Growing and Making Better Cabernet Franc Wine

Winemakers discuss working with the variety at the Eastern Winery Exposition

by Andrew Adams
scandanavia u.s. wine sales
Three experienced winemakers discussed growing and making Cabernet Franc wines at the recent Eastern Winery Exposition.

Lancaster, Pa.—Cabernet Franc has proved to be a successful varietal for wineries in the eastern United States but that success has only come after years of hard work in the vineyard and the cellar.

“It’s definitely had some growing pains as we’ve figured out how to work with it,” said Phil Plummer, the winemaker at Montezuma Winery in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

The winery produces around 10,000 cases a year according to the WinesVines Analytics Winery Database and Plummer said Cabernet Franc is its signature red vinifera wine. Plummer was one of three winemakers who discussed working with the variety in a panel session at the Eastern Winery Exposition. Sponsored by Wines & Vines the exposition took place in Lancaster, Pa., and drew a crowd of more than 1,000 attendees and exhibitors despite a storm that brought snow to the area. The conference will be held in Syracuse, N.Y. in 2019.

Montezuma produces an unoaked Cabernet Franc that Plummer described as fresh and delicate with fruit-forward flavors. He said it was a great “gateway” wine for consumers who are not fans of big, tannic red wines. One challenge of making such a wine is that any unpleasant green characteristics or other issues from grape rot can’t be covered up with the use of oak. “There’s nothing to hide in the unoaked version,” he said, adding the grapes need to be of high quality. “It has to be ripe and it has to be clean.”

During primary fermentation, Plummer said he’ll do punch downs three a day and let the must rest after the cap begins before pressing. He said he adds some Tan’Cor Grand Cru finishing tannins by Laffort in the cellar and will back sweeten to about 0.2% residual sugar because it helps “make the fruit pop.”

Benoit Pineau has managed wine production at Pollak Vineyards in Greenwood, Va., since 2011 and has worked in Virginia since 2005. The winery makes around 5,000 cases per year. He said the best way to defend against excessive herbaceous notes with Cabernet Franc is to ensure good site selection and canopy management in the vineyard. To help with picking decisions, Pineau said he’s added phenolic analysis to help ensure balanced maturity. He said sending grapes to an outside lab adds a logistical challenge to harvest but it’s worth it to make a better picking decision.

Grapes are collected in lug boxes and then stored overnight in a cold room. If the grapes have some rot, Pineau will spray them with a sulfur solution before the grapes are sorted to remove any MOG. Depending on the condition of the grapes, Pineau said he’ll sometimes crush but he almost always pulls off some juice. “I am a big believer in saignée, I tend to bleed the tank by 20%,” he said.

Pineau said he manages fermentation with pumpovers in the beginning followed by punchdowns and delestage that he said helps degas the wine. Pressing is determined by how the wine is tasting, and Pineau said he will let the tank drain for a day to get the pomace as dry as possible so the tannins aren’t forced out of the skins. “I think it makes a big difference,” he said.

Malolactic fermentation takes placed in barrel and Pineau uses about 30% new oak for the winery’s reserve Cabernet Franc. Pineau prefers to not filter but will if he has any concerns about Brett.

Jeff White, the owner and winemaker of Glen Manor Vineyards in Front Royal, Va. that makes around 2,200 cases a year, pulls grapes from two estate Cabernet Franc vineyards and the differences between the two — one planted in 1996 and one planted in 2008 — reflect what he’s learned in making Cabernet Franc over the years. “Nothing has really changed on the winemaking side, it’s all been in the vineyard,” he said.

The newer vineyard was planted on a hillside on the south slope to get as much sun and heat as possible. White also chose the worst, rockiest soil to help ensure the vineyard drains after the area’s frequent rain storms. “I never worry too much about drought, I’m happy with drought,” he said.

White said Cabernet Franc is particularly prone to excessive vigor producing big, succulent shoots and fat clusters that can produce thin wines. The fat clusters also leave no room for expansion and if there’s rain near harvest they can burst with botrytis and sour rot.

The new vineyard was planted with clone 214 that he said produces much smaller, looser clusters that leave room for any berry swelling. He said he typically picks around 25° Brix after pulling leaves to provide a tunnel through the fruit zone that also helps ensure picking goes faster.


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