It is now safe to say that against all odds cabernet franc has made its mark, and especially so in Ontario’s winemaking industry. For a grape that has never been famous for what it can do, this is the variety’s coming of age party.
Cabernet franc originated in southwestern France and is an important grape in Bordeaux, where, after merlot and cabernet sauvignon, it is often the third component in red blends. In the central Loire valley, cabernet franc is a prestigious stand-alone variety. Full-flavoured, spicy and lighter-bodied, these wines are known for their low alcohol, bright acidity and light tannins – its versatility making it an excellent pairing with food.
Outside the Loire valley, its purpose was almost invariably to play that supporting role in blends; until recently, only a few producers scattered throughout North America have made wines from cabernet franc alone. Looking back, these wineries were most certainly ahead of their time, as now hundreds of producers around the world are catching on.
In Ontario, it is now the most planted red variety, representing nearly 11 percent of total production, comfortably ahead of the next most planted red grapes, merlot (7 percent), and cabernet sauvignon (6.8 percent). And so, it is Ontario that has led the way with cabernet franc—even if the wine still seems to fly below the radar of most consumers.
Cooler wine regions such as Ontario love cabernet franc because of its cold hardy nature, and the fact that it ripens earlier than cabernet sauvignon. They can count on cabernet franc to give them a solid red wine, vintage after vintage, whereas cabernet sauvignon might fully ripen only every two or three years.
Broadly speaking, cooler climates deliver wines in the style of the Loire valley: lighter bodied but flavourful and relatively high in acidity and low in alcohol. Cabernet francs from warmer climates have more body, richer flavours, higher alcohol, and lower levels of acidity. Ontario can produce wines in both styles, the lighter generally from more challenging vintages and the more robust coming more often from drier, heat-stricken years.
Natural tannins coupled with oak aging give cab franc the structure a wine needs to age and develop over time. Like strong core muscles, these traits help a wine stand tall and develop with time instead of slumping over into sour, vinegar territory. The wine’s main characteristic flavour can sometimes be misconstrued by consumers, described as being green, herbaceous or vegetal. This comes from the same compound that gives what are called “grassy” flavours to sauvignon blanc, where they’re not considered problematic. Many wine drinkers mistakenly think this flavour in cabernet franc means the grapes were unripe when harvested, but in fact it is intrinsic to the variety.
While most bottles are meant to be drunk in the five-year range, many can last upwards of a decade. Those extra years of age can turn cabernet franc from being charming and fruity, with a hint of spice, to complex and earthy, with an array of secondary aromas like wet stone, leather, dried fruit and nuts.
The recent success of Ontario’s cabernet francs is telling. There are several significant Ontario producers making use of its versatility. In addition to producing delicious dry reds, it works exceptionally well for rosé wines and for Icewine and holds up particularly well to the technique of appassimento, or the method of partially drying grapes after harvest in the style of Italian amarone.
Cabernet franc still seems to be awaiting discovery by serious wine-lovers as an attractive alternative to the better-known hearty reds (shiraz, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, malbec). Maybe it won’t be the focus of any sort of wine craze, but rest assured this is a pleasingly consistent, food friendly wine that, on average, costs much less than premium Napa cab or Bordeaux.
Next time you’re looking for a new wine experience, or just the ideal bottle for a dinner party, reach for Ontario-made cabernet franc instead of the old cab sauv standby. Quite simply, this is the friend you haven’t met yet, and other reds will always be there if you ever decide to go back.
These prime examples of Ontario cabernet franc will elevate your red wine experience:
Thirty Bench 2016 ‘Small Lot’ Cabernet Franc
One of Ontario’s standout examples of this variety comes from an isolated, organically farmed parcel located at the most northern section of the Thirty Bench vineyard on the Beamsville Bench. The process of selecting this wine’s final blend is scrutinized by winemaker Emma Garner, to the point where just 214 cases are produced. The wine itself is a deep purple garnet colour with lovely aromatics that include black currant, smoke, charred wood and forest floor. The full-bodied, firm palate is fruit-forward and displays notes of ripe blackberry and black currant, with accents of vanilla bean and cocoa. ($75)
Two Sisters 2016 Cabernet Franc
Another beautiful expression from the stellar 2016 vintage comes from Two Sisters Vineyards located in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The colour is a very deep ruby, almost opaque – an indication of the concentration and complexity of the wine. The intense nose is wonderfully expressive, with a unique combination of fruits, herbs, and spices. This combination gives the wine a savoury character. The exceptional structure really becomes evident on the palate, as the supple tannins and pronounced acidity balance the flavour profile. It’s a wine that really draws you in and has you relishing the experience of tasting it. ($55)
Leaning Post 2017 Cabernet Franc
Leaning Post is located right on the cusp of the Niagara Escarpment, in Winona, but the fruit for this wine was sourced from further in, or Vineland, to be exact. It’s a hearty wine, full-bodied, bold and age worthy, with a nose full of plump ripe raspberry, blackberry and cherry, with the slightest bit of cocoa. The flavours are rich and round with big and voluptuous tannins that take full control over the wine’s structure. The combination of red fruits, leather and spice gives this wine a distinct signature feel to it, one that is very much emblematic of Niagara. ($45)
The Foreign Affair 2017 L’Eredita
The wonderful thing about cabernet franc is that it’s a grape that translates a winemaker’s style and interpretation well, including that of the appassimento method. This is a wine that shows off this style with incredible gusto. L’Eredita (which means legacy, in honour of the winery’s founders) is 100 percent cabernet franc from the first vines ever planted at the estate and only four barrels of this luxurious wine are made. Expect seductive aromas of dried fig, cherry, chocolate, coffee and leather. The full, smooth flavours on the palate are beautifully balanced with its levels of fruit, tannin, oak, acidity and alcohol all combining seamlessly. Bravo! ($110)
Redstone 2017 Cabernet Franc
The fruit for this cabernet franc is sourced exclusively from Redstone’s biodynamic-practised estate vineyard. Planted in 2010 this is the sixth growth and fifth harvest from this high-density, low-yielding six acre block. The nose is ripe with currants, plums and mixed cherries. The palate is expressive and complex, with subtle earth and gravel, savoury herbs and dark fruit. Tannins are firm and give balance to the warming alcohol. ($39.95)
Trail Estate 2018 ‘Foxcroft’ Cabernet Franc
Sourced from Niagara’s Foxcroft Vineyard, this is an excellent and pure expression of both the vineyard and of the warmer 2018 vintage. The wine is dark and earthy with beautiful peppery notes of black licorice laced with thyme and blackberries on the nose. The palate is rich and generous, medium to full bodied, with firm tannins and medium acidity. Deep and delicious, this is a quality franc that continues to prove that Niagara knows best when it comes to growing and nurturing this particular varietal in Canada. Just 109 cases produced. ($45)
Burning Kiln 2017 ‘Kiln Hanger’ Cabernet Franc
This is the winery’s flagship offering. A bold, appassimento cab franc with a lifted nose of ripened fruits, spice and leather. It’s deeply coloured, indicating a rich concentration of ripened plum and berry flavours that include blackberry, raspberry and strawberry. It finishes warm and spicy with hints of pipe tobacco, nutmeg and some tannic grip. At 16.2% alc/vol, this can age – and thus, become more complex – with a decade-long stay in your cellar. ($49.95)