It’s the Darling Grape of Virginia, and Many Would Agree This Elegant Red is Giving Us Identity as a Wine Region
In 1990, Virginia wine pioneer, the late Dennis Horton, founder of Horton Vineyards, planted his first Cabernet Franc vines in his estate vineyard in Orange County. Two vintages later, Horton and winemaker Allan Kinne, bottled the first Virginia Cabernet Franc for commercial sale.
Since then, winegrowers from the Appalachians to the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay have embraced the aromatically charming grape; it’s the second most planted grape in Virginia, with 321 acres under vine.
The exact origins of Cabernet Franc are opaque, but it’s believed to have been established in the 17th century in the Libournais region in southwest France. French clergyman Cardinal Richelieu is credited with bringing Cabernet Franc cuttings to the Abbey of Bourgueil (in the Loire Valley region of France), where an abbot named Breton tended the vines.
The history of Cabernet Franc in the United States is equally unclear; it was first planted in California in the late 1800s, and the vines were subsequently lost to phylloxera. The grape made a comeback in California in the 1960s, mainly used for blending.
Best known as a blending grape in Bordeaux—used to add floral and spice notes to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot—Cabernet Franc plays a starring role throughout Virginia.
Often described as the feminine side of Cabernet Sauvignon, wines made from Cabernet Franc tend to be lighter, more floral, perfumed and elegant—a light red for those who do not like big, tannic red wines.
Because the grape is thriving in vineyards across the commonwealth, some believe Cabernet Franc should be the state’s official signature red grape.
In May 2011, the Virginia Wine Board designated Viognier as the official signature grape for national branding efforts, but support among growers has waned because of a string of challenging vintages and its fickle nature in the vineyard.
Though Cabernet Franc is grown all over the world and in most regions in the United States, it has not found a true home in the New World in terms of defining a region’s identity.
“Cab Franc is the best choice of grape across most of the state from a weather to dirt perspective,” says Charlottesville-based vineyard consultant Jake Busching.
Chris Parker, founder of New Horizon Wines and co-founder of the Virginia Wine Academy, was the first exporter of Virginian wine to important markets like the United Kingdom. He wrote via email, “When I started promoting Virginia wines in the U.K. market and Cab Francs became the best selling red, it was a point of commercial differentiation for the region.”
As much as any grape cultivated in Virginia, wines made from Cabernet Franc have improved in the past decade because of experience gained by experimenting with different clones, more diligent site selection and canopy management in the vineyard.
Jeff White, the founder and winegrower at Glen Manor Vineyards in Front Royal, 70 miles west of Washington, D.C., has been cultivating Cabernet Franc on his farm for more than two decades. Situated on a western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the 212-acre Glen Manor farm includes 17 acres of vines planted in blocks ranging from 1,000 feet in elevation up to 1,400 feet with slopes from 7 to 35 percent.
White has two vineyards dedicated to Cabernet Franc at Glen Manor—1 acre planted in 1996 on a slight slope at 1,000 feet and 2 acres planted in 2008 and 2009 at the top of his property.
“I did everything wrong with that initial Cab Franc planting in 1996—wrong site, wrong slope, wrong clone. I just didn’t have enough information on how to farm the grape, and the wines showed it,” explained White. “It’s one of those vines that can be extremely vigorous and has to be planted in the right site or the wines will be too green and not flavorful.”
Leveraging a decade of experience with the grape, White planted 1 acre in 2008 and another in 2009 on a rocky, steep-sloped (35 percent) hillside block at 1,300 feet in elevation, better suited for Cab Franc. White uses grapes from this vineyard to produce 300 cases of lush Cab Franc and uses some to add floral and bright cherry notes to St. Ruth, a Right Bank Bordeaux-style red blend.
“I no longer use the Cab Franc from the original 1996 planting for our varietal Cab Franc or St. Ruth,” White says. “I use some for rose and sell the rest as bulk juice. I plan to rip out those vines in the next five years and replant with another variety better suited for that block.”
It took White a decade to figure out the best site, clones and vineyard techniques to tame the green vegetal notes prominent in some Cabernet Franc wines. Methoxypyrazines (often called pyrazines for short) are chemical compounds that create these green vegetal notes that smell like bell pepper, green peppercorn or even cooked asparagus aromas. More pronounced in the Bordeaux grapes like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, pyrazines can be managed in the vineyard with diligent canopy management.
Noted winemaker Luca Paschina, who planted his first Cabernet Franc vines in 1992 at Barboursville Vineyards in Orange County and now farms 28 acres (the largest Cab Franc planting in the state), says, “the key is to avoid uneven ripening [by canopy management] and over-cropping.”
“I think we should embrace the savory, green part of Cabernet Franc and work with it instead of erasing it,” says Matthieu Finot, winemaker at King Family Vineyards in Crozet. “If you do not have the combination of the right terroir, good rootstock and clone, as well as proper canopy management, the wine will be thin with the wrong type of green peppery characteristics.”
Finot farms 7 acres of Cabernet Franc at King Family Vineyards produces about 1,100 cases made from the grape each year. Some of the Cab Franc grown at King Family’s estate vineyard was used in the 2014 Meritage red blend, which won the 2018 Virginia Governor’s Cup.
Virginian wine is often referred to as a bridge between Old World European wine styles and the riper New World, West Coast style. As much as any of the 75 grape varieties cultivated for wine in the commonwealth, Cabernet Franc may be the best example of this bridge between New and Old World styles.
