April 2015 Issue of Wines & Vines

Growing Cabernet Franc in the Finger Lakes

Taking steps in the vineyard can optimize wine quality for this Bordeaux

by Ray Pompilio
Cab Franc
Cabernet Franc is the third most widely planted variety in the Finger Lakes, where vineyard managers are learning how to minimize methoxypyrazines by reducine vine vigor.
After more than 30 years of effort, the Finger Lakes region of New York is now known for its many fine Riesling wines. Instead of another white wine, the next wine to gain acclaim in the Finger Lakes could be the red variety Cabernet Franc.

According to the 2011 survey done by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Riesling, with 849 acres, is the most widely planted vinifera cultivar in the Finger Lakes. Chardonnay is the next largest at 351 acres. Cabernet Franc is third with 236 acres—a 19% increase over the 199 acres counted in 2006. Best known for growing in the Bordeaux and Loire Valley regions in France, the vine’s ability to ripen regularly in cool climates and survive cold winters (such as 2013-14 in the Finger Lakes) provide good reasons for this increase.

In order to get a better understanding of the parameters for successful Cabernet Franc propagation in the region, I met with Alan Lakso, Cornell University professor emeritus of fruit crop physiology, based in Geneva, N.Y. Lakso, educated in the 1970s at the University of California, Davis, has just retired from Cornell, but he is still involved with projects at the university, including tasting trials of Cabernet Franc grown under different yield situations.


  • Some New York winemakers think Cabernet Franc could be the region’s signature red wine. In this article, two Seneca Lake winemakers and a Cornell University crop specialist share their experiences growing the wine grape cultivar.
  • Considerations include deciding when to pick, determining acceptable sugar levels and whether or not to machine harvest.
  • Two styles of Cabernet Franc are currently produced: a full-bodied, more extracted style, and a lighter wine with good fruit expression.

Lakso believes the largest challenge to growing Cabernet Franc in the Finger Lakes is reducing the vine’s vigor. Much of the vineyard soil in the region is composed of deep, rich silt loam, which works well for Riesling and Chardonnay but promotes very vigorous growth with Cabernet Franc. Such growth needs to be limited in order to reduce the development of methoxypyrazine (MP) compounds, which give a green character to the resulting wine. The compound develops after fruit set and before véraison, then decreases as the grapes ripen. A key element to limiting MP is stress to the vine, particularly regarding water supply.

“The Cabernet family all tend to need some kind of stress to come out the best,” Lakso said. Mid-season drought stress limits growth, and soils with a low water-retaining capacity are most suitable. He added, “They can be a silt soil, but because of glaciation we do have gravelly spots, and the soil can dry out.” In drier years, like 2010 and 2012, such sites produced excellent Cabernet Franc wines. He noted that soil type is not as important as its ability to limit water availability to the vine.

Other than water stress, what can be done to reduce the vine’s vigor? Cover crops can offer competition for both water and nutrients, but they are not particularly useful in wet years. Another approach is to offer internal competition, allowing for more shoots per vine. Lakso likes to limit shoot growth to 4-5 feet with vertical shoot positioning (VSP). “We found that we need to leave around 18 shoots per pound of winter pruning weight—a balanced pruning.” If the vines are too vigorous, fruit exposure for ripening is limited, thus requiring more trellising space than VSP allows. The canopies can be divided either vertically with the Scott Henry system, with shoots going up and down, or with the horizontal lyre system, using two parallel wires. Having more shoots results in the vine’s need for more water. This can contribute to mid-season stress.”

What about clones and rootstocks—can they limit vigor? Studies have not yet shown clonal selection to be important, yet rootstock selection can possibly help. Couderc 3309 (3309C) is popular in the Finger Lakes, and 101-14 is used in deep silt loam conditions, as found at the Cornell vineyards in Geneva, N.Y. “From what I can tell, collaborating with people in different trials...Riparia Gloire is probably the only one that seems to show a reasonable limitation in growth,” Lakso said. He went on to say, however, that if one has too much vigorous growth, rootstocks are not the answer for control.

