Is Cabernet Franc destined to become a mainstay BC — dare I say Canadian — red? It’s entirely possible that the lovechild of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc may well indeed turn out to be the darling of an industry which over the years has pinned its hopes on everything from Chancellor to Marechal Foch — and not a few in between.
Following the Free Trade pullout of hybrids and labrusca in the late 1980s, BC saw the beginnings of a headlong rush to plant Bordeaux varieties in the south Okanagan. Much of that rationale was driven by commercial interests but also by a less tangible quest for red respectability, widely perceived to come in the form of Bordeaux’s principal variety: Cabernet Sauvignon and blends.
More than a few folks jumped on the bandwagon, although it didn’t take long to discover that Cabernet Sauvignon’s chances of ripening in every vintage — except in a few very specific sites — were not necessarily guaranteed. That was especially true in the 1990s, pre-global warming, when more than a few years turned out to be challenging. The result was that Merlot quickly ascended to grab the red varietal crown.
Despite early enthusiasm, by the turn of the century, Cabernet’s limitations had become readily apparent. Even in the South Okanagan, Bordeaux’s favourite grape could be somewhat temperamental.
In many ways it also reinforced the thinking of the time that you couldn’t ripen anything red north of MacIntyre Bluff, just south of Okanagan Falls. (That may well be true for Cabernet but there’s no shortage of Syrah performing well at sites such as Painted Rock [on Skaha Bluffs] and on the Naramata Bench. Not to mention extensive plantings of Pinot Noir.)
In those early days, however, beyond blending, it seemed unlikely that Cabernet Franc would amount to anything more than a curiosity. However, a couple of timely decisions played out in Cab Franc’s favour.
The Okanagan has had (and continues to enjoy) its share of colourful characters. Among them is Joe Busnardo, who in 1968 established the first major red vinifera vineyard in the valley. As John Schreiner notes: “Hardly anybody was growing vinifera at the time. The wineries refused to pay Joe a premium for the vines and then eventually forced him to open Divino Estate Winery in 1983, giving himself a home for his grapes.”
Busnardo sold the vineyard in 1996, along with the winery he built, to a group that renamed it Hester Creek (a nod to the daughter of the original ranchers). The famously feisty Busnardo moved Divino Winery to Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island, where it still flourishes. Winemaking at the new Hester Creek is in the hands of winemaker Rob Summers, who moved to the Okanagan in 2006, having worked for several respected Niagara producers. Nobody is happier that Busnardo planted Cabernet Franc in 1968 than Summers. Not to mention some other things also, such as the valley’s only Trebbiano — the “Treb” as he likes to call it.
Today those original plants (imported from Italy) are now massive, twisted trunks — with most of the heritage vineyard still dating from the late 1960s and early 1970s. They’re very old and well established vines, all on their own rootstock — and happy, suggests the winemaker. “The reason they’ve all survived,” says Summers, “is because they love it where they are. That’s one of the reasons that our Cab Franc gets the weight it does and the consistency […] One of nice things about working with an older vineyard is it’s much more consistent, even if there are still vintage variations. It’s a bit like working with a 40-year-old versus a teenager!”
Another committed believer, Tinhorn Creek co-owner Sandra Oldfield says Cab Franc wasn’t really in the picture when planning for Black Sage was underway in 1993. Her husband Kenn had always figured on planting Pinot Noir as an early ripener, as well as Merlot, but it wasn’t until he was at USC Davis that Cabernet Franc came up as an option. It was considered less risky than Cabernet Sauvignon particularly for its ability to ripen 10 days ahead or more — a key factor even in the warmer South Okanagan.
“There was nothing else on the Black Sage Bench at the time. It was just like the Wild West,” says Oldfield, “We had to take the plunge.” (Although, as it turned out later, Black Sage Bench eventually proved too hot for Pinot Noir.) She laughs and says: “Well, we figured if they (Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon) shared the same name it just made sense.”
Tinhorn planted only five-and-a-half acres in the first year but by 1997 there were 22 acres.
Oldfield says she loved the Cab Franc from the word go. The first (tiny) vintage was 1996, not ideal. “We were lucky because we had brand-new vines. It was super ripe. And I really liked it,” says Oldfield. Plus, even though that first vintage (the exception) was bolstered by 10 percent Merlot, it proved to be pivotal for Tinhorn’s decision to focus on 100 percent single varietal wines in its formative years.
It didn’t take long for production — and stocks — to ramp up. By the time 2003 rolled around, Tinhorn was making 7,000 cases a year and Oldfield was on the road 100 days of the year, devoting much of her time to selling Cab Franc. “We’d hit the wall,” she says.
It wasn’t so much that Oldfield’s love for the variety wasn’t shared by everyone, it was a more a case of fear of the unknown. “I liked it, so I was going on the assumption that this was going to be an easy sell!” she says. Getting people to actually try the wine was a challenge — in part, no doubt because, like Petit Verdot, it was all too often dismissed by those weaned on the Old World view of it as “just a blending wine.”
Eventually, through her persistence (“I sounded like a broken record”), Tinhorn’s wine shop and a “huge” assist from BCLDB product consultants, the word began to get out. Also timely, even the cynics were being forced to acknowledge that BC could make decent reds.
