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Wine of the Week for week ending 10 November 2002
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Murdoch James Cabernet Franc 2001
Martinborough, New Zealand

There was a discussion that caught my interest on one of the Internet wine forums the other day. Someone was lamenting that Cabernet Franc, as a wine in its own right instead of as a blending component with Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot, was seemingly a rare commodity these days. The discussion originated in the States but it seems to be the case in these parts too. In fact I couldn't find a varietal Cabernet Franc in retail when looking for an example to show my wine class earlier in the year. Not surprising, perhaps, for in Michael Cooper's Buyers Guide (2002 edition) there are only a dozen reviewed.

What is Cabernet Franc like? According to the notes I have compiled over the years it is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon but ripens just slightly earlier and needs less heat to ripen fully. The resulting wine should be very perfumed. It may perhaps have a herbaceous smell of grass and weeds but also look for violets, raspberry, blackberry, blackcurrant, gooseberry, licorice, and sometimes 'pencil shavings'. It is generally lighter bodied with less power, colour and tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cooper quotes Jancis Robinson's description of Cabernet Franc as "a sort of Claret Beaujolais", but she used this phrase in 'Vines, Grapes and Wines' to describe the lighter body higher acid wines of the north rather than the wines based on Cabernet Franc grown further south (in France). She also says "Wines from the most fanatically quality-conscious growers can develop greater riches with the years, showing the pencil shavings when young but more layered fruitiness in maturity".

Cooper also says that Cabernet Franc "lends a delicious softness and concentrated fruitiness to blends". And back in the days when Michael Brajkovich of Kumeu River used to grow Cabernet Franc and make a wine of the variety, "approachable and easy" is the description he used.

Many of these positive characters could be used to describe the Murdoch James Martinborough Cabernet Franc 2001 (NZ$30). This is a deliciously soft and fruity wine with concentrated cherry, blackberry and blackcurrant together with tobacco, leather, hot tar and a hint of earthiness, then a savoury character and a finish that is reminiscent of chocolate raisins with a hint of licorice or anise. There's a touch of spice too and the ever so slight suggestion of mint. There's nothing light whatsoever about this wine and the acids that are there are what I would expect for the variety.

It's a well-coloured wine, dense red with magenta hues. Lots of aromatics, quite floral and berryish with the merest hint of chocolate.

But are there pencil shavings? I shaved two pencils to see. From my mixture of wood, graphite and the paint on the outside of the pencil, the red and black pencil showed better aromas than the blue one, but it was simply a smell of wood. If one wanted to be really pedantic, the smell of pencil shavings was definitely there in the wine.

Pencil shavings or not, Murdoch James should be proud of their 2001 Cabernet Franc. It's a user-friendly wine with its soft acids, medium weight and alcohol level of 13%.

They suggest the wine would match with beef, venison or game. I found the wine to match well firstly to a rich cheddar, then later with spicy beef patties. I cooked two version of beef patties - one a fairly traditional mix with breadcrumbs, bacon, onions, parsley and mustard, the other with breadcrumbs, coriander, mint and lemon leaves, coriander and ginger powder, spring onions and a touch of chilli sauce. The wine was an excellent match to the latter.

When can you buy this wine? Well you can visit the Murdoch James Estate Winery in Dry River Road, Martinborough - those going to Toast Martinborough in a couple of weeks time can do that. But for most of us, visiting in person is not feasible. Unfortunately the stocks of this wine are limited, the result of a low yielding season which is undoubtably the reason for this high quality wine.

Check out the website for distributors and online sales.

© Sue Courtney

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