January 19th, 2022/ BY Christopher Sealy

Balance & Style: Ontario Cabernet Franc Comes of Age

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 print issue of Quench Magazine

Feature photo: Tufford Rd Vineyard Cabernet Franc – Cave Spring Vineyard (photo credit: Cave Spring Vineyard)

There has never been a better time to fall in love with Cabernet Franc, the black grape of the Loire, Bordeaux and Ontario. Yes, you read that correctly, Ontario! When the right balance is achieved Cabernet Franc produces wines of nuance from fresh berry and herbal savoury tones to a riper darker fruit and black currant intensity and retains its dynamic aroma in the glass. It has all the ingredients of a charming and complex wine in youth, while also being cellar worthy and Ontario is [finally!] getting it right.

Any Ontario gardener will tell you that planning a garden in spring can be a tricky and humbling business. Just a touch too ambitious or a few weeks too soon and you will wake up to a raised bed full of dead seedlings. While other wine-growing regions have seasons that allow the vine to grow with little or no unpredictable weather shifts, a cool climate zone and short growing season present a number of challenges for Ontario winegrowers. Where Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon struggle to survive an Ontario winter, Cabernet Franc is stable, which goes some way toward explaining why Cabernet Franc is the most planted red variety in Niagara. Put simply, it suits our climate and can therefore play its best cards at just the right time.

Cave Spring Vineyard (CSV) – photo credit Cave Spring Vineyard

It hasn’t always been this way. In the beginning, Cabernet Franc was merely the grape best positioned for volume. At a time when a demand for wine in and from Ontario was on the rise and Niagara was putting down its roots, so to speak, many producers took advantage of its vigour and energy, harvesting as much as they could and getting as much wine to market as possible. This overproduction generated a style of wine reminiscent of the Loire Valley, though without the charm. The wines were fresh, lean with bright fruit, and angular with ‘herbal’ flavours. It was like garlic to a vampire, however, and the market recoiled.

The solution was to blend in Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, creating a style of wine – the Cabernet/Merlot blend – unique to Ontario. This combination was either oaked to give a ‘bold’ New World flavour or unoaked to create an easy-going entry-level wine. Though an efficient way to work with the surplus of planted Cabernet Franc and to build experience with the grape, winemakers had yet to learn to tune in to what the land was giving them and what the vine and vineyard needed to express. New ways take time to establish roots, but older vines – and more experienced winemakers – are now evolving together.

Tawse Winery winemaker Paul Pender (supplied by Tawse Winery)

To the question of whether the Ontario climate creates a Bordeaux or Loire Valley-style Cabernet Franc, I would reply – neither. Ontario creates its own unique Cabernet Franc – one that has emerged and is now rightly gaining attention for its elegance and perspective, with an allowance for the quirks of soil and place. In the Ontario microclimates unique to our wine-growing regions, Cabernet Franc can live its best life and, depending on how warm or cool the vineyard area is, can present a new or unexpected tone.

Stratus Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake is a great example of a winery that is leading the way in this diversity of expression. Cabernet Franc can be full bodied, there is no shame in that. The Stratus vineyards are in a pocket of the Peninsula that is quite warm: on any given day it can be 5–10 degrees warmer here than on the Bench, a 30 minute drive in the opposite direction. This allows winemakers to create a riper and bolder profile of Cabernet Franc as the grapes can be harvested into late October and November. Even when it’s cold outside, the sun’s energy still warms the grapes, achieving optimal ripeness and balance for an expression that veers toward a desirable fuller-bodied style. For those looking for the nuance of Cabernet Franc in Ontario, tasting through ‘single vineyard’ allows us to enjoy these wines in diverse expressions. The single vineyard is like isolating the voice in the choir. Tasting through ‘cooler’ sites around the region from the lakeside vineyards up into the escarpment makes room to smell and taste the ‘voice’ of that vineyard.

Tawse Winery has had a long run with some of the most notable vineyard sites for Cabernet Franc. Any soil nerd knows that the grape is uniquely expressive on various soil types, from red clay and limestone to sand, and this expression allows winemakers to re-examine what can be made new. This is now happening both at long standing wineries such as Vineland Estate Winery, a pioneer with Cabernet Franc, and at the next generation wineries, such as Fourth Wall Wines or Fogolar Wines. The story here is that it’s never too late to make a shift.

Tawse Vinyards – David’s Block (supplied by Tawse Winery)

Cave Spring and Malivoire, both with a history of offering everything from Chardonnay to Gamay, have wisely made Cabernet Franc a new focus. Some of these wines are sourced from varying soil types and vineyards adjacent to the lake and up into the escarpment. Cabernet Franc has provided a variety of fruit with which these and many other wineries have been able to craft wines that reflect the region and the winery as a brand.

So, is there a distinct Ontario style? Yes, and the style is about balance. Wines are not perfect; they can only ever be an expression of where they are from and a reflection of the vintage, and Ontario cannot build a reputation for fine wines on marginal production or with grapes that only barely make it to ripeness. When married with attentive wine growing in the vineyard and clarity in winemaking, Cabernet Franc, more than many others, is a grape that can produce great wines of balance in areas of Ontario.

