Cabernet Franc is Lively in the Finger Lakes

Cabernet Franc is not the first grape you think of when it comes to red varieties.  Most wine-drinking consumers are more familiar with Cabernet Sauvignon, the spicy, robust red grape that dominates in red blends in Bordeaux, France, and in blends and as a varietal from California and elsewhere.

Even in France, Cabernet Franc (or Cab Franc as the cognoscenti say) keeps a fairly low profile in Bordeaux, everywhere but in the Loire where it is the one red grape that produces the signature wines of the region.

Cabernet Franc is native to Bordeaux, and in France, it is sometimes given the name “breton” because it used to come from the Nantes region which at that time was an independent province. In the Loire, it generally is vinified as a single-grape, as is today true in the Finger Lakes. The premier red grape of the Loire, where it has been planted since the 11th century, Cab Franc is used mostly to produce the Chinon, Bourgeuil, Saint Nicolas de Bourgeuil, Saumur, Saumur-Champigny, Anjou and Anjou-Villages appellations. In addition, it helps produce the blended red wines of the Touraine. Cab Franc is grown in California to some extent, but makes a tannic, black, fruit-driven wine bearing little resemblance to the wines of the Loire or Finger Lakes. Although mainly a red-wine grape everywhere, a rosé from Cab Franc should not be overlooked. So far in the Finger Lakes, no rosé has been produced commercially, but watch for it following a cool season!

A Short History
While the history with Cab Franc in the Finger lakes has been far briefer than that of the Loire (10 to 12 years to be truthful!) with the help of Cornell faculty based at the Geneva Experiment Station, people like Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling, extension enologist, and Dr. Robert Pool, a viticultural researcher, himself a wine producer, the winegrowers of the Finger Lakes have quickly climbed on top of the expertise necessary to grow and vinify this grape variety. Seminars, symposiums and research, together with lots of individual experimentation, have taught the winemakers how to bring in winning vintages in weak growing years as well as good ones.

We set out to find out how pervasive is the quality level with Cab Franc in the Finger Lakes, well aware that there was a whole lot of history others had had with this grape that the home team hadn’t. When we were done, we were well satisfied that the consumer can have good confidence in the quality level to be found here in the Finger Lakes.

Our invitation to submit wines for the tasting was met by 21 replies –  nine from Seneca Lake, seven from Keuka, four from Cayuga and one from Canandaigua Lake area.  The grapes for these wines, it should be noted, probably came from fewer than 21 vineyards, for it is still planted in limited terms.

General observations:
There were plenty of 4.5 and 5 stars from the individual judges but in the end only one wine received so high a total score. There were several 4-star ratings, which we consider very good. Below that level the scores were mostly in the 3-star range with a few fallouts below that. The fact that most wines ranked at 3 stars and above is what gave us the confidence to say that Cab Franc is pretty much a no-miss grape in the Finger Lakes, that wherever you go you are going to find a good one. This takes into consideration that the wines were about half and half from the 2000 and 2001 vintage, with 2001 being the warmer year.

Because of the fruit characteristics that dominate in Cab Franc, recurring food themes include lamb, duck and pork, all of which might be improved with a sauce reduction that involves some of the fruit characteristics one finds with the grape: raspberry, plum, black cherry or cranberry.  But since the wine is pretty straightforward, the choice of food should not be complicated either.  Many hearty cheeses would do well and other robust flavors like grilled portabella mushrooms on focaccia bread or a slurpy beef or lamb stew would be great. Take one of the brighter fruit-flavored wines for a picnic with grilled eggplant, cold cuts and cheese.

In our discussion about terroir, it was the feeling that Cab Franc succeeds in good years and bad, but its flavor profile changes from being, in warm years, more characterized by dark cherry, plum and raspberry notes, with, in cooler years, cranberry and light cherry prevailing.  Wines from the warmer years are more apt to have higher alcohol and a bit more flavor profile stemming from tannins and the barrel in which it was aged.  In discussing their approach to the grape, the winemakers admitted to having a bit of indecision as to whether to try to bring up the lighter, brighter notes or to seek tannic, more ripe flavors that offered longer aging potential.  They admitted that their choice would probably be finally driven by what the consumer expresses as most preferred, if not what the season offers.

The hunt for the ideal Cab Franc will probably not take a single direction in the coming years, making it a grand adventure for the Finger Lakes consumer to seek out the winery that does it most to satisfaction.  It’s going to be fun to be out there on the wine trails!


by Bill Moffett
Bill Moffett is co-publisher of Vineyard & Winery Management. Sponsoring wine competitions, seminars and tradeshows, their activity is visible at their website www.vwm-online.com.