The most important task, regardless of trellising and rootstock, is for Cabernet Franc to fully ripen. Leaf removal is very important and should be done soon after fruit set. As for crop management, Lakso has done a three-year trial, testing different levels of fruit production with VSP and the lyre system. VSP could produce up to 4 tons per acre without lowering the sugar content, while the lyre system was able to ripen up to 6 tons per acre to the desired sugar level. In contrast, Cheval Blanc averaged about 3 tons per acre. As for harvesting, the grapes need to hang as long as possible without disease pressures and berry degradation, and sugar levels of 21°-22° Brix are a good level in the Finger Lakes. Lakso noted that 2012 was an exception—some Cabernet Franc came in at 25°-26° Brix.

Plant selection and vineyard practices for Cabernet Franc are dependent upon one thing: Can these grapes survive and thrive in the Finger Lakes? “Cabernet Franc is pretty close to Riesling for its winter hardiness. It really is the best of vinifera red varieties for our winters,” Lakso said. The difficult winter of 2013-14 provided a good test—Cornell’s vineyards reached -10°F twice and -12° once, resulting in 40%-60% bud loss in Cabernet Franc and 30%-40% loss in Riesling. While difficult, “It wasn’t a disaster,” Lakso said, adding, “Cabernet Franc gets through our winters quite well. But it’s still a tender variety, and we have to put it on very good sites here in the Finger Lakes.”

Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, Hector N.Y.
Hazlitt’s vineyards are located on the eastern side of Seneca Lake and are managed by John Santos, who has worked at Hazlitt for more than 20 years. Their vines are planted in what is known as the “banana belt” of the region—so named for a greater accumulation of degree-days in the summer and more moderate temperatures in the winter. This did not hold true in the winter of 2004-05, however, when uncommon north-by-northeast winds brought in very cold weather, sidestepping the moderation of Seneca Lake and causing Hazlitt greater winter damage than usual.

    The View from Cheval Blanc

    Cornelis (Kees) van Leeuwen’s October 2014 visit to the Finger Lakes corroborated Alan Lakso’s information about stress and soils for Cabernet Franc. As the former vineyard manager and current consultant at Chateau Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux, France, van Leeuwen was invited to make a presentation on growing and producing Cabernet Franc, during which he noted that the chateau’s vineyards successfully utilized both gravelly and clay soils, which offered water stress at different times during the growing season. The soil needs to retain enough water early to grow the vine, and then later in the season it needs to be reduced or mostly eliminated to stress the vine. This will limit the vigor and help produce smaller berries and loose clusters, resulting in higher quality fruit.

Hazlitt currently has 40 acres of vinifera planted, including 4-5 acres of Cabernet Franc on two sites: one with Lansing glacial till soil, and the other with Appleton silt loam and Howard gravel. Hazlitt first planted Cabernet Franc in 1997, using Clone 1 grafted to SO4 rootstock for the Appleton silt loam. That combination proved to be too vigorous, and the fruit was not used in the varietal wine. Santos identified the deficiencies as too much MP green character, large berries and poor color. In the past four years, Santos has implemented “a very limited control of weeds underneath the trellis” to lessen vine vigor. This has brought pruning weights down, with the aim of achieving a balance of 5 pounds of fruit per pound of cuttings. Fruit quality has improved, and some of this block is now being used in Hazlitt’s varietal Cabernet Franc.

Additional plantings in 2003 included Clones 312 and 214 on 3309C rootstock, and (in 2005) Clone 327 on 101-14 rootstock. This last combination has become the favorite, “as far as vigor and the resulting fruit quality,” Santos said. He expects to replant a plot previously affected by leafroll virus with both Riesling and some Cabernet Franc, but not before two years. During that time cover crops will be implemented, including Sudan grass and rapeseed. When new Cabernet Franc is planted, Santos expects most to be Clone 327, with some additional 214 and 623, and (if available) 678, to form a mix of clones.

The vines are on a 9-foot by 7-foot spacing, using the Scott Henry system, with 9-foot posts extending 80 inches above ground. Summer hedging is 90 inches above ground. The vines are pruned to quadrilateral cordons, and Santos utilizes mechanical pre-pruning, which cuts the VSP portion of the canopy to the first set of catch wires. The pruners shorten the spurs to three buds, and in mid-May shoot thin to two shoots per spur point, removing water sprouts and any growth from the third bud, which was left as “an insurance policy.”