With all its vigour and energy, Ontario Cabernet Franc is finally being taken seriously, and it should be. To paraphrase Drake, another Ontario-born style icon, if you are reading this, it’s not too late… to grab a bottle.

Tasting Notes

Cave Spring Rosé 2020, Beamsville Bench VQA ($24.95)

Estate Grown. 100% Cabernet Franc. Deep salmon pink in colour, the nose displays nuance of fresh from the field strawberry and raspberry. The palate is dry with a vibrant streak of verve and wet stone down the middle with elements of strawberry and raspberry playing on either side. Finishes with a slight piquant energy of spiked watermelon, weighing in at 14% abv.

Southbrook Vineyards ‘Triomphe-Organic’ Cabernet Franc 2018, Niagara Peninsula VQA ($21)

Harvested from organically farmed Laundry Vineyards & Saunders Family Vineyards, this is a Cabernet Franc with all the Cabernet Franc-ness, floral, cherry, raspberry and bramble fruit with intense pot-pourri of purple and red floral. There is a lightness of being with this wine. It is a fresh and medium bodied wine with true to form blue currant, blueberry leaf, all the ‘herbs’ but just enough, rather tart and I know we hate to say it, but it’s crunchy…lets’ say croquant, as the French would. Layered and complex. Winemaker Anne Sperling collaborates with family grape growers to offer the best organically farmed grapes for this wine!

Fourth Wall Wines ‘Meta’ Cabernet Franc, Lincoln Lakeshore VQA ($29)

87% Redfoot Vineyards / 13% Il Vigneto – co fermented, aged in demi-muid. Made in partnership with Pearl Morissette. A semi-opaque ruby verging on purple, the charming aroma

of Cabernet Franc, combining a fragrant purple floral aroma, interchanging with blue/black fruit of the forest and the garden. It teases you with herbaceous reflections on the palate which is dry, with tension of more of that dark berry fruit, herbs and spice of sage, open and engaging. Fourth Wall, from sommelier Joel Wilcox is one of many new, up-and-coming virtual wineries in Niagara.

Grange of Prince Edward Cabernet Franc 2017, Prince Edward County VQA ($32)

Estate Grown. The unique Prince Edward County entry raised from their Northfield Block planted in 2003. This corner of the estate experiences a warmth in microclimate which is evident in this wine. The nose expresses nuances of plum, currant, fig with cardamom spice. Concentrated and in full bloom is the palate verging on a fuller bodied red with dark berry and dried plum. With a decant, the subtle spice of mint, spearmint and dried herbs over time creeps in on the finish. A wine richer than expected from a cooler climate corner of Ontario VQA.

Cave Spring Estate Cabernet Franc 2019, Beamsville Bench VQA ($35)

Soil nerds will find delight in this wine raised on limestone and clay at the estate of Cave Spring. Appropriately reflecting a depth of berry aroma, the limestone soils provide a certain piquant tone and the clay weighs in with a robust fruit expression. There a is tension in the currant, plum to wine gum scent with an added mint spice. The palate delivers bracing minerality within a fine boned structure with chalky, salty, mineral, blue fruit that one can expect from this vineyard that sits in the sun at the base of the escarpment. A serious effort from winemakers Angelo Pavan and Gabriel Demarco. Worthy of the cellar from one of Ontario’s founding winery families. OG written all over.

Vineland Estate Winery ‘Cab Ride’ Briar Creek Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2016, Four Mile Creek VQA ($35)

Vineland Estates is one of the pioneers of Cabernet Franc in Ontario. This wine has a certain polish and finesse. Deeper extraction in colour and fruit, but not an overly heavy wine, blue forest berry and bramble support the classic floral tone of the grape, oak is evident but not a distraction. The palate is firm, fruit flavours are tart but rich, ripe and generous.

Vineland Estate Winery ‘Cab Ride’ Smith Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2016, Niagara Lakeshore VQA – clone 214 ($35)

The wine has a striking floral tone, with the tart bramble fruit and herbal aroma, and just a tinge of baking spice. The wine has lift and sufficient intensity in aroma. The palate shifted to cool blue and black fruit, generous with its time and energy underlined by herbs. The wine is a very good expression of Cabernet Franc – there is a freshness that sits in a good space presenting clarity in structure and intent. It is Cabernet Franc from one of the ‘godfathers’ of Ontario Cabernet Franc.

Stratus Cabernet Franc 2017, Niagara-on-the-Lake VQA ($39)

The soul of the Stratus Winery portfolio of Estate production is Cabernet Franc from winemaker J.L Groux. A Loire Valley native, here he understands that he can get the maximum out of Cabernet Franc. The wine kicks off with aromas of rich, creamy currant, to raspberry with an oak and lemon pepper spice with dash of tomato leaf. There is gentle embrace freshness with zest that fills the glass before dipping into an equally rich palate of black and ripe red fruit, with a firm palate of gripping and muscled tannin. Bold & beautiful for some, this is a full throttle expression of the Cabernet side of the Franc. 

