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  • Old guard: Antique plough at Vineland Estates Winery
  • Cold comfort: Vines weather the winter in Vineland, Ontario
  • In Command: Brian Schmidt has a handle on Cabernet Franc
  • Barrel Select: Emma Garner believes Cabernet Franc is Thirty Bench’s star red
  • Snowstopper: Scenes from Vineland Estates Winery
  • Snowstopper: Scenes from Vineland Estates Winery
  • Snowstopper: Scenes from Vineland Estates Winery
  • Franc Expression: Best bottles, Poplar Grove 2006, showcase the potential for the variety in the Okanagan Valley
  • Franc Expression: Best bottles,B urrowing Owl 2007, showcase the potential for the variety in the Okanagan Valley

Canada's Signature Grape?

A Bordeaux red that’s at home in the cold. Amanda Allison takes Cabernet franc’s temperature

Photos by Jeffery Kirk

In 1993, BrIan SchmIdt was looking to mix things up at Vineland Estates. When he took over the winemaking reins from his brother at the Niagara estate winery, he was told one simple thing:

“Do whatever you want to do, just don’t [expletive] with our Riesling.”

Luckily for the brothers, there was very little Schmidt wanted to fuss with when it came to Vineland’s shining white knight on horseback. However, an identifying red was in his sights after a particularly successful 1995 vintage that blessed many Canadian winemakers.

“I thought to myself, there is really something to this; we can be something more than Chardonnay and Riesling,” Schmidt says. “I started looking at regions that had defined themselves –New Zealand with Sauvignon Blanc, for example. Every mature wine region in the world has a signature grape variety that defines itself.”

It was this premise that set Schmidt on a 15-year journey to a love affair with Cabernet Franc. And he’s not the only one who has drunk the Kool-Aid. Winemakers across Canada are singing the praises of the versatile grape that survives our harsh winters, is disease-resistant and flourishes in our terroir.

“One of the things I love about Cabernet Franc, is the way it takes on the character of the vintage, expressing the plants’ struggle in the intensity of the fruit, or doling out luxurious ripe tannins after a particularly warm summer,” says Ian Sutherland, winemaker at Poplar Grove Winery in British Columbia. Poplar Grove’s first plantings of Cabernet Franc went in the ground at their vineyard in the Naramata Bench the same year that Schmidt took over as Vineland’s winemaker. Sutherland has been passionate about its success ever since. He believes it’s a perfect fit for the climate of B.C. so much so that when Tony and Barb Holler joined the winery as ownership partners in 2007, they planted an additional nine acres of Cabernet Franc on their more desert-like land in Osoyoos.

Sutherland believes it’s this diversity of land and the grape’s ability to adapt in both soils that adds complexity to both their single varietal wine and their blended offering, Legacy.

“Cabernet Franc takes on the role of stand-up bass in blends. It brings up the backbeat in the mid-palate and give structure and cohesion to the blend,” Sutherland says.

The benefits of Cabernet Franc in blends is not lost on anyone, especially those who enjoy a good red from St. Emilion – and also Emma Garner, winemaker at Thirty Bench Wine Makers in Beamsville, Ontario. Garner believes the beauty of Cabernet Franc (in their Bordeaux blend Small Lot Benchmark Red bottling) is balance.

“It’s the one in the middle,” she expresses. “Earlier ripening Merlot is a little softer and more approachable, where Cabernet Franc is the happy medium between that and the younger brother, Cabernet Sauvignon which has harder tannins and needs a little more time to come into its own.”

“It sort of ties the two together – it’s the glue, if you will,” she says. “It balances things out with some nice, fruity characteristics on the nose, but it also maintains a nice acidity, but not an offensive acidity. It has a nice backbone in that respect.”

Jim Wyse, owner of Burrowing Owl Estate Winery in British Columbia knows first-hand of the success of Cabernet Franc in blends. “Our early Meritage blends were more than 50 percent Cabernet Franc and the 2001 Meritage won a Best of Class at the L.A. County Fair and the same award at the Pacific Rim International two weeks later,” he says of the early wines that still have great body and flavour today. “We have experimented with other blends over the years and we recently decided that the Cabernet Franc years were the best measured over time so we have returned to this varietal as our Meritage base.”

Such praise for Cabernet Franc in blends contradicts the distorted opinion that it’s the poor cousin of the Bordeaux varietals. But when it comes to standing alone, these winemakers believe Cabernet Franc has an opportunity to really shine, especially in our climate.

Merlot has a high mortality rate in the wintertime and Cabernet Sauvignon is temperamental at the best of times. They also aren’t unique grapes for Canada to define itself around, as they’re widely planted globally. But, Cabernet Franc remains an enigma despite being so highly respected.

“There’s really only one wine region in the world that has focused on Cabernet Franc as their grape variety,” says Schmidt about the Loire Valley in France. “Even then, they have somewhat of a difficult time making the quality leap from a bistro wine to a wine that is celebrated like château-level Bordeaux or Burgundy. No one has really truly defined it.”

What then, is Canadian Cabernet Franc?

“If I can give one word to explain why I’ve focused on Cabernet Franc and why I think the industry should, it’s versatility,” says Schmidt. “It’s incredibly versatile, not only from a viticultural perspective, but from a culinary and winemaking perspective too.”

In terms of winemaking, Schmidt believes the past has proved the grape’s ability to adapt. “From sparkling to rosé to Icewine and everything in between, at some point in the last 10 years, someone has made a stunning something with Cabernet Franc.”

Read more in February/March 2011 issue of VINES.