Canadian Wine Spotlight: Cabernet Franc in Ontario

Has Cabernet Franc found a warm home in Ontario? Few regions in the world have a reputation for producing the grape unblended—Anjou-Saumur and Touraine in France's Loire valley are the archetypes for Cab Franc culture. Generally, it's a blending partner as it is in Bordeaux or places emulating a Bordeaux blend. In a region with a shorter growing season like Ontario, Cab Franc has a valuable edge on Cabernet Sauvignon: it tends to ripen two weeks earlier.

Cab Sauv might still have popularity and hype that Cab Franc doesn't, but it's obvious which grows better in Canada. In Ontario, it's a household name. There are currently somewhere around 580 hectares of the grape planted and it's tied with Merlot for third place in the volume of VQA wine produced (after Chardonnay and Riesling). I've witnessed first-hand how few qualms wine drinkers have with ordering it off a restaurant wine list. Whether it's local or from the Loire, people are happy to drink it.

This is all about positive reinforcement. The local wines are getting better and better—the woodsy earthy notes that make Cab Franc complex and interesting are present, but more often, without the green and vegetal, unripe characters that drinkers struggle with. It's impossible to lump all Ontario Cab Francs together into one style—they range dramatically, but as you would expect, those from Niagara where the growing season is warmer, tend to be fuller and more lush than the lighter and prettier style from Prince Edward County. The emphasized vintage variation in Ontario has much to say about the stylistic differences from year to year as well.

Tawse is a great place to start. The Grower's Blend Cab Franc, a blend using fruit from growers around the Niagara Peninsula, tends to be a riper and concentrated style. The 2011 spent 14 months in barrel, there's structure, grippy tannins, lots of blackberry notes, spice and a woodsy finish. The Cab Francs from Kacaba Vineyards also get plenty of praise. They bottle their Reserve Cab Franc as a full-throttled style, whereas the 2013 Cab Franc is a little lighter and aged half as long.

Pearl Morissette 2011 Cabernet Franc Cuvée Persephone is made with fruit from a single vineyard in the Twenty Mile Bench. This expression of Cab Franc has a heavy emphasis on elegance with a great vibrancy of fruit and backbone. Stratus Vineyards also makes a beautifully understated and elegant-styled Cab Franc with Niagara fruit. Theirs incorporates a portion of new oak (31% in 2010) to give the undertone of spice and pencil shaving notes you might expect from Bordeaux.

In Prince Edward Country, Norman Hardie's Cab Franc epitomizes the bright and fresh model. The 2012 is easy-drinking, with only 10.8% alcohol, but the fruit characters are still fully ripe with no greenness. The Grange of Prince Edward is another winery whose fresh and juicy County Cab Franc is worth checking out.


Jake Skakun is a writer and sommelier from Vancouver, currently living in Toronto. He can be found most days pulling corks and twisting caps at the Black Hoof. He Tweets and Instagrams @jakeskakun.

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