The Cabernet Franc Learning Curve in the Finger Lakes
One bright summer morning between rainstorms, Bloomer Creek proprietors Kim Engle and Debra Bermingham walked me through their new Barrow Vineyard, outside of Hector, New York. Vines are in their third leaf on this gentle west-facing slope overlooking Seneca Lake, and they’ve started with four acres of riesling. Since we think of the Finger Lakes as Riesling Country—its 850 acres dwarf all other vinifera plantings in the region—that is hardly a surprise.
But Bermingham and Engle believe that Barrow may be an even more propitious site for cabernet franc, a variety they find to be the most compelling red in the Finger Lakes. Depending on the vintage, they make a number of cabernet franc–based bottlings, most notably White Horse, a red blend named with a wink in the direction of St-Emilion. It’s odd to think of St-Emilion from this vantage point in central New York State. In the past, growers’ unfamiliarity with the variety’s peccadillos made for an uneven reputation for the region’s cabernet franc wines, which were marked by a pronounced herbaceousness, a hallmark of the variety but an off-putting, overwhelming feature in lesser wines.
Experience, critical adjustments in the vineyard, and quite possibly an assist from global climate change have mollified franc’s more troublesome character flaws in the Finger Lakes. The best wines feel varietally genuine without being too ripe, characterized by suppleness and an understated generosity of red-fruited flavor, all with a mild herbal inflection. Moreover, for winemakers here, it’s become a little easier being green: In ever-growing numbers, consumers are warming to an edgier, more vinous style of wine, a style that’s found favor in Manhattan bistros, and in wine bars from Ithaca to Fort Greene, not least because it resembles the verdant reds of the central Loire Valley.
All of this is a relief to Engle, who’s worked with cabernet franc for nearly 30 years, and who’s acceded to what this prickly variety demands in the cool, wet, occasionally inhospitable Finger Lakes. “We probably get more heat than the Loire,” he says. “The big difference is that it’s much drier there and dry weather hastens ripening. Here we have to pull leaves, get sun on the fruit, create a careful balance between crop size and vine size.”
Getting ripeness in the Finger Lakes takes more than getting yields low. Each vintage amounts to a pitched battle to knock back the vine’s obdurate vigor in these fertile, gravelly soils, and to clear a path to ripeness. “Everything that can be done, you do,” says Engle, “even when it sounds outlandish. You have no options.”
Cabernet franc acreage in the Finger Lakes now stands at 230 acres, more than any other red variety in the region (though pinot noir, at about 190 acres, comes close). This is the direct result of a concerted effort by researchers from Cornell’s Viticulture and Enology department in the mid-1990s, who advocated for the variety because, like riesling, it can survive the extreme cold and deep freezes that would damage or kill less stalwart vine stock. Growers were intrigued by the prospect of a red standard-bearer in the Finger Lakes, but it was, in a sense, pushed on them.
Once in the ground, there was still much to learn about how to manage the variety in the cool, wet, short season. Moreover, typically it was the last grape harvested—even after riesling—leaving it vulnerable to late-season weather events, further curtailing the path to ripeness.
So from its first years here, franc’s reputation was mixed. People found reasons to dislike it—too green, too savory in its flavors, too jangly in its acid structure and sharp, peppery tannins. “When I got here in ninety-nine, the opinion [regarding cabernet franc] was lukewarm at best,” says Morten Hallgren of Ravines. “People had so many negative stories about it, the green bell pepper and other flavor challenges.”
If cabernet franc’s reputation were to change, it would be here, in Hector—and in Ovid and Lodi nearby. The west-facing, rolling glacial till overlooking Seneca Lake is one of the warmer, more modulated mesoclimates of the region, and it’s proved to be one of the more consistent places to ripen the grape. Every vineyard within close proximity to Seneca, the deepest of the Finger Lakes, benefits from an insulating lake effect, especially in winter—temperatures can be more than five degrees warmer on average than surrounding areas. There are other benefits, too, according to Jim Leidenfrost, who has been working with cabernet franc and other red varieties in Ovid for more than two decades. He grows fruit for several local wineries, as well as his family’s brand, Leidenfrost Vineyard. “We’re on the east side of the lake where the slope is moderate,” he explains, “not more than twenty degrees. On the west side, because of the slopes, they don’t get as much afternoon sun, while we get a long, full day of sunlight.”
“When I got here in ninety-nine, the opinion [regarding cabernet franc] was lukewarm at best,” says Morten Hallgren. Now the variety stands at 230 acres, more than any other red variety in the region.
His biggest breakthrough came with managing levels of methoxypyrazines in the fruit. Methoxypyrazines are the chemical components that give cabernet franc its herbaceousness. “They’re reduced by sun contact,” says Leidenfrost. “It’s why it’s so important to have an open canopy.” This, he thinks, might be the single most important factor in cabernet franc’s relative rebound in the region. “Fifteen years ago we didn’t know about this,” he says. “We didn’t expose the fruit, we didn’t pull leaves. But that’s what was needed.” Leidenfrost and Engle have both converted their trellising systems from a single-row vertical array (known as Vertical Shoot Positioning or VSP) to one that diverts the shoots onto two parallel wires, a “double lyre” system (known as Scott Henry), which allows more sunlight to reach the grapes. Exposing the clusters also enhances flavor development, he finds. With better trellising, Morten Hallgren points out, “we start to see a big change in the flavor profile from mid-October to Halloween. Those weeks are critical, and it helps if we can even go a little beyond, to move into a slightly richer aromatic spectrum.” In recent vintages the Ravines cabernet franc, like Bloomer Creek’s, has managed to capture this extra, sun-warmed suppleness of texture—a kind of tenderness really—that delivers less herb and more charm than wines from past vintages.