“The reason we spur prune is with 7-foot vine spacing and cane pruning, we had too much apical dominance. We were getting only 25% of the canes in the range of 20-40 grams; the rest were too big or too small,” Santos said. He added, “Spur pruning has evened the growth, and the vast majority are in the 20-40 gram range. This leads to a lot less green flavors as well.”

Santos explained that cane pruning produced a large amount of fruit on the bigger canes and that fruit expressed a lot of MP green flavors from the aggressive growth. Spur pruning has dramatically lessened that problem, and it allows Santos to keep the canes within his preferred range—roughly equivalent to the diameter of a pencil.

With 7-foot spacing of vines, the Scott Henry system affords an additional advantage: If vine sizes within the row vary, they can eliminate the bottom part when size dictates that it only needs 40 buds and return to VSP when applicable. Thus, regardless of trellising technique in the row, as long as canes are kept pencil-sized, the right fruit-to-wood ratio will produce consistent quality fruit, even if the fruit yield per vine is different.

Leaf removal is done after shoot positioning, usually around July 4, when they mechanically remove leaves from both sides of the trellis, unlike some of their white varieties, where they only remove leaves on the east side of the trellis. Santos has found it necessary to cluster thin Cabernet Franc about once every five years. Based on a historical average of 5 pounds of fruit per pound of pruned canes, he can determine if cluster removal is necessary. If so, two or three clusters at most will be removed per vine.

To determine harvest readiness, Santos looks at physical maturity parameters. How brown the seeds are, how easy is it to pull berries from the stem, how degraded the pulp is, providing juiciness. “Hopefully all those things align with the chemistry numbers and flavors,” he said. Santos stressed that this was an optimal approach and doesn’t work every year. On the chemistry side of ripening, they take a weekly sampling of 200 berries and determine the average berry weight. Once the weight begins to decrease and TA goes up, berry dehydration has begun, and sugar increases are a function of water loss and not photosynthetic ripening. At this point, the grapes are machine-harvested, with a small amount of handpicking sometimes needed due to disease pressure.

Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, Dundee, N.Y.
About 10 miles northwest of Hazlitt, on the west side of Seneca Lake, is Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard. They have some 74 acres of vineyards, the oldest dating to the 1970s, when Hermann J. Wiemer decided to plant his future in this part of the Finger Lakes. The most recent vineyard plantings date to 2009, when they were established under the co-ownership and vineyard staff of Fred Merwarth, who is also the estate’s winemaker.

Merwarth went to Cornell University, where he studied horticulture, agricultural business and German. A turning point came in 1999, when Merwarth spent a semester in Germany. He finished his education at Cornell and planned to return to Germany as an intern. He contacted Hermann Wiemer for help connecting with someone overseas, but Wiemer instead suggested that he join his vineyards and winery, and Merwarth started in March 2001.

Within the year, Wiemer’s vineyard manager and assistant winemaker left, and Merwarth was given the responsibility of running the bottling line. In 2003 he took over winemaking duties, and slowly Wiemer began to plan his exit strategy from the business. “I didn’t look at it as an opportunity,” he said, “because I had no plans to stay in the Finger Lakes.” The two spent about 2.5 years working out the details, and in August 2007 Merwarth took over ownership, along with his wife Maressa, and shortly after with Oskar Bynke, a former Wiemer intern and Merwarth’s friend from college.

Merwarth manages 5.5 acres of Cabernet Franc, most of which was planted between 1999 and 2004, with Clones 327 from Bordeaux and 332 from the Loire Valley. Clone 214 (Loire) and 623 (Bordeaux) were added in 2009. The majority of vines are 327, which “is fantastic—it does a great job of expressing the site,” Merwarth said, echoing Santos’ appreciation of the clone at Hazlitt. Referring only to Cabernet Franc, Merwarth added, “You don’t need as much diversity in material,” and he is satisfied for now with his blend of clones. All the Cabernet Franc is planted on 3309C rootstock, which, he said, “has shown durability, especially this past winter.” The Cabernet Franc vines are planted a few miles north of the winery at Magdalena Vineyard. The site is primarily Honeoye silt loam, strongly influenced by limestone and calcareous shale. Clone 332, however, is on Lima silt loam.

