Friday, January 11, 2008

How I Cross-Trained My Palate

A month ago I reminded readers that they could be the unwitting victims of palate fatigue if they didn't remember that palates, just like everything else, need cross-training to remain sharp. I encouraged everybody to do something outside their wine comfort zone in order to get their palates tingling and ready for 2008.

What did I do? I turned to Cabernet Franc, which (like Gatorade) is my training liquid of choice. Why? Because nothing wakes your palate, and the aroma sensors that co-pilot it, like Cab Franc. It's not like other red wines, in that it often tastes green. It challenges you to think outside the fruit-forward box, and appreciate the herbal things in life. And it is grown in places as diverse as Bordeaux, the North Coast of the US, Hungary, and Argentina. It is one of the world's most classic, and least appreciated, grapes. And I don't drink it all that often, so it made it perfect for cross-training purposes.

What was it like? The 2004 Lang & Reed Red Shed North Coast that I opened met all of my cross-training expectations, since patience, persistence, and an open mind were required to fully appreciate this very good QPR wine. (domaine547, $17.99) It had pronounced aromas of aromas of green pepper and cassis upon first opening it, and these elements made up the dominant flavors, too. I immediately felt challenged. It was not Mt. Kilimanjaro, but it was like facing one of those rock walls with the fake toe-holds in it. Something scary and not scary at the same time. So I waited about an hour and tried again. A nice, silky plushness had emerged which helped to keep the green pepper (which hadn't gone away) in check. I tried it with food, and felt like I was beginning to hit my stride with this wine. It cried out for one of those louche meals of my suburban childhood: pepper steak with white rice. I had it with a burger instead, but I kept thinking of pepper steak.

I corked the rest of the bottle, and decided to try it again the next day. I didn't use any preservative or vacuum pumps, because I wanted this wine to get some air into it. I'm glad I did, because it was very different. One thing remained: that lovely plushness, which reminded me of an old silk-velvet opera coat that belonged to my grandmother: silky, soft, and deep. I tasted black currants and plum, and the pepperiness was more rich than green but retained a nice freshness. On night two I had it with a Rachael Ray chicken chili and it was a terrific pairing, with the wine standing up to the tomatoes and peppers in the dish without overpowering them.

After I drank my cab franc, all the white wines I tasted seemed fresher, the red wines fruitier. At the same time, I felt tuned into the herbal, grassy, and forest notes of these wines in ways that I hadn't been before. Instead of things tasting "green" they tasted of tarragon, thyme, and pine. My impressions were indeed sharper, and more specific. Cross-training is definitely worth it, based on this limited attempt.

15 comments:

Richard A. said...

Cab Franc is one of the few varietals that I generally dislike because of that green/vegetal taste. I don't want my wine to taste like green peppers. Though I also don't like eating many green veggies which probably explains it. I do keep trying Cab Franc at tastings, but they still turn me off

Wilf G.K said...

Richard, the first Cab Franc I ever tasted was from the Nelson Estate in Sonoma and I did not like it because of the green bean, vegetal taste.Then the Tinhorn Creek Estate winery up in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia started to produce it. Sandra Oldfield, the winemaker does an outstanding job with this grape and produces an excellent Cab Franc. No more vegetal, green tastes. Just beautiful black fruit flavors. I believe it is the climate up in the southern Okanagan that makes the difference. Hot July and August days along with cool nights easing into a cooler fall allowing the grapes to reach maturity at a slower pace.It can truly make remarkably tasty wines and of course DNA testing has shown Cab Franc to actually be one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon.Hope you get a chance to try a Cab Franc from BC.

SB Wine Advocate said...

sounds delicious. I love Cab Franc just for those reasons. Have you ever gone to Franc Fest at Buttonwood? (santa ynez)That would be a great palate tuneup

Lenn Thompson said...

The problem I find with most hot-weather cab franc is that winemakers try to turn it into cab sauv with over-extraction and way too much barrel time.

I'm a Chinon lover...and also love some of the cab franc here on long island. I don't think I've ever had a warm-region cab franc that I liked at all. From what I hear from vineyard managers in this part, the key to avoiding overbearing vegetal flavors is to make sure that the grapes get good sun. Which means a lot of de-leafing in the vineyard.

Jill said...

Debs, we should get you the Saumur Champigny that we have as well as the Chinon. They're delicate but are V8s compared to the bold and ripe Napa fruit evident in the Red Shed.

Jeff said...

What Cab Franc are you going to try next? I side with Lenn are recommend a Chinon or maybe a Bourgueil. I think they show best with food and either need to have some age or at least be decanted.

Taster B said...

We tried a nice NY Cab Franc (Palmer from Long Island) -- I think it was around $15. I can't say I've tasted a wine until I try it an hour later, and a day later--always seems better than the first sip. :)
I'll have to try that Okanogan Valley one too--I grew up there!!

RougeAndBlanc said...

I agree with Lenn & Jeff. Cool climate Cab Franc is far differnt from the CA versions.
Dr Debs, you should try a 2002 Breton Chinon "Les Picasses" before it disappears (even though it cost around $30).

Jill said...

Are some of you misinterpreting the article to mean that the Dr. didn't like the wine or the varietal? I think she's saying that she enjoyed the wine, but used it for purposes in addition to just sipping. I assume she'd also find this to be the case with European and cool climate iterations of the grape. Debs, can you confirm (or deny) my interpretation? And I'm not just piping in as the retailer of this wine, but as a reader generally interested in the larger point of the article. After all, I think I only have four bottles left of the Red Shed, and I don't expect they'll be around for long regardless...

Erin said...

Believe it or not, there are some pretty good Cab Francs coming from Virginia right now...

Richard A. said...

Thanks Wilf as that sounds more like a Cab Franc that I might like.

Dr. Debs said...

Sorry for the silence, folks! Yes, Jill, I DID like this wine. I like Cabernet Franc a lot and actually the only cab franc I wasn't particularly fond of was French because it was very, very vegetal (canned green beans). I know the North Coast AVA is huge, but if this fruit came exclusively from Napa it would have said so, so I'm guessing it had a mix of warm and cooler weather cab franc. What I was trying to comment on here, though, was really the fact that drinking a varietal you don't drink often can help make you more sensitive to all the things you do drink more often.

Jeff said...

I was in no means implying that you mustn't have liked the wine. Just my $0.02 on others you could try and that I'd be curious to know what you thought about.

Dr. Debs said...

Jeff--no worries. I definitely want to try a Chinon. I've had a Saumur-Champigny and not thought that much of it, but am open to (almost) anything, as you know!

d2 said...

I am a big fan of Cabernet Franc for exactly the reasons you state. I love Chinon and Saumer Champigny. Washington state does a great job with it as does Long Island. I find the California Cab Francs to be hit or miss but Lang & Reed can do a pretty decent job depending on the vintage.