Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cabernet Franc from Eastern Santa Ynez

I've been a big fan of Cabernet Franc from Los Alamos in the western portion of Santa Barbara County. But I hadn't come across a decent Cab Franc (at least in my price range) from the eastern reaches of Santa Ynez. The sub-region known as Happy Canyon reputedly is well-suited for Bordeaux varietals, though, and thus should produce Cab Franc more in line with St. Emilion than Chinon. However, my only prior experience was with the unsatisfactory Happy Canyon 2007 Chukker.

A few tastings from last weekend offered a much better picture of what Happy Canyon is capable of producing. In fact, the Happy Canyon Vineyard 2008 Chukker, which I learned is styled after a youthful and fruity Beaujolais yet made primarily from Cab Franc instead of Gamay, showed much better than past vintages I've tasted. Part of it was probably tasting it closer to its spring release since it's not built to age, but it's simply much fresher and less cloying than previous versions. It's a definite success as a wine to be consumed much like a rose during the summer. The price is fair around $15.

I also enjoyed the 2006 Piocho from Happy Canyon Vineyard. It's a blend of 50% Cab Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% each of Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot. While the aromatics are a bit simplistic and tilted towards the jammy red fruit end of the spectrum, there's a good hint of roasted herbs and peppers in the background. There's also robust tannic structure that could use some age to resolve. While the pro critics aren't fond of pyrazines, a wine as fruit-driven as this is enhanced by a little green from my perspective. Although it's a round, crowd pleaser, I'd hope with age the fruit would recede a bit to show more of these secondary qualities. It's fairly priced at $30 for the '06 vintage if you're a fan of the style.

Happy Canyon Vineyard is owned by the Barrack family, who also own the Second Growth Chateau Lascombes in the Margaux district of Bordeaux. Their winemaker Doug Margerum is involved in several other projects in the Santa Barbara area, including another Happy Canyon producer, Cimarone. I tasted two Cimarone wines, the 2006 Clos Secret and the 2007 Three Creek Vineyard Bank. The Clos Secret is essentialy the same blend as the Piocho, but with a larger proportion of Petit Verdot and no Merlot. Thus, it's not surprising given the same winemaker and similar blending practices that Cimarone's Clos Secret shows many of the same qualities as Happy Canyon Vineyard's Piocho. It did seem less structured, however, and the $40 price tag, reduced from an eye-popping $60, is rather optimistic for a new producer in this economy.

The 2007 Three Creek Vineyard Bank provided my favorite variation on the Happy Canyon Cab Franc blend theme. It's 47% Cab Franc, 35% Cab Sauv, 8% Syrah, 4% Merlot, 3% Malbec, and 3% Petit Verdot. Made in an approachable style, it provides a nice mix of fresh fruit flavors with enough structure to hold its own as a serious red wine. Perhaps it's a function of vintage, but it's less jammy and shows more delicate floral and plum aromas. The flavor arc is what I'd think of as "classic," with lively fruit complemented by good acidity evolving into a supple finish. I'd love to see if the '07 Clos Secret goes in this direction as well, supplementing balanced fruit with the structure to age. Regardless, the '07 Bank is a good value at $22.

In sum, Happy Canyon Cab Francs show no lack of ripeness, though it seems complexity and overall balance are still a work in progress. I don't think Happy Canyon will displace Los Alamos as my preferred local Cab Franc enclave, but there's plenty going on with the varietal that's worth following. With a little less in the way of ultra-ripe fruit qualities, the Piocho and the Clos Secret could be stunning wines. This might just be a case of nature delivering the goods in a given vintage.

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