While much of their plantings are on 8-foot by 6-foot spacing, the Cabernet Franc has much closer vine spacing at 8 feet by 3 feet. Additional vines (Clone 327) are only 2.5 feet apart. This spacing provides Merwarth with 1,600 to 2,178 vines per acre.

What does such dense planting do for fruit quality? Merwarth thinks it limits growing space, vigor and water intake per plant, which stresses the vines. Merwarth also changed trellising from the Pendelbogen system, where vines hang in a downward arc, to two trunks—one with a single cane tied flat, with 8 buds, and the other spurred with two buds as a safety net. Such spacing and trellising significantly lowers fruit production, eliminating the need to crop thin. The vineyards now produce a maximum of about 2.2 tons per acre, with loose clusters and tiny berries.

“I feel that conventional viticulture has forced growers to produce big vines,” he said, which results in large crops of less-concentrated fruit. With his densely planted vineyard, however, he noted, “The vines are working within an uncomfortable zone, resulting in higher quality fruit.” As an example, the 2004 vines, planted with the closest spacing and an east-west orientation, have provided excellent fruit, used in their Cabernet Franc Reserve since 2007. In 2012, the grapes went into their first vineyard-specific Cabernet Franc (Magdalena), representing the best they have. He said, “I’m amazed at the concentration and structure of the resulting wine.”

The east-west direction is on a sloping parcel and takes advantage of better air and water drainage. “Air drainage is critical,” he said, “and water drainage is critical as well.” Vineyard management hills up the vines at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, and the grapes planted north-south can suffer flooding and erosion, unlike the east-west planting. The east-west planting also gets longer exposure to the sun, so leaf pulling is not normally done. If necessary, it takes place at véraison, the same time as crop thinning. However, Merwarth noted that the latter has not been necessary with the east-west rows, while the north-south plantings have required thinning. One difference is in the amount of buds left: The east-west vines have six buds on the flat cane, with two buds spurred, while the north-south have eight buds plus two, resulting in more fruit that has to be thinned at times.

“Site selection is critical with a moderate- to late-ripening varietal such as Cabernet Franc. You need to be on a warmer site,” Merwarth said. The lessons learned about sites, planting density, trellising and vineyard orientation will be employed in the future, as Merwarth expects to add another 5-7 acres of Cabernet Franc, using more of Clones 214 and 623 to balance the amount of 327. At another site further north, he also will use more east-west plantings.

Regarding harvest parameters, he said, “I don’t look at numbers, I go strictly on taste. In the Magdalena vineyard blocks we have very good consistency,” which usually allows Merwarth to harvest from row to row without timing considerations. However, he has found the western end of the east-west planting to have occasional disease pressure, along with somewhat heavier leaf density, and the fruit can exhibit some green character. If faced with this, he will have these grapes picked before the rest. The grapes are hand picked: All 74 acres were hand picked in 2014, and 96% in 2013. This has changed over the years, as machine picking was done 80% of the time before 2006. The vineyard has a 15-person crew that works year-round, thanks to the winery’s nursery business, which sells 275,000-300,000 plants annually. Merwarth believes that crew consistency is a key to the vineyard’s ability to grow fine wine grapes. Having the same people pick, plant, trellis and maintain the vines provides a type of “ownership” in the vineyard. Granted, this is a luxury not often afforded by wineries in the region.

While Cabernet Franc is grown throughout the Finger Lakes, not just along Seneca Lake, those entrusted with the task of producing a consistent, quality red vinifera wine are learning what clones to plant, where to plant them, how to trellis and maintain the vines, and when to harvest the grapes. Cabernet Franc’s history in the Finger Lakes is not a long one, but it is likely to become a bright one.

Ray Pompilio has been writing about the Finger Lakes wine industry for more than 25 years. He lives in Ithaca, N.Y.

Print this page   PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION   »
E-mail this article   E-MAIL THIS ARTICLE   »
Currently no comments posted for this article.