Ontario Cabernet Franc: Emerging From the Shadows

By John Szabo, MS

Cabernet franc, once the embarrassing uncle at the family reunion, is finally getting deserved recognition. And Ontario is both ideally suited to growing it, and perfectly positioned to capitalize on the rising tide of consumer acceptance. It’s also Ontario’s most planted red grape, and its time has come.

It is undoubtedly true that of the Bordeaux varieties, cabernet franc has garnered the least attention as a varietal wine internationally. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot, of course, still appear on far more labels around the world. Even malbec seems to get more airtime. Few regions have made a specialty of it, save for a handful of appellations in the central Loire, and more recently, the southern Hungarian region of Villány (who knew?). But elsewhere it remains mostly in the shadows, scribbled as a percentage somewhere on the back label, if declared at all.

But what they’re not telling you is that cabernet franc is the wine blender’s secret spice. Yes, those Napa cabernets sauvignons often have a good splash of franc (legally up to 25% in fact), even malbec from Mendoza is increasingly likely to have a franc lift (plantings in Argentina have doubled over the last decade, according to Argentina’s National Institute of Viticulture (INV), making Cabernet Franc one of Argentina’s fastest-growing categories.)

Its contribution? Freshness. Finesse. Perfume. Elegance. Whereas sauvignon is sturdy and structured, and merlot soft and plummy, franc plays in the middle ground. It offers fine-grained, firm framing, and a marvellous floral-fruity-herbal perfume. It lifts those overripe, warm climate sauvignons, bringing needed acid and an aromatic top note, and tightens up those flabbier merlots.

But on its on, it’s also unquestionably capable of greatness.

The perceived disadvantage with cabernet franc, and the reasons it has sheepishly been kept hidden in the basement, is a genetic one. Like all grapes in the Bordeaux family (including sauvignon blanc, which, along with cabernet franc, is a parent of cabernet sauvignon), cabernet franc is rich in a family of aromatic compounds called methoxypyrazines. These molecules are particularly odorous, even in trace amounts, and smell and taste “green”, like green bell peppers, or jalapeños, or freshly mown grass. “Herbaceous” and “leafy” are other commons descriptors. These aromas/flavours have historically been considered negatives, probably recalling the bad old days of over-cropped, under ripe, cool and rainy Bordeaux vintages.

Everybody, it seems, is afraid of green. Even Wikipedia looks down its nose at pyrazines: “The odors tend to be undesirable, as in the case of certain wines”.

But as grapes ripen, levels of pyrazines drop, hence the mania with over-ripening cabernet sauvignon and merlot. (Pyrazines in white sauvignon blanc, on the other hand, seem to be far more acceptable for some reason, judging by the unqualified commercial success of wines from Marlborough, for example.)

The trouble is, even fully ripened cabernet franc retains a trace of its genetic makeup. It’s nearly impossible to ripen-out all of the green pyrazines flavours, and it takes some skullduggery in the winery to hide the greenness, like dunking a bag of untoasted wood chips in the fermenting vat, or simply blending it with other, less green wines. Asking cabernet franc to be green flavour-free is like asking a frog to be blue.

But what’s wrong with green? In this (thankfully-ending) era of overripe, overly alcoholic wines that taste more of raisins than grapes, I find a little herbal note more than a little comforting, and inviting. I like acids and freshness and tart-ripe fruit flavours and the floral aromas that are otherwise sacrificed in the quixotic quest to eliminate green. And I’m not alone.

The surge in popularity of cool climate cabernet franc archetypes like Chinon and Bourgeuil in the Loire (de rigueur on any hip wine bar list), and the decreasing fear of green in warmer climates in cabernet blends are more than just temporary market trends.

And right here in Ontario, winemakers are perfectly positioned to take advantage of the growing acceptance of the green party. I mean, it’s already planted. In fact, it’s the most planted red variety in Ontario, representing nearly 11% of total production, behind only riesling (19.6%) and chardonnay (15.5%), and comfortably ahead of the next most planted red grapes, merlot (7%), and cabernet sauvignon (6.8%). As a varietal wine, cabernet franc production has increased over 60% by volume over the past 6 years (per VQAO), while the number of VQA-approved bottles labeled with the variety has more than tripled from 46 to 159, and the number of producers in the game has more than doubled (from 30 to 73 wineries) over the same period.