The presence of methoxypyrazines invariably invites comparisons between Finger Lakes francs and those of the Loire, another cool-climate franc terrain where pyrazines find their way into the flavor profile. The Loire was certainly an entry point for Andrew Scott and Jennifer Clark, husband-and wife owners of Eminence Road Farm Winery, a winery in the Catskill Mountains, about two hours southeast of the Finger Lakes. Scott and Clark are ex–New Yorkers—he worked in publishing, she in the apparel industry. Neither profession, says Scott, gave them the means to keep their cellar stocked in Burgundy. Instead, with the help of wine merchant David Lillie, then of Garnet Wines in New York City, they immersed themselves in the reds of Chinon, Saumur and Bourgeuil, wines they found to be both affordable and thoroughly satisfying. On a wine bulletin board, Scott was introduced to Joe Dressner, whose import portfolio, Louis/Dressner, reflected a modest revolution occurring in France that had begun in Beaujolais and had migrated to the Loire Valley: It involved an adherence to non-interventionist winemaking, avoiding the use of sulfur, commercial yeasts, additives, obtrusive oak and chaptalization.
With Dressner’s help, Scott and Clark spent their honeymoon in the Loire Valley visiting the producers they loved, including Catherine and Pierre Breton, and Didier Barrouillet of Clos Roche Blanche. “They were the biggest inspiration,” says Scott. “The way they worked seemed to make the most sense.” At Clos Roche Blanche, for example, Scott was struck by how the wine, from start to finish, “almost never left the hill.” Grapes went from the vineyard to the crushpad and then the juice into the cellar, “falling downhill into the earth, literally, until it was to be drunk.”
While that isn’t exactly a practice he can replicate from vines in Ovid down to his cellar in the Catskills, Scott and Clark make their red wines in as simple a manner as they can: Grapes are foot-trod, mostly whole cluster; fermentations are spontaneous, occurring in tanks and in neutral American oak barrels, with minute additions of sulfur. This simplicity and lack of manipulation is made possible, according to Scott, by the wines’ inherently high acidity, which he believes also contributes to that Loire-like feel. Indeed, Eminence Road’s cabernet franc replicates the pliant charm of Loire reds, with a vinous core of flavor, and herbal notes that feel harmonious, part of the whole.
When Scott and Clark became friends with Kim Engle and Debra Bermingham of Bloomer Creek, they shared some of the wines and practices they’d learned. For Engle and Bermingham, it seemed like a validation of practices they’d intuited and adopted on their own. The Eminence Road wines, however, made a singular impression. “Those wines seemed so much more alive and expressive and exciting,” says Bermingham, “You could feel the poetry in them.” Bloomer Creek’s first low-sulfur bottling of cabernet franc, for example, felt revelatory: “It was like a Hallelujah chorus,” says Bermingham, “all the nuance, the wildness and the bramble and the earthiness all became so much more pronounced.”
As producers have gained experience with cabernet franc, the variations in style have also grown. In a challenging vintage, Engle will make a wine called Vin d’Eté, which employs a semi-carbonic whole-cluster maceration that tones down the herbaceousness in the wine. All across the Finger Lakes, blends reminiscent of the vins de France of the Loire are popping up; Eminence Road has a franc-and-merlot blend called Cuvée Acidalia that is sold at a handful of wine merchants in New York, including Thirst and Chambers Street, and poured at The Spotted Pig and Rouge Tomate. The highest-scoring cabernet franc–based wine in this issue is a blend from Anthony Road, of franc and lemberger (blaufränkisch). It works exceptionally well, with the lemberger serving as a kind of stalwart, currant-tinged mineral base for the franc’s red fruit and aromatic filigree.
But blends referencing Bordeaux’s Right Bank may be the most visible reds from the region at the moment. At Ravines, Morten Hallgren makes a quietly elegant Meritage, spicy and long with a firm acidity. And then there’s Bloomer Creek’s White Horse, a blend of cabernet franc and merlot—the merlot, says Bermingham, serving to “tame” the wildness of the franc.
There’s nothing particularly wild about White Horse. Instead, it’s elegant and firm, with a cool-weather clarity that seems both delicate and precise—clear evidence that the region is learning to manage this sometimes-prickly variety, in a place once thought too unforgiving to grow red wines.
FINGER LAKES REDS—cabernet franc and pinot noir, in particular—are increasingly a presence at New York restaurants and bistros, prized for their versatility, their affordable prices and their facility with dishes that work well with their pliancy and immediacy. At The Spotted Pig in the West Village, sommelier Scott Baker pairs Eminence Road’s franc-and-merlot blend, Cuvée Acidalia, with a variety of dishes. “The Acidalia presents its spicy and minty qualities in an integrated way,” says Baker. “The fruit is juicy, and the tannins ripe and agreeable.” In a break with convention, he likes to recommend it with fish—right now, the grilled trout with turnips, butter and lemon. “The char from the grill really agrees with the wine,” he says. “The turnips bring out its savory qualities and the trout its sweetness. The fish comes from the Catskills, too, not far from the winery.”
This article first appeared in W&S April 2016.