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How Cabernet Franc Is Wowing Argentina’s Winemakers

The country known for its Malbec has discovered another wonderful red variety

Amanda Barnes By September 10, 2021
View of Uco Valley at foot of The Andes
View of Uco Valley at foot of The Andes. Tupungato, Mendoza, Argentina. Photo by Edsel Querini/iStock

As Silvio Alberto strides between vine rows on the hard pebble soils in his Uco Valley vineyard, steadily climbing upward, he exclaims that he’s a fanatic of Cabernet Franc. The snowy Andes mountains glimmer in the distance, as he pauses to look at a newly grafted row of the variety in Los Chacayes. Alberto is a winemaker with a presence. Over 6 feet tall, silver-haired, and with a broad and generous smile, he’s known among his peers as one of the modern pioneers of the variety in Argentina. “It’s totally different to Cabernet Sauvignon with completely different aromas and flavor, but with sweet tannins and a long aging potential.”

When he was the winemaker at Andeluna winery, Alberto was instrumental in putting Argentine Cabernet Franc on the map, by launching its iconic Pasionado Cabernet Franc, in 2003. Since then the variety has garnered critical acclaim, and its growth has been rapid — from just 185 acres planted in 1990 to over 3,000 acres today. Argentine Cabernet Franc is booming. 

A different face of Argentina

It’s an antidote to Cabernet Sauvignon, as Alberto says, but also an antidote to Argentina’s most important red grape, Malbec. While Cabernet Franc from Argentina still offers the same supple tannins, sweet red fruit, and floral perfume that makes Argentine Malbec so lovable, Cabernet Franc also has a savory and spicy edge with a sometimes wild herbal note.

It was this peppery spiciness that led the styles of the other Cabernet Franc pioneers of the period, Pulenta Estate and Benegas Lynch, both in Mendoza’s wine heartland, Luján de Cuyo. But what makes Alberto’s story a little different is that he was focused on the first premium Cabernet Franc from the Uco Valley, a region which also had an enormous growth spurt in this same period — tripling its land under vine in the past two decades, to 70,800 acres today.

“The Uco Valley, in my opinion, is an excellent partner for Cabernet Franc,” says Alberto. “You have the perfect conditions here to grow Cabernet Franc, between the high altitude, the sunshine, and the cool temperatures at night.” Alberto is now making wine with Bodegas Bianchi which has a new winery in the growing new subregion of Los Chacayes in the Uco Valley, as well as its flagship in San Rafael. Alberto has planted Cabernet Franc in both. “San Rafael gives you this distinctive pink peppercorn note, while Los Chacayes has more wild herb notes.”

Silvio Alberto, winemaker, Bodegas Bianchi. Photo courtesy of Bodegas Bianchi

Silvio Alberto, winemaker, Bodegas Bianchi. Photo courtesy of Bodegas Bianchi.

Cabernet Franc’s ability to reflect its terroir interests another of the leading Cabernet Franc winemakers today, Alejandro Vigil, who makes several single vineyard Cabernet Franc wines for his El Enemigo brand as well as Catena Zapata. “It’s a very terroir transparent variety,” says Vigil, whose Gran Enemigo Gualtallary Single Vineyard Cabernet Franc scored 100 Wine Advocate points in 2018 — the first Argentine wine to do so. “I love the plasticity and purity of the variety.” It’s this quality which has encouraged several winemakers to plant Cabernet Franc in notable vineyards in the Uco Valley, and most especially in the limestone-rich soils found in Gualtallary.

Cabernet Franc blends beautifully with Malbec. Cabernet Franc provides a great backbone and wonderful acidity to the blend, while toning down some of the sweetness that ripe Malbec can have.

Phil CrozierWines of Argentina’s European Ambassador

It blends well, too

Another Uco Valley Cabernet Franc fanatic is Marcelo Pelleriti. Pelleriti is widely known as the first South American winemaker to ever score 100 Robert Parker points, in 2013 — but with a wine he made in Pomerol, Bordeaux. He is head winemaker at Chateau La Violette, as well as Bodega Monteviejo in Argentina’s Uco Valley, owned by the same family. “I’ve loved Cabernet Franc for a long time, especially from tasting it while working at the family’s estate in Pomerol,” says Pelleriti, who has Cabernet Franc planted in both estates. 

“When you harvest a very good Cabernet Franc in Pomerol it can make the blend with Merlot so much better. Here we are working a lot with co-fermentation of Malbec and Cabernet Franc with some whole clusters, and it is amazing — a completely different wine, with less body but more elegance and balance. Cabernet Franc can also help improve our Malbec too.” Marcelo has been blending Malbec and Cabernet Franc since 2013 in a special wine brand with Argentine musician Pedro Aznar, called Abremundos

“Cabernet Franc blends beautifully with Malbec,” agrees Wines of Argentina’s European Ambassador Phil Crozier. “Cabernet Franc provides a great backbone and wonderful acidity to the blend, while toning down some of the sweetness that ripe Malbec can have.” 

Some notable examples come from Argento, Susana Balbo, Per Se, Trapiche Iscay and Tinto Negro

A bright niche

But, despite the excitement, it’s still a long way from being one of the most important wines in terms of quantity. Argentine Cabernet Franc may well be growing but it still barely accounts for 1% of production.

“Obviously Argentina is still all about Malbec — it’s our first and most important variety in the world,” says Alberto. “But I think Cabernet Franc will have an excellent future for Argentina.” 

Cabernet Franc from Argentina will never be the next Malbec — nothing will — but Argentine Cabernet Franc is definitely one to watch.

3 Argentine Cabernet Francs to try:

bottle of Argento Cabernet Franc Reserva 2019

Argento Reserva Cabernet Franc 2019 ($14)

For an affordable introduction into the world of Argentine Cabernet Franc, this wine by Argento offers a generous experience with notes of lavender, red and blue forest fruit, and a touch of toasty oak all for under $15.

bottle of Pulenta Gran Cabernet Franc XI 2018

Pulenta Gran Cabernet Franc XI 2018 ($52)

One of the early icons on the scene, the Pulenta Cabernet Franc deserves its place on the hit list. Bold and rich but with sweet, supple tannins and an unforgettable roasted pepper note.

bottle of El Enemigo Gran Enemigo Gualtallary Single Vineyard 2016

El Enemigo Gran Enemigo Gualtallary Single Vineyard 2016 ($115)

This memorable Cabernet Franc from Alejandro Vigil comes from one of the top terroirs for the variety in Argentina, high-altitude Gualtallary. Floral yet brooding with dark fruit and spice, this elegant wine is particularly age-worthy.