Tastemakers: Madrona Vineyards, Excellence in Cabernet Franc
Earlier this year, when I was in El Dorado wine country in Northern California, I had my first experience with Madroña Vineyards. This family run business is in an idea climate for Rhône and Bordeaux varietals, and the elevation in Apple Hill gives it a special terroir that stands out from the rest of the pack.
Sitting at 3,000 feet, Madroña has three vineyards, all family owned: The estate vineyard, the Enyé Vineyard, and the Sumu-Kaw Vineyard, in Pleasant Valley. Each vineyard has a unique character, and with over 26 varietals planted, winemaker Paul Bush can experiment with small selections, and tweak them until he is satisfied. Some of that desire to blend, tweak, and perfect, resulted in this unique horizontal tasting of four Cabernet Francs.
While talking to Paul on my recent visit, I had the opportunity to taste two of these Cab Francs, and was instantly smitten, When I found out he was doing a Cab Lovers Experience, I was excited to taste all four of his offerings side by side. In the Cab Franc 4-pack, each bottle is a vastly different expression of the grape. What would the single block near the barn tattie like? Hint: One of these things is not like the other. Would an experiment with mechanical destemming vs hand selection make a marked difference? Good question. Finally, is the sum of the parts equal to the parts themselves (what happens when you blend, Vinny?). For me, the side by side tasting experience is a clear showcase of how micro terroirs and winemkaing technique can alter the final product. Oh, and it’s good juice. Very, very good juice.
First up, the comparison between La Machine and Grain by Grain, where the grapes were picked at the same time, the same way, but processed slightly differently. The Grain par Grain (berry by berry) and La Machine were both hand harvested, but the Grain par Grain was carefully destemmed by hand, and transferred to fermentation puncheons by nuns who have never eaten processed food. Ok I was just kidding about the nuns; but compared to the La Machine that was destemmed by a traditional destemming machine, and pumped in to the puncheon, it was a much more etheral experience – which clearly impacted teh final result. Everything past the destemming and transfer to puncheon was performed identically. What were the differences?
2011 La Machine Cabernet Franc ($40) – Bursting with red fruit, bing cherries, pomegranite, and forest berries, the cedar plank and mint notes were apparent from the get go. Given a bit of time, milk chocolate, baking spices, dutch cocoa, molasses, and a hint of green peppercorn came out to dance on the palate. The La Machine was slightly sharper, with harder angles and brighter acids. Bright red fruit and hibiscus shine through, and on the second day, more earthy notes were detectable.
2011 Grain par Grain Cabernet Franc ($60) – like a velvet glove, cloves, cracked pepper and smoke hung over blackberries and ripe plums, while dried herbs and cassis lingered in the background. This was a much more feminine wine, unctuous at times, and perfect with blue cheese or just on it’s own. It would seem, to me at least that the manual deconstruction of the grape bunches and careful transfer to puncheons made a silkier, smoother, more feminine wine. I also found that the La Machine provided more acid and brighter red fruit. This might be in due to the bruising of the fruit in the machined process, or the tannins that inevitably get in the fished wine with some escaped stems or seeds.
Next up, the 2011 East Block Cabernet Franc ($35). This is a departure from the first two, as it was done essentially the same way the La Machine was, with the exception of using open top fermentation bins. The East Block had a specific character that wasn’t present in either of the first two, and that could be due to the yeast strain, or the micro terroir in the half an acre block. It was darker and chewier than the first two, with firmer tannins, beef jerky, and less fruit notes. The overwhelming flavor of black tea was lingering on my tongue as I sipped this small lot wine. Was it due to the different strain of yeast, the physical location of the block, or something different? The East Block had a delicate floral note to it, more so than Grain par Grain or La Machine, and had a cooler climate influence with brooding tobacco and plum. What a departure from the first two, with the addition of 6% Cab Sav, 1% Merlot, and .5% Malbec.
Finally, the 2011 Signature Cabernet Franc ($22), which, sadly – is sold out. Mechanically destemmed and also fermented in open top fermenters, this was the workhourse of the group With a touch of Cab Sav blended in to round it out, it was polished and simpler, with lilacs, violets, and plums as well as pure cherry. A beautiful expression of Cab Franc, and easily approachable.
Located just about two hours from San Francisco, I encourage everyone to get out and explore El Dorado County, for the wine, the fruit orchards, and the history. Stop by Madrona and taste for yourselves!
Thank you to Madrona Vineyards and Paul Bush for showing me the beauty of Cab Franc from El Dorado! (Samples)