Roll Out the Red Carpet

During one of his recent annual trips to the London International Wine Fair as a representative of the Finger Lakes wine region, Bob Madill noticed something distinct about the reaction of international tasters to the wine he poured. “I brought few Cabernet Francs from the Finger Lakes with me,” Bob recalls, “and the reaction was very positive. The British love their red wines, and they were impressed with what we were doing with Cabernet Franc.”

Madill, former chair of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance and one of the founders and general manager of Sheldrake Point winery on Cayuga Lake, advocates that Cabernet Franc in the Finger Lakes is one of its signature varieties.

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What is a Signature Wine?

A signature wine refers to a wine most positively associated with a given wine region. For instance, Burgundy in France is known both for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Some wine regions around the world are well-known for a single wine (e.g. Malbec in Argentina), but that does not necessarily mean that a region makes only one type of wine. Napa Valley in California is associated with its strong Cabernet Sauvignons, but wineries there make examples of different red varietals, many of them well received. The Finger Lakes is applauded for its Rieslings by world authorities on wine, but it is not clear whether there is a red standout as well.

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“Why are we even second guessing it?” Madill asks, referring both to the popularity of the grape in the Finger Lakes and a relative lack of competition in the broader wine market for that varietal. He backs this opinion with a great deal of observation, made not only at international trade shows, but also as a wine traveler who has visited the epicenter of Cab Franc production in the Chinon area of the Loire Valley
in France.

“Much of the Loire is cooler than you’d think,” Madill says, keeping the cool climate of the Finger Lakes in mind. “The wineries in Chinon are very focused on their vineyards, and they take Cabernet Franc seriously.” Madill says that Loire Cabernet Francs are structured, tannic reds that are often less ripe than even their Finger Lakes counterparts. The French make Cabernet Franc excel by using gentle extraction methods and holding back on oak exposure – methods that are not employed as widely in the Finger Lakes.

“The problem for the Finger Lakes is that varietal character in the U.S. market is defined by riper, fuller wines,” says Thomas Pastuszak, wine director at The NoMad Hotel in New York City, who further notes that Finger Lakes producers often struggle to answer to a West Coast mold of bold, alcoholic, oaky wines despite the nature of the local terroir. Pastuszak recently led a presentation for Finger Lakes wine producers in partnership with the Wine Alliance that sought to make comparisons between Cabernet Francs made in Chinon with efforts being made in the Finger Lakes.

“I wanted to offer some perspective to producers making the varietal,” explains Pastuszak about the inspiration for his most recent collaboration with the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. “For those who love Cabernet Franc, the wines from the Finger Lakes can exhibit great fruit character with minerality and freshness, even highlighting the herbal character of the grape in a positive way.”

While Pastuszak does not weigh in on whether or not Cabernet Franc should be considered a cornerstone of Finger Lakes red production, he believes that the Finger Lakes can look to the European model of a cluster of small local producers, pursuing consistent quality wines year after year as a way to build a solid reputation. “But it has to be quality across-the-board,” Pastuszak emphasizes. “The reputation of a region isn’t built on a just a few wineries pursuing success.”

Great to drink, tricky to maintain

Morten Hallgren, winemaker and owner of Ravines winery on Keuka Lake, is a European-trained oenologist who sees a bright future for Cabernet Franc in the Finger Lakes. “As far as Ravines is concerned, we have had great success with Cabernet Franc not only in the New York City market, but also in California and elsewhere. Right now, we cannot produce enough Cabernet Franc to meet the demand in the marketplace. Wine drinkers are slowly starting to associate the Finger Lakes with this grape.” Hallgren cautions, however, that the grape’s tendency for high yields and slow ripening mean that far too many producers are harvesting Cabernet Franc too early and in too great quantity, creating mediocre wines.