Pearl Morissette ‘Racines du Ciel’ Cabernet Franc 2018, Creek Shores VQA ($43)

From vines on the ‘Home’ Vineyards, the initial journey of flavour meanders between fragrant florals of the night garden to forest berry, ripe plum and black cherry, with a distinct herbaceous and savoury aromatic persistence. All of this sits on the palate, poised and nuanced. It gives what you want! If you need delightful mouth play from your Cabernet this is the one! The ethos of winemaker Francois Morissette & Co. shines within this Cabernet Franc. It did what needed to be done!

Thirty Bench ‘Small Lot’ Cabernet Franc 2016, Beamsville Bench VQA ($75)

This wine is Uptown Top Ranking* – A truly opulent wine from the Bench. I had to pinch myself to wake up from the reverie in aroma that took me to a hybrid land of Bordeaux Right Bank meets Tuscany in a cool climate. Aromatically the wine keeps one in this stasis field of ripe, yet fresh, black and red berry fruit aroma, cherry, currant. It is Franc-ly Cabernet. Palate is all dusty cocoa powdered covered blue currant, plum candy, laced with soft wood spice. All the notes sit in balance between the vineyard offering and a mastery in winemaking. Emma Garner is the winemaker who has won international accolades (2015 vintage) for this isolated small vineyard organically farmed Cabernet Franc located further up in the Bench. 214 cases made.

*reference from Uptown Top Ranking by Althea & Donna

Tawse Winery Lowrey Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2020, St. David’s Bench (barrel sample)

St. David’s Bench is a sub-appellation of Niagara-on-the-Lake. This was a barrel sample from a single vineyard historically intended for the Growers Blend. Floral, with crunchy blue and bramble fruit, the palate was showing some sweeter bramble berry fruit with gentle tannin and medium acid, with the Cabernet Franc signature herbaceous element. A lot of energy and purity in flavour.

Tawse Winery Il Vigneto Cabernet Franc 2020, Lincoln Lakeshore VQA (barrel sample)

Single vineyard barrel sample, potentially destined for the Growers Blend. The aroma is dense with dark bramble fruit, mineral stone and dusty coming from clay and limestone soil. The palate had great structure, gripping tannin and a nice backbone of acidity. You would think you were in Niagara-on-the-Lake, though it was the brightness and verve of the wine that brought us back to the Lincoln Lakeshore.

Tawse Winery ‘David’s Block’ Cabernet Franc 2020, Twenty Mile Bench VQA (barrel sample)

Single vineyard barrel sample, the foundation for Growers Blend and on occasion single vineyard bottling. Of all the samples this had an impression of still waiting to reveal itself.

Aromatics were cool to the touch, yet bright and quiet in fruit expression. The palate was sweet bramble fruit in its baby fat, but gripping.

Tawse Winery ‘David’s Block’ Cabernet Franc/Merlot 2010, Twenty Mile Bench VQA (library selection)

Entry into the aroma of this single vineyard wine was floral, evolving into dried plum and violet with dried fig. The Merlot dominates the intensity of the perfume on this wine. The palate was soft and engaging with fresh juicy dark fruit, the acid intensity of the wine was falling off. Reminded me of Bordeaux.

Tawse Winery ‘Growers Blend’ Cabernet Franc 2013, Niagara Peninsula VQA (library selection)

A wine in full stride with a floral intensity, herbs and spice around tart currant, plum and bramble. A distinct mineral and ‘iron/graphite’ like intensity invaded the glass. Perhaps verging on tea leaf or orange pekoe. The palate was equally expressive with structure and flavour in balance, gentle and steady blue and dark red fruit.

Malivoire Winery ‘Wismer’ Cabernet Franc 2020, Twenty Mile Bench VQA (barrel sample)

A wine still very much showing primary fruit aroma, crunchy bramble fruit, raspberry and berry fruit. The palate is bright, a tart blend of all the berries – still searching and creating its identity.

Malivoire Winery ‘Wismer’ Cabernet Franc 2018, Twenty Mile Bench VQA ($27)

This wine was made just after winemaker Shiraz Mottiar took a trip to the Loire Valley. The aroma presents lifted floral, bright red berry fruit. Aromatics are clean, spritely and energetic. The wine presents the fruit spectrum of the Cabernet Franc grape, while the palate is easy going, gentle and pleasing. Medium – to light in body.

Malivoire Winery ‘Wismer’ Cabernet Franc 2016, Twenty Mile Bench VQA (library selection)

This wine was an example of early work with Cabernet Franc. It has more in line with wines tasted recently for this article. The current style of Wismer Cabernet Franc has moved in a seemingly opposite direction. It seems a reflection of its maker. This wine is ruby and garnet in colour, certainly in evolution with blue fruit, currant and the Cabernet Franc tone coming through. The oak is well integrated. The palate is still showing riper cherry and black berry fruit, firm and fine tannin spice and herbal yet still medium bodied on the palate.

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