And, winemakers elsewhere — like South Africa’s Cab Franc specialist Bruwer Raats — had proved the variety could indeed make excellent wine. In fact Cab Franc’s other claim to fame — and one more reason it appeals to Canadian growers — is its reputed winter hardiness, although, says Oldfield, interestingly enough, the variety will also shut down in serious summer heat (36˚C), while Merlot planted right beside it keeps going. Cab Franc comes on in the cool of the fall, when everything else is slowing down, says Oldfield. “When the cooler nights start, the Franc goes into hyper-drive. It’s an absolute finisher and there’s something great about that because when the last few weeks can be nail-biters, it’s just amazing to have calmness over the Cab Franc.”
“In those early days, however, beyond blending, it seemed unlikely that Cabernet Franc would amount to anything more than a curiosity.”
With the influx of oil money driving more new wineries, Oldfield says producers were looking for something a little different — and Cab Franc fit the bill. Fast-forward to today and the word on Cab Franc has spread. Consumers have embraced its lighter colour, more delicate style easier tannins and even occasional herbaceousness. And wineries are discovering that, in some cases, they really can use it to push the proverbial envelope.
Harper’s Trail (“Kamloops’ First Winery”) released its first red last year. Even just a few years back, if you had asked people a decade ago — even five years ago — what were the chances that Kamloops would produce a decent red wine they would at best have chuckled. However, wisely, the winery dumped their trials of Syrah and Merlot in favour of Pinot Noir and Gamay as well as Cabernet Franc. Their 2012 inaugural Cabernet Franc took a lot of people by surprise, as it proved that even in Kamloops, given the right site, Cabernet Franc can work its magic.
There are still more outlying, once marginal reveals to Cab Franc’s prowess: Lillooet’s Fort Berens 2012 Cabernet Franc contains 70 percent estate grown fruit from the banks of the Fraser River, with plans to go to 100 per cent soon.
According to the 2014 BC Wine Grape Acreage Report, Cabernet Franc is now the seventh most planted BC variety, with 546 acres (221 ha.) under vine — surpassing Syrah’s 530 acres (214 ha). In Ontario, Cab Franc accounts for 11 percent of annual production, with some 1,400 acres (566 ha), although only about a quarter is made as single varietal wine.
While it will never challenge Merlot’s supremacy (barring an unlikely, savage winter kill), Cab Franc has come a long way since Joe Busnardo brought those first vines to BC almost 50 years ago. With growing popularity for the variety that Salon Magazine once suggested has gone “from workhorse to show pony,” it’s pretty safe to say that Cabernet Franc, in BC — and elsewhere — is on a roll.
Baillie Grohman Cabernet Franc 2012, Okanagan ($28)
This Creston winery sources this fruit from a single vineyard in Osoyoos, which yields up front red and black fruit with some spicy notes, before a well balanced plate of blackberry and cherry notes with well managed tannins and good structure before a lingering close. All French oak aged (30% new). Platinum award winner 2014 BC Wine Awards.
Burrowing Owl Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2010 ($33)
Forward focused black fruit with blackberry and some mocha notes followed by a palate of rich red fruit with plush and plummy notes, integrated tannins and lingering acidity. Think lamb or game birds.
Elephant Island Too Naysayer Cabernet Franc 2011 ($30)
Upfront red fruit on the nose followed by red berries and some earthy notes, red cherry, medium bodied with well integrated tannins and good length. (90% Cabernet Franc, 8% Merlot 2%, Cabernet Sauvignon).
Fort Berens Cabernet Franc 2012 ($25)
While initial red varieties came from Osoyoos, increasingly used estate grown, Lillooet fruit, as in 70% for this vintage. Forward darker black fruit and rosemary notes, followed by earthy and blue fruit notes on the medium bodied palate. Enjoy it with slow-cooked pork, foraged sautéed mushrooms, or on its own.
Harper’s Trail Cabernet Franc 2012 ($26)
Bright red fruit on top followed by a medium bodied palate of blackberry and raspberry notes wrapped in easy tannins and juicy acidity, with slightly mineral undertones and good length to finish. Pair with winter dishes like cassoulet, duck breast or firm cheeses such as cheddar.
Hester Creek 2012 Cabernet Franc ($29)
The original planting in BC, dating from the 1960s, yields aromas of deep red fruit and vanilla before a layered palate bing cherry and mulberry, wrapped in juicy acidity with good structure, approachable tannins and a lengthy close. Match with duck magret or venison.
Owen Cabernet Franc 2011 ($26)
Berries and dark chocolate on top, followed by a juicy palate with boysenberry and blueberry notes, a touch of minerality and approachable, easy tannins. Think pasta with tomato-based sauce. Part of Okanagan Crush Pad Okanagan Wine Campus Series, produced with West sommelier Owen Knowlton.
Seven Stones Cabernet Franc 2011, Similkameen ($30)
Upfront red and black fruit notes with a well structured palate of plummy and raspberry notes, layered and well integrated tannins and a slightly spicy, lingering close.
Stags Hollow Cabernet Franc 2012 ($28)
Up front blackberry and cherry with toasty hints and some earthy notes, followed by a full bodied palate with well balanced tannins and juicy acidity. Pair with braised meats and vegetables.
Tinhorn Creek Cabernet Franc 2012 ($22)
Black Sage bench single block yields forward red and black fruit with some that was specially selected to create the Oldfield Series vintage. Up front red fruit with some herbal notes followed by a well-balanced cherry, raspberry and vanilla toned palate with structured but approachable tannins and a good close.
Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series 2Bench Rosé 2013 ($20)
While Tinhorn’s “regular” Oldfield Cab Franc (introduced in 2010) is made only in certain vintages, more recently rosé has been taking centre stage. Rhubarb and strawberry front, followed by a crisp, dry palate.