Emphasizing the strains that Cabernet Franc can put on the vineyard, Kim Engle, winemaker and owner of Bloomer Creek, is less bullish on the concept of declaring Cabernet Franc a signature variety. “My feelings are that the industry is young, and I don’t think we gain much by making such a declaration,” Engle says. “I don’t think that a variety that doesn’t ripen reliably every season is an obvious choice. I think our industry should take full advantage of the success we’ve had with Riesling, and promote Riesling as a world-class variety. Too often it seems that we set red wine up as the Holy Grail for winemakers.”

Steve Shaw, owner and winemaker at Shaw Vineyard, echoes concerns about Cabernet Franc’s problems in the vineyard. “Early on, I frankly didn’t like the variety, and it took me years to figure out why,” says Shaw, a 33-year grower. “I think most vineyards grow it incorrectly. It has to be kept at three – and no more than four – tons per acre to maximize quality. It requires significant crop reduction and leaf pulling to avoid its natural vegetative qualities. Even with proper vineyard management, I still use long cold soaks, whole berry fermentation and long aging in neutral oak to make it balance out into a great wine.”

An open mind for other reds

One of the Finger Lakes region’s veteran red wine producers, David Whiting of Red Newt, sees the potential in Cabernet Franc, but is reluctant to declare it a signature red. He takes a long-view approach to the issue. He recalls that Cabernet Franc came into prominence in the early 1990s as local producers acknowledged that Cabernet Sauvignon required long, warm growing seasons, and that Merlot wasn’t always winter hardy. Whiting believes that Cabernet Franc has had success and shows the most consistent structure of those three specific wines, but that a signature red should be self-evident to all. “Riesling has shown us for over three decades that it is what we do best. When we’ve approached that level with a red variety, it will be apparent. Maybe it’s something that we’ve barely planted here.”

To that end, Nancy Irelan, winemaker and owner of Red Tail Ridge on Seneca Lake, avoids Cabernet Franc altogether in her vineyard, and instead focuses on lesser-known varieties like Teroldago, a variety grown in cooler climate northern Italy. “While I understand that identifying and promoting a single red variety is important for marketing the Finger Lakes brand,” Irelan states, “I personally struggle with the idea that only one red variety will provide exceptional performance in this climate. There are literally thousands of varieties in production around the world.”

A partner fit for the Riesling king?

It is clear that there is hardly a consensus among prominent Finger Lakes winemakers about labeling Cabernet Franc the region’s signature red. Riesling remains king of the Finger Lakes, but will it ever have a red counterpart? Is it a designation worth pursuing? “We ask this question almost apologetically,” Bob Madill laments, referring to whether it’s appropriate to seek a signature red. “Framing the question with hesitancy says a lot about the current perception of red wines in the Finger Lakes. We are being defined by the big California style, but we can compare favorably to Europe.”

“It is very important for the Finger Lakes to be a ‘two-legged’ wine region,” says Morten Hallgren in reference to the importance of the question. “There is still time to shape not only the wine, but also the perception of Cabernet Franc as a cool climate grape variety. I believe the reason is fairly simple: Cabernet Franc does not produce interesting wines in warmer climates. This is an opportunity we should not let pass by.”

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Finger Lakes Wine Alliance

The mission of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance is to increase the visibility and reputation of the Finger Lakes American Viticultural Area (AVA), its wines and wineries. To learn more about the efforts of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, its members and its programs, visit fingerlakeswinealliance.com.

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Cabernet Franc: The Grape

Cabernet Franc is widely planted throughout the world, but it often plays second-fiddle to other well-known red vinifera grapes. In Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc is used as an essential component of many blends made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In Italy, California and elsewhere, it is blended with other reds and rarely bottled alone. The major exception to this practice is in the Loire Valley in France, concentrated in the Chinon region.

In the Finger Lakes, Cabernet Franc is the most widely planted red vinifera grape (236 acres) and the third-most planted vinifera grape behind Riesling (849 acres) and Chardonnay (351 acres).

Source: United State Dept. of Agriculture 2011 New York Vineyard Survey (January 2013)


by Jason Feulner