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Production tasting - Cabernet Franc

Important to any professional winemaking operation is the continual refinement of production goals and styles. All too often wineries fall victim to something called house palate (aka cellar palate). This is is simply the phenomenon by which your own wine becomes the benchmark for how to produce wine in general. This is never the case. There's always a better standard to aspire to. In developing wine regions such as the Mid-Atlantic, it's easy to convince yourself to stop pushing viticulture and enology technique. Especially in Northern Virginia where there is high disposable income, locally-produced wines sell out fast and praise from your customers is delivered often. The impetus for improvement vanishes with demand for your wine. Of course we all know that fame (and demand) is temporary and there's always a new local producer that could be making something your customers like more.

One way to prevent the onset of house palate is to train your palate with benchmark wines from other regions. These need not be expensive wines. In fact, it helps to learn what the bottom of the price scale has to offer from other regions, especially in the Mid-Atlantic where our economies-of-scale are small and just about every other pedigreed wine region can produce a bottle of wine less expensively than we. One of my favorite ways to train your palate is with a production tasting. This is a selection of wines that can be local, regional, national, or worldwide. If nothing else, comparing your wine with others provides context and perspective. And more often than not, you will find a wine that is better and less expensive than your own.

One example of a production tasting is something I presented locally for the John Marhsall chapter of the American Wine Society. Cabernet Franc is a wine that is popular to make on the East Coast. It's Vitis vinifera, so it has the familiar character of red Bordeaux-style wine, it ripens within the short growing season we have here, and has widespread local appeal. Since the guests are already familiar with local examples of Cabernet Franc, I limited it to only two wines (one of which was an older example to illustrate bottle age). There is really only one other winegrowing region in the world that places so much emphasis on Cabernet Franc - France's Loire Valley. There you can find wines that are 100% Cabernet Franc. Other regions may grow a lot of the variety, but it never manifests itself in their wines in such high proportions. So in this tasting four of the ten wines presented came from Loire, including a rosé. Other regions included were California (Russian River), Oregon, Argentina, and Italy. In all these cases a varietal Cabernet Franc wine is represented only in niche quantities.

One reason I love to talk about Loire Cabernet Franc is that it is one of the last holdouts in the world that is still making wine in the traditional style. By that I mean the style that defined the region in the first place, and not the "international style" that is essentially California style (emphasizing ripeness, fruit, alcohol, and oak). Loire Cabernet Franc is restrained, focused, with moderate alcohol levels, yet by no means under ripe. Cabernet Franc is one of the best varieties to emphasize differences in winegrowing region.

One observation often made in a production tasting is the differences in region may preclude pursuing a particular style. If we happen to like the Loire style, can we purposely make that, say, in Virginia? That's difficult to answer (I think yes). But the point with these tastings isn't to define what we can't do but to illustrate what's possible and provide context for your own wine production. In my case, even though I've been making Cabernet Franc varietal wines for 12 years, I was pleasantly surprised to find an American example from Oregon that is remarkably Loire in style. And this is the point with these tastings, always learning, exploring, and pushing the boundaries of your experience.

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