Every true hero has a tragic flaw. It's what makes them relatable and human, and eagerness is Cabernet Franc's flaw.
If there's one thing that defines wine country in Ontario, it's that its people are industrious and hard workers that above all aim to please. In the vineyard Cabernet Franc is a vigorous grower, adapts to a variety of soils, excels in a cool climate; plus it's happy to reward you if you show it a little care with a late crop thin before veraison (that miraculous transformation where grapes change colour and the ripening begins to show). Ontarians personified.
Where as Ontario Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir are more Clementine Kruczynski, Rachel Greene and Natalie Portman's Sam, Cab Franc is more Georgia “George” Lass. That's Margo Channing, Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton, Holly Golightly and Eve Kendall respectively for those of you who prefer your film analogies a little more classic.
Cab Franc's charm doesn't lie in raciness, a voluptuous body or a seductive perfume. Instead it's charms a little less cursory and primal. Quirky, a little coy and a little self-conscious in its beauty, what Ontario Cabernet Franc lacks in initial first impression, it more than makes-up for in its wit, sincerity, willingness to wear its heart on its sleeve and its own unique brand of rustic elegance.
Don't get me wrong Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are all fine grapes that perform well In Ontario, they just don't quite feel like they belong the way Cab Franc does. Aside from personifying Ontario better than any other grape Cab Franc has built itself to become the top red vinifera grape by tonnage in the province—it's likely also the most widely planted too. But wide support by the people who grow the grapes and make the wine isn't real reason why Cab Franc should be Ontario's signature grape.
On the provincial and the national level wine, culture is slowly maturing and developing, but outside of the country the wine world associates Canada with one thing: Icewine. Cab Franc is probably the one variety that provides Ontario an opportunity to not just merely change that perception, but to break out internationally for its table wines. Just look at the Wikipedia page for Cab Franc, Canada is mentioned in the first paragraph. There isn't another vinifera with that distinction. Although Cab Franc is grown extensively in many of the cooler climates around the world, very few places bottle it as single varietal and do it well. So the chance to provide a unique take on a grape that's familiar, but just the right amount of different spells opportunity. How many times have you heard an underhanded compliment like 'Oh! This Ontario wine is quite good it's very Burgundian/Mosel/Pfalz-like'? Even when you produce a world class wine that kind of complement has to feel like you're chasing windmills. You never really hear analogous comparisons with Ontario Cab Franc —an advantage not to be undervalued.
So while Cab Franc is largely free of the baggage of preconceived notions about the grape, it isn't without its obstacle. Cab Franc's biggest challenge is that locally there really isn't a more polarising grape. From causal drinkers to wine geeks, nobody is indifferent in their opinion towards Cab Franc. That's a very good thing, as only those really on the cutting edge create that kind of passionate divide. Instead of waxing poetically about how good the Ontario take on that grape is or complaining about why it isn't quite like they make elsewhere, there's a real candid discussion about what people like or dislike about their local Cab Franc. Discussion, not homage, is how international reputations are forged.
For its detractors the argument is that Cab Franc itself, let alone Ontario's take, simply can't make a worthwhile wine. You know the type. They talk big ,but would never blind taste. They can be found at the tasting bar saying something like, 'Cab Franc is like an anemic, chain smoking, emo-kid, that smells like he just bathed in the leftovers from last week's organic CSA basket. The people who like that weed of a grape are the type of people who listen to tuneless indie rock concept albums about pirates featuring spoken word vocals by the band's grandmother.'
To paraphrase one of the greatest Canadians, Cab Franc has been called far worse things by much better people. Now I'm the first to admit that bad Cab Franc can be pretty darn terrible. Although I like a savoury element to my wines harsh green tannins and unripe green pyrazines that smell and taste like motorboating a rooftop vegetable garden isn't my ideal glass of wine. I'm betting you it also isn't the winemaker's ideal glass either.
So why does it happen? If you ask Vineland Estates winemaker Brian Schmidt, he'll explain that Cab Franc is one of those grapes you can't manipulate too much. And he would know after 16 years of working with it. Much like Lass or Kendall if you push Cab Franc into to being something it's not it'll puh right back. So all that heavy pressing, the constant punchdowns and pump overs and the long extractions in hopes of making a big, bold, brash wine like its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon (yes, the world's most widely planted premium red is the result of Cabernet Franc getting intimate with saucy Sauvignon Blanc) can actually make a big green monster that would put Fenway to shame. The good news is these huge, overextracted, high alcohol, fruit bombs, that just like Spinaltap crank things-up to 11, seem to be on the wane. Instead people and progressive and responsive winemakers are gravitating towards quietly powerful, modest, elegant, food-friendly wines with a sense of place. That's something Cab Franc is happy to oblige in.
Appropriately Cab Franc's biggest champions are some of the most thoughtful, well-respected, articulate and passionate people in the industry. At the top of that list is Schmidt. For him what makes Cab Franc so special and suited to Ontario is that it's a total package. “It's versatile. It responds well to the decisions you make in the vineyard and cellar. It's very respectful of its environment. It's not an overly needy grape. It's really eager to please.” In the last 10 years Ontario has experienced just about every possible different vintage condition and having a grape that's incredibly versatile is key to thriving in that uncertain environment. He notes that even in the worst vintage Cab Franc will produce a stellar rosé with great acidity and in the best of vintages it produces an expressive, layered, quietly powerful and yet still somehow elegant and food-friendly wine. Importantly it does so while delivering great value across the price spectrum year after year. In fact one of the most impressive bottles of wine I've ever encounter was a 1995 Cabernet Franc from Henry of Pelham. The wine was 15 years old and seamlessly integrated notes of raspberry preserves, red current and dried violets with a savoury, smoky, herbal tobacco and licorice edge and mineral and graphite undertone. This was not a reserve level wine and yet it defied its age and possessed a ballerina-like quiet power behind an impossibly graceful elegance. I shared the bottle at party with someone whose job it is bring Ontario some of the best small production wines from around the globe. Not one to mince words or praise a bottle simply because it's old, he was impressed at its balance, vitality and depth.
Schmidt's not alone in his love of Cab Franc either. Cab Franc was the only grape to trend nationally during the original #Marcmad tournament on Twitter—a feat seldom achieved by something wine-related in Canada. Schmidt and Tinhorn Creek winemaker Sandra Oldfield have also been engaging people all growing season with their #CabFrancTuesday Twitter project. It follows the life of a single Cab Franc vine on each of their respective vineyards and it will culminate with a big surprise planned to reward participants beginning July 1st, 2013. Name me another grape that sparked a cross Canada collaboration like this? Heck even in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay mad Prince Edward County, many of the best winemakers share a passion for Cab Franc and are proudly, growing and producing one from county fruit—the same can't be said for other grapes.
More than any other grape grown in Ontario Cab Franc is also a bit of winemaker's grape. It isn't stubbornly independent, personality devoid or irrationally finicky. As much as a winemaking is all about about translating what's grown/made out in the vineyard to the bottle, it's also done by people. People with artistic souls. So it's only natural that they put a little bit of themselves in there. When doing so it's nice to have a willing partner. One that isn't a pushover, but rather one that pushes back by challenging you to be thoughtful, patient, considerate and otherwise at your best. It's even better when it rewards you with the same.
I'll leave the final words to chief Cab Franc-o-phile Schmidt. When I asked him to describe what special characteristics makes Niagara Cab Franc so exceptional he said “ For me Cab Franc in Niagara demonstrates how wines can be modest and elegant rather than powerful, brooding and overbearing. And modesty and elegance wins my heart every time.” Point well understated. Cab Franc would approve.
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.