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Diversity in Argentine wine: Cabernet Franc

While Malbec may dominate the Argentine wine industry, many producers are diversifying their output and are looking to grapes like Cabernet Franc to add a fresh and lighter slant to their expressions.

Cabernet Franc vines at Casa Yagüe

Argentina has undergone a transformation in the past 40 years. The now omnipresent Malbec was in decline in the 1980s and 1990s before bouncing back with a vengeance at the turn of the millennium. While there’s no denying its dominance now – Malbec covers more than double the hectarage of the next most popular red grape, Bonarda – it has been joined by other varieties, which bring diversity to Argentina’s wine offering. These include Bonarda, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Merlot, Pinot Noir and the focus of this piece – Cabernet Franc. Palates have changed too. Whereas once wines were heavily extracted and oak-forward, now the focus is on lighter, brighter and more elegant expressions.

Alicia Casale, Europe and Asia manager at Andeluna in the Uco Valley, explains: “Twenty years ago everything was Malbec or Malbec-based; nothing else,” she says. “Wines were heavy and just followed the traditional French or Italian recipe we had at the time.”

She notes how winemakers began experimenting with other grape varieties and also conducted extensive studies of their vineyards to understand more about the land’s potential.

“Sauvignon Blanc and rosé wines started to appear as an appealing category in the domestic market, and we started showing the world that Argentina is not only about Malbec,” she says. “There are amazing single-varietal Cabernet Francs, Pinot Noirs and high altitude Chardonnays. They are fresher, lighter and, most importantly, are in line with what the consumer is expecting: a glass that could take them to the exact place where the wine was produced. Wines with sense of place.”

Laura Catena, managing director of Catena Zapata, highlights how her family started off by focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1960s before changing tack in the 1980s and ’90s, under guidance from her father, “to make Argentine wines that could stand with the best of the world”. It was then that the winery planted Cabernet Franc, along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

While it was first planted in Argentina in 1899, in 1990 there were just 76 hectares of Cabernet Franc planted in the whole of the country. Today there are 1,259ha, and plantings have more than doubled in the past decade. Mainly concentrated in the Mendoza and San Juan provinces, the variety has recently been planted as far south as Chubut in Patagonia.

Juli Yagüe, head of marketing and communications for Casa Yagüe, said the winery is making what she believes to be the most southerly Cabernet Franc in the world. “We planted Cabernet Franc for the first time in 2017, doing an adaption test with 300 ungrafted vines of the VCR10 clone,” she says. “During the 2020 vintage, we harvested our first Cabernet Franc grapes and did a microvinification of 30 litres. Next year we hope to make 130 litres. Cabernet Franc is a variety that the whole family likes very much, and we’re excited to see how it evolves. We believe it has a lot of potential here in the Trevelin GI.”

Federico Boxaca, export manager at Bodega Familia Schroeder, based in Neuquen in Patagonia, adds: “Only in recent years, spurred by the creativity of a new generation of winemakers, did Cabernet Franc begin getting attention. The figures available only show the vineyards that are in production now, and I foresee total plantings of Cabernet Franc growing more significantly thanks to its recent success”.

Sprinklers are used to prevent frost damage at Casa Yagüe

Familia Schroeder uses Cabernet Franc to make a single-varietal wine in its Saurus Barrel Fermented range, as well as in its top-end red blend, alongside Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot.

While Cabernet Franc is a relative newcomer in the south, it has been developing a reputation further north, in the Uco Valley sub-region of Gualtallary.

Laura Catena, whose Adrianna vineyard is in Gualtallary, says the variety has “great potential in the Uco Valley”.

“Cabernet Franc from certain areas in the Uco Valley, like Gualtallary and Eugenio Bustos, is beautiful alone and in blends with Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon,” she says. Her winery has been blending and co-fermenting Cabernet Franc and Malbec since the 1990s. Catena said Cabernet Franc “gives a spine and precision” to Malbec.

Casale of Andeluna says: “For us, Cabernet Franc has always been the star. Since 2003, we have used it to make our top single-varietal wine under the Pasionado label. At the time there were only a few wineries that used it on its own, but after a Master of Wine wrote about the potential for high altitude Cabernet Franc, a trend has developed.”

A different scale

However, Casale believes Cabernet Franc will never be produced on the same scale as Malbec. “There are not as many places where you can make high quality Cabernet Franc,” she explains. “The variety needs coolness, altitude and poor calcareous soil to thrive.”

While it might not be as prevalent, the variety is versatile, as Andeluna has shown with the launch of its Blanc de Franc. The pale pink rosé was made with 100% Cabernet Franc grapes, which were treated as if they were a white variety, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. The grapes were immediately pressed upon entry to the winery and only the free-run juice was used. The refreshing 12.5% ABV result is described by Andeluna as having floral and savoury notes of white pepper, jasmine and tomato leaf.

With the variety also being championed by the likes of Bodega del Fin del Mundo, Gran Enemigo, Pulenta Estate, Bodega Humberto Canale, Rutini Wines, Bodegas Salentein, Trapiche, Bodega Luigi Bosca, Familia Zuccardi, Bodega Norton and Bodega Matias Riccitelli, Boxaca’s prediction may well come true.

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