, my favorite. But that’s OK. If you’re having fish or roasted chicken, a chilled red Chinon or red Saumur (appellations that produce Cabernet Franc) is probably a good bet. These wines are typically light, mildly fruity and, at around 12 or 13 percent alcohol, easy to drink.

There’s also a lot to be said for mild wines that don’t overwhelm the table. Pascal Jolivet’s 2013 Sancerre offers lemon when it warms up but is otherwise flat and even and would go well with fresh oysters or scallops. Sancerre, a style of Sauvignon Blanc, is a fixture in the Loire Valley, which prides itself on dry, refreshing white wines. Sancerre is also very food friendly. If you can’t find fresh oysters or scallops, then pair this wine with a goat cheese salad, or with chicken. I actually had it with lightly seasoned, pan-fried pork. Innocuous and straightforward, this wine isn’t likely to offend your tastes, and at 12.5 percent alcohol, it’s easy to handle, too. Whole Foods Market in Lincoln Park, Chicago. $27.99.

But if you find yourself leaning toward bigger, fully flavored wines with a slight zing, try the 2012 Thorn, produced by The Prisoner Wine Co. Winemaker Jen Beloz created this blend of Merlot, Syrah and Malbec from Hudson, Stagecoach, Antica and Trefethen vineyards in Napa Valley, California. Beloz worked with vintner Dave Phinney to keep his “house style” for The Prisoner, probably one of his most famous wines, after he sold the brand to The Prisoner Wine Co. in 2009. The Thorn fits in well within the typically bold family of Phinney wines. At Varsity Liquors, where it’s sold for $43.99, all the Phinney and Phinney-influenced wines are conveniently grouped together in one setting.

At 15.2 percent alcohol, the Thorn is surprisingly mellow, and it went very well with Vietnamese spring rolls as part of a Friday night take-out dinner from Vecchio’s Italian Market, which has a new location at 300 W. Jennings St. in Newburgh, Indiana. Normally, I would have served a slightly sweet Riesling or spicy Gewurztraminer with the spring rolls. But the Thorn was well paired, even against the tasty dipping sauce that contained high amounts of vinegar. 

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