Though there is not one defined Virginia Cabernet Franc style (or overall style for that matter), regional styles are emerging. “If I had to define Cabernet Franc in Loudoun County as a whole, I would say ripe red fruit, elegance, but not overly powerful,” says Jordan Harris.
Wines made from Cabernet Franc grown on the sloping clay soils in Central Virginia tend to be lusher, while those grown in vineyards north and west are lighter with tea and mineral notes.
“Virginia does not have a style, but there are nuances that allow our wines to be quite distinctive,” says Stephen Barnard, winemaker at Keswick Vineyards, who farms 10 acres of Cabernet Franc. “Our styles are determined by site and then viticultural practices that are in my opinion more important in Cab Franc than any other Bordeaux variety, especially to manage the green pyrazine characteristics.”
Jay Youmans, master of wine and owner of Capital Wine School in Washington, D.C., who oversees the annual Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition, sees several predominant styles of Cabernet Franc.
“I see three general styles of Cab Franc in Virginia: the whole cluster, whole berry style with minimal oak that is fruit forward; the dark, extracted style with high alcohol, low acid and lots of oak; and, a compromise style that is light in color and tannin but heavy oak to cover up the green character due to lack of ripeness and an abundance of pyrazines [green bell pepper notes].”
Because rain in early spring and at harvest time is common in Virginia, planting on a vineyard site with well-draining soil is an important component of managing vine vigor and taming the pyrazine notes.
“Virginia’s terroir for me is rain based, and the ability to manage the water is key,” says Barnard. “Our soils are shale and schist based so we evacuate water extremely quickly and as such can ripen and hang our fruit a little longer.”
From late spring frosts to intense summer humidity, hail storms and harvest season rains, vintage variation is a hallmark of Virginia wine, which can also impact flavors.
“A variety like Cabernet Franc is especially vulnerable to the differences we have in our regions and even individual sites,” explains Jordan Harris, winemaker at Tarara Winery in Loudoun County.
Harris has farmed Cabernet Franc at Tarara for a decade since coming to Virginia from his native Canada. Today he farms 5.5 acres of Cabernet Franc in three blocks, planted in 1988, 1989 and 1992.
“I think that the growing season is slightly too short in some areas for Cabernet Franc to be the main grape,” says Jordan Harris, winemaker at Tarara Winery. “I also think Cabernet Franc is more vulnerable to vintage variation than many varieties. One site can make opulent and even over-the-top ripe wines one year and green the next.”
Given the diverse microclimates, soils and approaches in the vineyard and cellar, Virginia may never have a red signature grape or defined style like other regions. Regardless, it’s clear Cabernet Franc will play an even more important role in the future of Virginia.
“It’s easy in the cellar if you keep your hands dirty all season,” says Bushing. “Calluses make great wine. Cab Franc responds to that.”
Seven Virginia Cabernet Francs to Seek Out and Serve This Season
Blenheim Vineyards 2016 Cabernet Franc (Monticello)
Made from 100 percent Cabernet Franc and aged for nine months in neutral American and Hungarian oak. This Cab Franc is fresh, approachable and elegant. Light ruby in color, this wine offers aromas of black tea, smoke, dried strawberry and pepper with flavors of violet, tea and hints of herbs. Lovely berry acidity gives the wine energy. $22
Barboursville Vineyards 2015 Cabernet Franc Reserve (Monticello)
Made from some of the oldest Cabernet Franc vines in Virginia planted in vineyards on clay hillside at Barboursville, this wine is layered, lush and dense with notes of red cherry, baking spice, cedar, black and green pepper. Great with grilled meats. $25
King Family Vineyards 2017 Cabernet Franc (Monticello)
Aromatically charming and elegant, this wine is 100 percent Cab Franc fruit grow on the King Family estate vineyard. Light and fresh with notes of black tea leaves, dried herbs, violets and cherry. Refreshing red berry acidity with lengthy finish. Look for the Small Batch Series Cabernet Franc also. $25
Williamsburg Winery 2016 Wessex Hundred Cabernet Franc (Coastal Virginia Region)
A blend of 78 percent Cabernet Franc and 22 percent Petit Verdot from the Williamsburg Winery estate vineyard. Big aromatics, earthy with raspberry and dried strawberry notes; spice on the finish. The Petit Verdot gives the wine more structure and dark fruit flavors. $32
Keswick Vineyards 2016 Cabernet Franc (Monticello)
One of the top 12 highest scoring wines in the 2018 Virginia Governor’s Cup Wine Competition, earning a coveted spot in the Governor’s Case. A rich, dark and lush Cab Franc with notes of blackberry, black tea, dried herbs and spice. Wonderful long and evolving dark berry and violet finish. Pair with burgers on the grill. $54
Tarara Winery 2015 Cabernet Franc (Loudoun County)
Perfumed, medium-bodied, smoky aromas and flavors with black cherries, with minerally acidity. Dusty finish. $35
Glen Manor Vineyards 2014 Cabernet Franc (Front Royal)
Made from 100 percent Cab Franc grown on the steep-sloped hillside vineyard at 1,300 feet in elevation, this delicious wine offers notes of blackberry, plum, black tea and hints of spice and white pepper. Medium-bodied; beautifully balanced; dark berry acidity with a lengthy violet and spice finish.