After you've wrapped your palate around America's favorite grapes, it's time to expand your mouth and mind to new wine flavors. You have about 6,000 grape varieties to choose from!
A good place to start is with one of the world's most important grapes -- Cabernet Franc.
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Ross' choice"Single Vineyard" Cabernet Franc
Valle del Maule, Chile
• Suggested retail and availability: $18.99 at Mariano's and fine wine shops (distributed by: Haus Wine & Spirits, Elmhurst)
Like a favorite steak sauce, this plush red adds excitement to red meats, rich poultry and grilled veggies with deep red fruit, fresh herb (excellent with Middle Eastern dishes), mocha (try with Mexican mole) and peppery spice flavors. Chilcas planted vineyards throughout Chile, pairing grape varieties to specific soil and climate conditions, to express each region's unique flavor. Growing between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains, this Cabernet Franc ripens during Maule's warm days with bright flavors and acidity protected by cold nights.
If you haven't heard of Cabernet Franc, don't feel bad. Even The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford University Press) got it wrong. According to my dog-eared 1994 edition, "It seems likely that Cabernet Franc is a mutation of the other Cabernet," with no need of defining "other" as Cabernet Sauvignon.
But soon, the Oxford Companion and every wine book would need editing. In 1997, DNA tests proved Cabernet Franc to be not the offspring, but the parent of both the noble Sauvignon and Merlot.
No doubt that these kids outpaced their papa; Cabernet Sauvignon is the world's top-planted grape, Merlot is second; together they cover more than 1 million acres and 12 percent of the planet's vineyard land. Cabernet Franc ranks 17th, with about 130,000 acres, little more than 1 percent of planted vineyards.
So, Cabernet Franc may not be stacked high in the wine aisles, but if asked, merchants will lead you to their favorites tucked onto shelves in French, South American and even regional Midwest sections, describing the grape's enticing aromas of violets, plush texture and savory flavor combining berries, spice, meat, mocha and herbs.
Cab Franc won't be an innocuous house wine, but servers will recommend featured bottles and by-the-glass selections, as enhancements to grilled meats, poultry and veggies, even spicier dishes that clash with the dominant tannin of that other Cabernet.
Part of Cab Franc's nonentity stems from traditional labeling practice. In its French homeland, Cabernet Franc's name -- like all grape names -- is superseded by the name of its growing region, primarily Bordeaux and the Loire Valley's Chinon.
In Bordeaux, vignerons adopted a grape blend (including both Cabernets and Merlot) to insure against natural disaster in the vineyard and blunder in the cellar. Franc thrives in cool temperature, so is more likely to withstand autumnal frost than Sauvignon or Merlot. In the blending vat, Franc adds fresh fruit to brighten flavors of its more serious offspring.
Chateaux are not required to declare recipes, but the best chance of a Franc-dominant wine lies in the Pomerol and St.-Emilion subregions, at astronomical prices. Look for the cooler 2010 vintage from Chateaux Clinet ($155), l'Elglise ($200) and Cheval Blanc ($1,500), and cellar for several years.
For 100 percent Cab Franc at more palatable prices, look north to the Loire Valley's Chinon commune. Cool climate and rocky soils express Cab Franc with medium body and sassier flavors, making Chinon a wine of choice in Paris bistro's. Look for Couly-Doutheil's Chinon "La Baronnie Madeleine" and Bernard Baudry with tobacco leaf, plum and blackberry flavors, both about $22.
For a juicy Cab Franc Rose to pair with cured meats and warm afternoons, grab Jean-Maurice Raffault Chinon Rose, about $18.
In the U.S., Cab Franc has found supporters in Washington State (look for OS and Owen Roe) and California (Merryvale and Turnbull).
But the grape's domestic epicenter is right here in the Midwest where Cabernet Franc is Michigan's second most-planted variety.
On May 12, join me for in tasting and discussing Michigan Cabernet Franc (and other varieties) with winegrowers of 20 properties at the Michigan Wine Showcase. The walk-around tasting, complemented by passed hors d'oeuvres, will be held at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St., Chicago, from 6 to 9 p.m. Purchase tickets ($50) online at citywinery.com.
If, however, you would rather explore grape varieties with larger vineyard presence, look for chart toppers Airen (currently the world's third top-planted grape) or Bobal (position 12.) I promise you, neither will be as delicious as Cabernet Franc.
• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at email@example.com.