The reason why is clear. “It’s the easiest vinifera variety to grow” says Angelo Pavan, winemaker at Cave Spring vineyards, during the recent Cuvée Experts Tasting at Brock University in St. Catharines, which featured cabernet franc. “It’s one of the most cold hardy varieties, and the most consistent ripener” continues Pavan. “Pinot [noir] and the weather tell you when you have to pick. But that doesn’t happen with cabernet franc. It doesn’t break down in our humid autumns like pinot, or even chardonnay and riesling do.”

Experts Tasting 2018 - Cabernet Franc

It’s also the easiest variety to ‘mechanize’, unlike, say, chardonnay and pinot which require a lot more manual labour in the vineyard. This translates to lower production costs and therefore generally less expensive bottlings, even at the top level – cabernet franc has an edge in the quality-value equation.

Adaptability is also an advantage. As Rob Power of Creekside remarks: “All of the winemakers on the Peninsula, from close and far from the lake, east and west Niagara, we all talk about cabernet franc in positive terms. It works in a lot of different terroirs and microclimates.” Its less-demanding nature leads to a range of styles to explore within the franc family.

And furthermore, it’s also highly versatile, producing excellent rosé, as well as red. For those who wish to torture the grape, it makes fine Icewine (it’s second only to vidal in terms of production, with nearly 15,000 cases made in 2016) and also hold up well to the technique of appassimento, or partially drying grapes after harvest in the style of Amarone.

Although most people on the sales side will say that varietal cabernet franc is still harder to sell than cabernet sauvignon, Astrid Brummer, the LCBO’s product manager of Ontario wines, disagrees. She reveals that it is “a focus” for VINTAGES, and that it outsells both cabernet sauvignon and merlot from Ontario in the premium ($16+) category. “I love it!”, says Brummer.

So, if you’re not already a convert, don’t miss your opportunity to taste Ontario cabernet franc. Don’t be afraid of green. Embrace charm, fragrance and grace.

John Szabo’s Buyer’s Guide: Ontario Cabernet Franc

Marynissen Estates 2015 Cabernet Franc ($17.95)

Nice to see Marynissen on form here with this attractively herbal-spicy, sensibly wooded example with ample varietal character. Both red and black fruit flavours wash over the palate along with a touch of earth. There’s a nice, tight tannic grip, acids are juicy and succulent, and concentration is impressive. Very good to excellent length.  This should age well. Sharpo value. 89

Cave Spring 2016 Dolomite, Niagara Escarpment ($24.95)

It’s a testament to Cave Spring’s consistency with cabernet franc that no fewer than seven different bottlings from the winery were selected through blind tasting to be included in this year’s Cuvée Experts Tasting lineup. This one stood out to me for its lovely, open, spicy aromatics and elegant styling, on the fresher and more lively, red fruit side of the spectrum. 89

Creekside 2014 Serluca Vineyard, Four Mile Creek ($25)

This relatively new bottling by Creekside is classy, elegant and one could say even aristocratic. I love the genuinely floral perfume, the juicy-succulence on the palate, the firm-ripe acids, the fine-grained tannins, and the overall palate presence and length. Care in viticulture and winemaking is evident here. 92

Tawse 2013 Cabernet Franc Laundry Vineyard, Lincoln Lakeshore ($26.25)

Maturing nicely now, hitting that perfect stage between youthful fruit and developed, earthy, spicy, lightly leafy but not green character. Tannins are still firm but ripe and delicate, and length is good to very good. 90

Malivoire 2015 Cabernet Franc Wismer Vineyard, Twenty Mile Bench ($26.95)

Cab franc may not be a specialty of Malivoire, but this is an excellent bottling from the Wismer vineyard, lovely, juicy, ripe, with attractive herbal tones, beyond the green spectrum. The palate is mid-weight, neither firm nor plush, finely pitched and well-balanced, while length and depth are very good to excellent. A model to follow. 91+

Andrew Peller 2015 Signature Series, Carlton Vineyard, Four Mile Creek ($48.95)

Tight on the nose, and firm and fresh on the palate, youthful, fruity but also oak spice-tinged. Fruit hits the perfect mid-spectrum of ripeness. Another year or two will benefit this wine nicely. Well done. 90

Two Sisters 2014 Cabernet Franc, Niagara River ($55)

From the cool 2014 vintage, this is quite firm and edgy but not green, though tannins are tight, supported by high acids. It’s a little tough for the time being, but should age well. Best after 2019. 89