With just 91 hectares planted in New Zealand, cabernet franc is still small potatoes, but enthusiasm for it is fuelled by a trio of good vintages – 2019, 2020 and 2021. It is producing great wines and a lot of interest from winemakers and wine critics. 

Cabernet franc is, according to the wine producers' bible Wine Grapes, “one of the most important and ancient varieties in the Bordeaux region”, where it was originally planted as a backup in case cabernet sauvignon failed. 

This country has tended to follow the Bordeaux example by blending cabernet franc with other Bordeaux varieties rather than producing it as a single variety as they do in the Loire, cabernet franc’s heartland. Blended varieties tend to have a lower consumer profile (can you recall the mix of varieties in the last blended red you tasted?), but that seems likely to change as more winemakers move to the single-variety model.

Cabernet franc is lighter, fresher and more aromatic than cabernet sauvignon and can be enjoyed earlier, although it is able to mature gracefully. DNA analysis indicates that it is one of two parents of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and carménère, which is all rather incestuous when you consider that cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc are the parents of cabernet sauvignon.

In NZ, Hawke’s Bay is the "cab franc" capital, with two-thirds of the total national plantings. Auckland (mostly Waiheke Island) is in second place with around one-fifth. Both northerly wine regions suit cabernet franc because they can supply the heat the variety needs to fully ripen. Perhaps climate change will encourage cabernet franc to move further south as the world heats up.

Paritua Winery in the Bridge Pā Triangle wine-growing district of Hawke's Bay has two wines in Bob Campbell's "nicest nine" cabernet francs. (Image: Paritua)

The growing popularity and limited supply of cabernet franc can make some of the better examples hard to find. I have listed below my "nicest nine" in order of preference. If the 2019 vintage is out of stock, go for the 2020 or 2021.

1) 2019 Kennedy Point Reserve Cabernet Franc, Waiheke, $75

Aromatic, supple cabernet franc with sweet plum, floral/red rose, liquorice, spice and classy oak flavours. Impressive red that can certainly be appreciated now but should develop well with bottle age. From Waiheke’s only certified organic vineyard.

2) 2019 The Boneline Amphitheatre Cabernet Franc, Waipara, $75

Remarkable cabernet franc with tones of ripe dark berries, black-fleshed plums, violets, mixed spice and a smattering of fresh herbs. Lively, high-energy red that grabs your attention now but promises to be even more seductive with bottle age.

3) 2019 Paritua Platinum Cabernet Franc, Hawke’s Bay, $99

Only three barrels were made for a charity wine auction. Intense, dark, deep red with chocolate/mocha tones mixed with cassis and boysenberry/dark berry and a suggestion of forest-floor flavours. Complex and collectible wine that should age well.

4) 2019 Beach House Cabernet Franc, Hawke’s Bay, $30

Moderately concentrated and richly textured cabernet franc with cassis, liquorice, new leather and spicy oak flavours. Youthful, appealing wine with cellaring potential. Impeccable. From the Gimblett Gravels sub-region. Good value at this price.

5) 2019 Collaboration Wines Ceresia Cabernet Franc, Hawke’s Bay, $42

Cabernet franc can be green and weedy, overripe and jammy or, like this, from a sweet spot between those two extremes. This is an elegant, supple red, gently aromatic with dark berry, spice and savoury flavours. It has a perfect balance of peppery tannins and subtle sweetness. Give it some airtime to enhance the flavours.

6) 2020 Black Estate Home Cabernet Franc, North Canterbury, $48

Inky cabernet franc with cassis, black doris plum and wood smoke supported by graphite tannins. A powerful wine that is a little “locked up” right now but promises to age well. Bottled without sulphur or any inputs, fining or filtering.  Decant before serving.

7) 2021 Te Kano Northburn Cabernet Franc, Central Otago, $55

Inky cabernet franc with rich, concentrated cassis, dark berry, fresh herbs, dried fruits/Christmas cake, spice, and nutty oak flavours. Remarkable wine if you, like me, doubted that a variety such as this could get physiologically ripe in Northburn, near Cromwell.

8) 2020 Paritua Stone Paddock Cabernet Franc, Hawke’s Bay, $24.99

Dense estate-grown cabernet franc in a ripe, robust style with violet, raspberry, dark berry and savoury/dried herb flavours supported by fine, ripe tannins that suggest good ageing potential Good value at this price.

9) 2019 Smith & Sheth CRU Heretaunga Cabernet Franc, Hawke’s Bay, $40

A blend of grapes from Bridge Pā and Gimblett Gravels. Delicately scented cabernet franc with raspberry, blueberry, violet, and subtle spicy oak. Smooth-textured red with restrained power. Elegant wine.